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March 7, 2009

Lingerie Revolution

The slutty and talented BlueGal sent us this article about a lingerie-related crisis, which of course was a call that we couldn't refuse. It's about Saudi Arabia, where all of the employees in lingerie shops are men, which creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone and is really unfair to the women who are just trying to shop for basic clothing items. (Something unfair to women in Saudi Arabia? We know you're all as shocked as we were.)

So let's walk through the article, shall we? First, how the situation stands right now:
"It would be bizarre in any country to find that its lingerie shops are staffed entirely by men. But in Saudi Arabia - an ultra-conservative nation where unmarried men and women cannot even be alone in a room together if they are not related - it is strange in the extreme. Women, forced to negotiate their most intimate of purchases with male strangers, call the situation appalling and are demanding the system be changed."

"In theory, it should be easy enough to get women to staff lingerie shops, but parts of Saudi society are still very traditional and don't like the idea of women working - even if it's just to sell underwear to each other."

"Because physical contact between unmarried men and women in Saudi Arabia is forbidden under strict segregation laws, women can also not be properly measured for their underwear. Worse still, the kingdom's religious police forbid lingerie shops even to have fitting rooms. So if a customer wants to try an item on, she first has to pay for it, and then traipse to a public toilet to see if it fits. If it doesn't, she can easily get a refund, but most women find the experience so humiliating they buy items without trying them on, only to get them home and find they don't fit and their money is wasted."
Now, we all know that the U.S. is far from a feminist utopia, but a story like this makes me feel like a jerk for ever ranting about the Wonderbra or Victoria's Secret or whatever. At least I can get in the car whenever I want, drive myself to the mall (without a man accompanying me), and have my choice of underwear-selling establishments that I know will most likely be staffed by women. And I'll never complain about a weird fitting room again knowing that the alternative is having to get naked in a public bathroom.


So let's hear how the Saudi women feel about the current state of affairs:

"The way that underwear is being sold in Saudi Arabia is simply not acceptable to any population living anywhere in the modern world," says Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at Dar al-Hikma Women's College in Jeddah, who is leading a campaign to get women working in lingerie shops rather than men. "This is a sensitive part of women's bodies," adds Ms Asaad. "You need to have some discussions regarding size, colour and attractive choices and you definitely don't want to get into such a discussion with a stranger, let alone a male stranger. I mean this is something I wouldn't even talk to my friends about."

"Rana Jad is a 20-year-old student at Dar al-Hikma Women's College, and one of Reem Asaad's pupils and campaign supporters. "Girls don't feel very comfortable when males are selling them lingerie, telling them what size they need, and saying 'I think this is small on you, I think this is large on you'," she says. "He's totally checking the girls out! It's just not appropriate, especially here in our culture."

Nura, an administrative clerk at the same college, says she never buys lingerie in Saudi Arabia anymore. "It's really embarrassing. They try to give comments -'this might suit you better than that' - it's really not ethical."

To be fair to the male shop workers, many of them find the experience just as embarrassing as their women customers. They are torn, says Ms Asaad, between trying to do their job as salespeople and not stepping on any toes by doing something inappropriate, that could land them in hot water. "Since we do have the option of replacing male salespeople with female salespeople I don't see why this situation should continue."

Next time someone tries to hand you some bullshit argument about there being no sexism or oppression in the world and how women have it so easy, think about Nura, who won't even try to buy lingerie in her own country anymore because the experience is so embarrassing, and the idea of having to travel to another country just to perform the simple task of buying a damn pair of underwear in a way that doesn't totally make you uncomfortable.

Luckily, it seems like the women's campaign for change is gaining some ground:

Ms Asaad's campaign began on the social networking website Facebook and is gradually getting larger. Even Saudi Arabia's male-dominated press is starting to take note, with several newspapers reporting on her fight. The situation is all the more frustrating because the relevant legislation is already in place. In 2006, the Saudi government passed a law stating that women should be allowed to staff any shops that sell women's items, be it clothing, accessories or underwear. But the law has still not been properly implemented. No official reason is given for this, but one probable cause is that hiring female staff would put a lot of men out of work - not a popular move in a country where 13% of men are unemployed. There are also Saudi Arabia's Muslim clerics to contend with. They wield a great deal of power in the kingdom and still believe a woman's natural environment is in the home.

The result is an uneasy stand off between those who want Saudi Arabia to modernise and others who want to preserve conservative traditions - and currently, the traditionalists are winning. Ms Asaad and her campaigners have now decided to sidestep both the government and the religious establishment, and put pressure directly on retailers. Campaigners are calling for a boycott of all lingerie stores that are staffed by men. "We the consumers are the final decision makers," says Ms Asaad. "It's we who decide what to buy or not to buy, and that's where it will hit the most - in the pocket." Campaigners stress they still want customers' male family members to be able to enter shops, but insist all staff selling products must be women. "The concept is flawless," says Ms Asaad. "The concept of women selling women's underwear to other women is so natural that any other option is just invalid."

Reem Asaad is officially awesome, and of course she recognizes that even societies that don't fully value women as people still value all of the money that we spend as consumers. And I'd say that "well, we can't measure you cause we can't touch your dirty ladybodies, and you also can't try anything on yourself because we have no fitting rooms, but feel free to buy stuff anyway so that you can walk down to the public restroom to try it on" qualifies as exceptionally shitty customer service, so a boycott is richly deserved in this situaiton. And much as I dislike Facebook, I can definitely get behind it as a tool to fuel activism, and if it can help these women come together and raise awareness, I'm all for it.

If you'd like to keep up with the campaign or show your support, check out their Facebook page. The group already has more than 1600 members, and the latest update from Reem is good news: "After the huge success and media coverage of this campaign, it is now the time to launch it officially "off line" in an event. The launch will take place in Jeddah in about 9 days." We'll get to work on our lingerie care packages right away.


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1 comment:

Erotic Lingerie said...

Wow it must be very difficult for the women in Saudi Arabia to shop in store for lingerie. If they had internet access and knew thier sizing it would probably be easier for them to shop online.