“It is really strange that Saudi Arabia is the only country where you see men selling women’s lingerie. Women walk around covered from head to toe, and yet they have to discuss the size and material of their undergarments with strange men. Isn’t this odd?” stated Reem Asaad in an interview for Arab News. (1)
Reem Asaad, organiser of the "lingerie campaign" (8)
And indeed, until 2011, Saudi women could only buy their underwear from non-Saudi male retailers. As cabins to try on lingerie or cloth were banned to women, clerks had to take their measurements from above their abayas.
This all changed when Reem Asaad — a finance professor — posted on Facebook about her embarrassing experience buying underwear in the kingdom. Lingerie shops had been allowed to hire women since 2005, but the few ones that had tried had been closed by the religious police for “encouraging ikhtilat—mixing of the sexes in public”. (2) Through her social media campaign, Reem Asaad organised a boycott of the lingerie stores, pressuring them to hire women. She was widely followed, and the movement ultimately led King Abdullah to pass a decree, requiring lingerie shops to be staffed by women.
Women working in a lingerie store (9)
Women did gain the right to buy lingerie at ease. But this decree also marks the beginning of their larger access to the job market. Soon after the lingerie decree, they were allowed to work as sales clerks in all kinds of shops, from cloth to cosmetics or even supermarkets.
The country has one of the world's lowest rates of women’s employment. Women with college degrees could work as teachers and doctors, but there were few positions for women who didn’t have a higher education. Thanks to Reem Asaad, thousands of women got jobs in retail stores, which enabled a drastic change in the Saudi labour force. Between 2009 and 2019, the female participation rate in the workforce went from 18% to 23%. (3)
In the meantime, in March 2011, the government made unemployment benefits available for Saudis who could prove they were seeking work. 80% of those who registered were women.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity and get easy access to the job market. Companies and banks customarily require the authorization of the legal guardian before letting a woman get a paid position or open a bank account. Yet, this is an improvement that gives financial independence to many women and new perspectives to the next generation. As Reem Asaad puts it, “You’re changing a generation of children seeing their mothers wake up and going to work every day”. (4)
Women can now be clerk in many kinds of shops (10)
On the flipside, the political reasons behind the decrees were probably questionables. According to Katherine Zoepf in “Shopgirls” (The New Yorker, December 15, 2013) “The feminization policy was announced at the height of the Arab Spring, and it was widely interpreted by Saudi activists as an attempt to forestall pro-democracy protests.” (5) It may also have been the product of a nationalist, xenophobic stance. Allowing women to get these jobs indeed enabled the replacement of immigrant workers by Saudis.
Last but not least, these changes faced a strong religious opposition. In 2011, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh claimed that employing women in lingerie shops was a “crime”. Since then, there have been regular attempts at intimidating either the female staff or the employers. It goes from direct threats of the religious police, the Hai’a, to encouragements at molesting women in shops in order to deter them from working. (6)
Women in a lingerie store (11)
Over the past decade, Saudi women’s rights meaningfully evolved. This has even accelerated since 2017, when Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane accessed power. His Vision 2030 project — that aims at diversifying the country’s economy and attracting foreign investment — as well as his desire to appear as a modernizer in the eyes of the world pushed him to take several measures. (7) Women are now allowed to vote in some elections, to create their own business, to drive (although some militants are still imprisoned or under pressure of the government for claiming this right), to go see sports in stadiums, and to get job positions previously inaccessible to them, such as court judge.
Women remain eternal minors, dependent on their male guardian. Yet, Reem Asaad’s lingerie campaign and the subsequent evolution demonstrate women’s willingness to work, gain autonomy, and foster change in their society.
Footnotes and Links :
8. Reem Asaad, picture from Saudi woman behind lingerie campaign is third most powerful Arab, Arabian Business, Anil Bhoyrul, June 10, 2012
Additional links : -Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia, Events of 2019
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.