Majid wants to show me a negligee. Its on sale, and comes with a racy black and red striped thong. When I demur, he eagerly shows me a frilly lace concoction in yellow and tells me that it matches a bra that is also on sale. Quickly he jets a look at my figure, enveloped in a voluminous black abaya and ventures a guess. “D cup?” He asks, and without waiting for an answer, trots over to a rack where bras and matching panties line the wall in a rainbow array of lace, satin and cleavage-enhancing padding. The push-up bras are especially popular, he informs me. And the matching panties are three for the price of two. I look around for a dressing room, idly wondering if the generous overestimation of my attributes is part of the sales pitch, like a bartender asking an older woman for her ID in the hopes of getting a bigger tip. In Saudi Arabia, where nearly every interaction between unrelated women and men is assumed to be illicit, whether I prefer thongs over briefs or the actual dimensions of my chest are not something I want to discuss with a strange male. But I have little choice. Lingerie shops, like most every other store in the kingdom, are staffed exclusively by men.It’s part of the kingdom’s policy of segregating the sexes as much as possible. Sure, women can shop in the malls (as long as they cover with a headscarf and an abaya), but female sales assistants would breach the prohibition against men and women working together. Which is why Majid is now in the uncomfortable position of explaining to me the relative merits of spandex versus elasticized lace.
But Majid may soon be out of a job. Yesterday Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud ordered government officials to clear the way for women-only sales assistants in lingerie shops by the end of the month. It’s part of a larger move to combat rising unemployment in the kingdom, estimated to be around 11percent (for those under the age of 24, it’s a whopping 42 percent). But as one Saudi friend pointed out to me, an order from the palace isn’t the same as a royal decree. “Don’t hold your breath,” she said. A quick scan of the headlines is an apt demonstration of why. One story declares that the Shura Council – Saudi Arabia’s closest thing to representative government – has decided that women should eventually be allowed to vote in elections (though not in September’s municipal elections). Combined with the fact that the king has also ordered the creation of 70,000 new employment opportunities for women it might seem like things are progressing in the kingdom.
Until you hit this story: Fatwa Body Bans Mingling of Sexes. According the crew who decide all things religious in the kingdom, men and women are forbidden from working together in offices and educational institutions. That’s nothing new of course. But the fact that the fatwa council felt compelled to reaffirm an old ruling just as the king attempts to liberalize rules keeping women out of the workplace is an indication of current tensions between the royal family and the religious conservatives.
Since he inherited the throne from his half brother in 2005, King Abdullah has attempted to steer the kingdom in a more liberal direction, enabling educational and economic reforms that saw more women working, municipal elections and a freer press. While welcome, those reforms failed to assuage larger institutional problems, such as unresponsive local leadership and widespread corruption. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have ever gone the way of Egypt or Tunisia; nonetheless, Saudi calls for their own Day of Rage on March 11 had the leadership deeply concerned. The religious groups came to the royal family’s rescue, declaring protests to be anti Islamic and essentially quashing any demonstration of dissatisfaction. Now it’s payback time, and conservatives are angling for their own pound of flesh. So while the king might be making all the right noises about helping women become full members of Saudi society, other forces are pulling them back. Which just might give Majid a little more time to hone his skills at judging a woman’s cup size through her abaya.