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SAUDI ARABIA: Women launch lingerie boycott in drive to stop salesmen from sizing them up

February 17, 2010 |  6:55 am

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In conservative Saudi Arabia, an unrelated man and a woman having coffee together at a cafe risk getting tangled up with the kingdom’s feared religious morality police, the muttawa.

So it is perhaps somewhat confounding that many Saudi women often are forced to interact with unknown men when shopping for their most intimate apparel. 

Apparently, the kingdom’s strict public morality codes and the country’s requirement of absolute separation between the sexes don't apply when women are buying thongs or push-up bras.

Back in 2008 when a 37-year-old mother of three reportedly was arrested by the muttawa, or the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, at a Starbucks in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Her crime? Having coffee with a male colleague. 

But in Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of lingerie shops are staffed by men. The labor ministry has said it would require women to work at such shops, but the rule hasn't been enforced, and apparently some religious scholars discourage women clerks in such retail outlets.

Angered by having unknown salesmen ogling them to figure out their bra and pantie sizes, a group of Saudi women have decided to challenge the status quo and recently called for a two-week boycott of lingerie shops staffed by men.

ALeqM5gid3OldqwW8kuNfBGBScGIxjxq1Q-1 Reem Asaad, an economics professor in Saudi Arabia's red sea port city of Jeddah, spearheaded the boycott and organized the action plan over her Facebook page as public protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, the website of the BBC reported.

Asaad hopes for a big turnout in the protest, which started last weekend.

“I just hope that many [women] respond and boycott," she told Agence France-Presse.

This isn't the first time Asaad has challenged Saudi Arabia's male-dominated lingerie industry. For the last two years, she has shined light on the issue by steadily calling on the Saudi authorities to allow female staff to work at stores that cater to men and women clients.

Since then, there have been a number of twists in the hotly debated Saudi lingerie trade.

The religious police has not necessarily been opposed to the idea of having women clerks in stores -- as long as the shops are in women-only malls, such as the Ladies Kingdom shopping center in Riyadh. 

And the Saudi Labor Ministry has previously said it would require that women were employed in lingerie shops, but the law is apparently not being enforced.

Asaad says the legislation is deliberately vague and therefore paves the way for hard-line religious clerics to enforce a ban on saleswomen.

But she hopes things will change and that the male monopoly on the lingerie trade in Saudi will crumble by putting pressure on it through boycotts and lobbying.

“I am calling for salesmen to be replaced with saleswomen," she told Agence France-Presse. The only way to get things done is putting pressure on the industry, and [for] retailers to change.”

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos: Above, Economics professor Reem Asaad is leading a boycott of lingerie shops with male staff. Credit: BBC website.

Lower image, Many Saudi women have to deal with men when buying their underwear since most Saudi lingerie shops are staffed by men. Credit: AFP

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