By MaryJo Kosisher-Demski
Ladies, have you ever given much thought to the gender of the person who waits on you in a lingerie department or rings through your intimates at a big box store? To be perfectly honest, I’ve always been more concerned with the actions of the other customers waiting to be rung up. I try to avoid standing behind the harried woman who’s simultaneously trying to hold an infant, keep tabs on her toddler, argue with her “tween”ager, fumble with her car keys, and search frantically for her debit card (whose PIN she inevitably can’t remember), all while arguing with the sales associate over a pricing question. When I pull the short straw and find that person in front of me, my already-simmering blood hits a full boil and I frantically scan the store for a less-congested lane, or at least one with no “customer issues.” Needless to say, I’m not the type of woman who cares whether a man or a woman waits on me as long as I receive pleasant, prompt, and professional customer service.
So imagine my surprise when one evening recently, as my husband and I were dining at home and “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” was fading into BBC News (yes, I realize the seeming contradiction of eating dinner while watching a Scottish chef scream obscenities at everyone in the restaurant he’s critiquing), a story filled my TV screen about the current controversy raging in Saudi Arabia about whether men or women should be selling ladies their lingerie.
In that ultra-conservative kingdom where unmarried men and women aren’t allowed to be alone in a room together if they’re not related, all lingerie shops are staffed entirely by men, a situation that’s a source of outrage for the country’s female population. A campaign, spearheaded by Ms. Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at a women’s college in Jeddah, is seeking to replace lingerie salesmen with lingerie saleswomen since, as Ms. Asaad asserts, “[Intimate apparel] is a sensitive part of women’s bodies and the way that underwear is being sold in Saudi Arabia is simply not acceptable.”
Ms. Asaad points out that, in a culture where the sexes are deliberately segregated, it makes “no sense” for a man to sell intimate apparel to a woman. The situation is made more difficult by the facts that customers aren’t even allowed to try on garments before purchasing them (as accepted practice prohibits the existence of fitting rooms in lingerie stores), and customers can’t be measured for proper sizing due to the prohibition against physical contact between unmarried men and women. After buying intimate apparel, some female customers walk into public lavatories to try on their purchases. Most, however, simply take them home, try them on, and “bitterly” accept the monetary loss if they don’t fit properly, too “humiliated” to return them to the store.
Ironically, there’s been a law on the books since 2006 that stipulates that women should be allowed to staff shops that sell women’s items, such as underwear. However, the provisions of that law haven’t been implemented due to resistance from the most conservative members of the religious community who maintain that it’s improper for a woman to work outside of her home. Another likely reason this law hasn’t been enforced is economic in nature. Approximately 13% of the nation’s male population is unemployed, and forcing the dismissal of men from any jobs in order to replace them with women would be a very unpalatable move for government officials.
So what are Ms. Asaad and her fellow dissidents to do? Take their cause online, of course. Last month Ms. Asaad organized a grassroots campaign, via Facebook, to try to bypass both the government and the religious establishment and put pressure, via boycotts, directly upon retailers to make the change. As she points out, “We the consumers are the final decision makers, and it’s we who decide what to buy or not to buy, and that’s where it will hit the most – in the pocket.”
It’s too early to tell whether or not Ms. Asaad’s movement will be successful. Change is an incredibly slow-moving agent, particularly in a nation firmly rooted in a conservative, patriarchal system. However, after watching this brief news story and subsequently Googling for further information, I’m now quite appreciative of the conditions under which I can purchase intimate apparel. I clearly had always taken these freedoms for granted. Of course, I just need to keep that gratitude in mind the next time I’m stranded helplessly behind that harried woman performing her juggling act, or a scatter-brained soul who can’t remember her PIN when paying … although I can’t promise I won’t still scan the store for a less-congested checkout lane.CC Image courtesy of psd on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/ / CC BY 2.0 CC Image courtesy of MissTurner on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/missturner/ / CC BY 2.0