Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lingerie in Saudi and Social Activism

Isabelle Adjani pour lejaby

Eman of Saudiwoman’s Weblog  and Qusay of Qusay Today  have both posted in support of a planned 2-week boycott, starting February 13th, organized by Reem Assad, a lecturer in banking and finance at Jeddah’s Dar el-Hekma Women’s College, on Facebook, BAN MEN FROM SELLING LINGERIE IN KSA, to protest the current situation of men only selling women’s lingerie in Saudi Arabia, and the evasion of legislation to increase women’s employment by having them work in lingerie shops. Reem has described her impetus well here for FT (Financial Times Magazine--First Person), and has been profiled here at Transracial, as a "lingerie maverick". Eman has summarized particularly well the broader social issues in her post, and Qusay the man’s perspective in his .

Susie of Arabia of Susie’s Big Adventure and Jeddah Daily Photo Journal has previously addressed the issue of the discomfort women, including herself, experience of shopping for lingerie from a man, and the cognitive dissonance of doing so in Saudi Arabia where gender segregation is so strict. She also provided a very effective visual of a man at work folding his lingerie wares.

As I have commented on these posts and others, it seems important to me that women’s employment opportunities be increased including at this starting point, and that women who are uncomfortable shopping for lingerie from men have the option locally to be served by a woman.

Reem Assad has announced her longer standing campaign, since February 2009, this way:

Welcome to "BAN MEN FROM SELLING LINGERIE IN KSA". As the title suggests, the group has one mission: To get the Saudi Labor Law No. 120 implemented. The law states that "only females may be employed in women apparel and accessories stores". The law was released in 2006 but was never activated until this day. With that in mind, I urge you and our fellow residents of KSA to take on this mission (don't have to be Saudi).
contact e-mail:
Or leave your post on this page
يـــم أســــعد26 سبتمبر 2008

Boycotts can be highly effective modes of social activism though they often take some time to be established and massive enough to be effective. They are safer forms of action than some others, as there are no laws forcing one to buy a product (usually) or to buy a product from a specific buyer (usually).

The grape and lettuce boycotts led by Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union to gain better working conditions, wages, and protection for seasonal farm workers, usually poor Hispanics, was eventually highly effective, in part because North Americans either didn’t buy grapes and lettuce, or bought them from overseas or from local vineyards using local hires.


Some boycotts are part of moral purchasing, or consumer activism. Other boycotts, have a more political or ideological impact. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a landmark of the Civil Rights movement in the US, and Gandhi’s boycott of British products an integral part of his plan for independence through civil disobedience and passive resistance in India. Those against products from South Africa under apartheid or the ongoing one against Danish products following the Danish cartoons, have had international resonance and effectiveness at a political level for South Africa, and an economic one for the Danish products.

Boycotts against stores that support the IDF, like the Palestinian one against Chapters/Indigo Books in Canada, against Israeli products, or the ongoing international boycotts of Israeli academics have yet to make an impact, and the latter one has some ethical issues in conflict with academic freedom, and as being against the academic community which is generally the most supportive of Palestinian rights and autonomy, as did the one in the 1960's against South African academics, and which proved to be more symbolic than effective. They are in early phases though.


The internet and social networking sites have made it much easier to rapidly organize an effective boycott. Regarding the boycott of lingerie stores employing men in Saudi Arabia, I  suggest that the boycott be extended beyond the 2 weeks even by women unable to buy lingerie outside the country. This can be done by trying on lingerie in stores or their nearby washrooms (in the proper hygienic manner), and then purchasing it online, or buying one item and purchasing online multiples of the same, or the same in other colours, or with slight style differences.

I hope all those who are resident in the KSA will join in the BAN MEN FROM SELLING LINGERIE IN KSA boycott, at least for the 2 weeks starting February 13th, and meanwhile I shall continue to not buy books from Chapters/ Indigo.

Remember me...lejaby campaign
For those having difficulty viewing this photo try here

How comfortable would you, woman or man, feel purchasing women’s lingerie from a man?
Would it matter his origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation?
What do you think of boycotts?
Are some unethical?
Are you currently participating in a boycott? Of what, and why?
Any other comments, thoughts, or experiences?


coolred38 said...

I find it completely hypocritical that segregation is enforced to such a degree that married couples need to keep a marriage certificate on them at all times in case they need to prove their relationship....BUT women are driven around by strange men and sold their most intimate apparel by, once again, strange men.

Now while I wont say every man does it I would be interested to know what is going on in the mind of a seller while he is looking at a potential customer and she is asking whether he has such and such style, color, size etc...of course my guess would be hes looking at her chest or ass to determine, one...what size she needs etc and two...what she would then look like in that garment.

Tell me they dont do that.

Yet segregation is enforced in every other aspect of a womans life...explain please.

Anonymous said...

I was initially shying away from posting here for being a guy, but when i saw Qusay's post i thought at least i have some company...

Yes i hate that any self respecting woman would have to buy her lingerie from a guy.

Apart from the lingerie also is that woman would have to get their make ups and other stuff from men, i haven't seen any women selling or demonstrating make ups here.

First of all men may not be the best people to sell make ups and more over in a conservative islamic country having the men check out our ladies to sell them the makeups, lingerie and other women stuff is disgusting and defies the very logic of segregation practiced here.

Also apart from this issue is the lack or no prayer space for ladies in mosques. When i am outside with my wife and if Salaah time comes by, i am expected to be in the masjid (by muttawas esp.) but where do i leave my wife??? Should i leave my wife all alone out side on her own? And to be frank my concentration on Salaah is not the best when i leave my wife outside all alone in the road. If alone all masjids had a womans prayer areas, my wife could also pray in her section and i would feel better.

And BTW at prophet's time women actively came to the masjids, and today just barring a few masjid which offer very minuscule prayer space, I can say over majority of the mosques here in Riyadh don't offer prayer space for ladies

Susanne said...

I would feel uncomfortable buying lingerie from men. It's really weird to me that this is OK and even the most common thing in KSA and other places in the Middle East (I think).

No, I'm not presently participating in any boycott nor do I recall any from my past.

Interesting post. Thanks for bringing this boycott to our attention!

Umm Abdullah said...

In Saudi Arabia it's socially unacceptable for a lady to greet a non-mahrem male, but yet she can tell her body measurements to one; provided that he's a salesman. That's quite awkward. I know I feel really odd buying clothes in Saudi. Men selling abayas, men selling make up, men selling's so odd.

omani said...

It is very unfortunate circumstances for women in KSA.

In Oman, I would never enter a lingerie store with men in it. It is very uncomfortable. I'm glad we have other options though.

Qusay said...

OK Chiara, You have messed up... messed up really bad :)

The pictures do not go well together, you have very nice pictures of lingerie and then you put in Susie's picture (which is good but more of... granny panties as they call them) LOL

Now, enough of that... thank u for your support :)

Imperfect Stepford Wife said...

A lot of things don't make sense in "Muslim countries". Men selling lingerie to women, women being driven around by non mahram men.

I don't know what a man is thinking when he is "sizing"a woman for anything, but it's ridiculous one way or another.

I owuld go with boycotting (sure), but lingerie is not a must. If a Saudi woman has to get to work or an appointment and she cannot drive and there is no mahram available to her then she is stuck with a man that she should not be alone with.

I guess we fight the battles that we can win (perhaps), I don't know.

Chiara said...

Coolred--I agree with you that the situation needs change. Sadly it seems that one explanation for this contradiction in segregation is racism: South Asians and the others who serve in these capacities are not considered threats as men; and, their opinions are not worth worry about in terms of reputation among Saudis. That is what I have been given to understand from discussions about this driver phenomenon, and I assume it explains the lingerie work as well. Otherwise what man would let his wife buy lingerie ie if a Saudi were employed in this capacity.

Regarding the minds of the salesmen, hopefully they are on the sale and not the buyer. However, I would assume that just as in any other profession there must be "unprofessional thoughts" not acted upon.

How to explain the inexplicable except by the faulty logic of humans and social systems ie the powers that be want it this way for some reason that has to do with women not working, and Asians not being men.

Chiara said...

Abu Abdullah--thank you for sharing more of the man's/ husband's perspective in this. It is indeed uncomfortable, to say the least, especially as I am assuming that statistically the majority of the salesmen are heterosexual.

I didn't realize that the prayer space for women in mosques was so limited, although I did realize that they are not required to attend the mosque as the men are.

I do think it is a shame that women generally are not more encouraged to attend communal prayers in the mosque, and to hear the khutba--assuming it is a worthwhile one.

Thanks again for sharing our perspective and information.

Chiara said...

Susanne--you are welcome! I keep thinking that it wouldn't be so bad, except that it is a non-option if one wants to buy lingerie in Saudi. On the other hand I am a very self-sufficient lingerie shopper and usually know sizes reliably etc. I'm sure it would be different to experience it in Saudi, and certainly many if not most women would be uncomfortable to varying degrees.

Chiara said...

Umm Abdullah--thank you for sharing your experience of this. It must feel extra strange to have arrived in Saudi relatively recently and from the US, where salesmen for these items is an uncommon practice. It didn't strike me before your mentioning it that men would be selling abayas too. Of all the complaints I have read about the abayas that one hasn't come up yet. Certainly from a North American perspective a heterosexual man selling makeup is odd, but not unheard of. Your comment combined with the others made me realize that probably in KSA men selling lingerie becomes even more strange--not so much because of the disconnect with the segregation practice, but because of the hyper focus on potential sexual improprieties in general. In that context the whole interaction would just be more fraught. Or a case of de-sexualizing the salesperson completely, and getting back into racist territory because of the exceptions to segregation--a vicious circle.
Thanks for your comment and I hope you will continue to comment on newer and older posts.

Chiara said...

Omani--Welcome, and thank you for pointing out the distinction between Saudi and other GCC countries. I think it is very important to contextualize Saudi culture and society in relation to its neighbours to better understand the commonalities and differences, and then the reasons for them, including as a prelude to modifications. I hope you will comment on older and newer posts as well.

Chiara said...

Qusay--I read your pain! Happily in lejaby lingerie land and then wham! grannie panties! Ah but think of the poor grannies who must purchase said panties from non-mahrem men! Not to mention the women living in Saudi for whom the final picture is blocked--the one of the man who appreciates lejaby lingerie. Hence the second link. To think I almost included this fellow's confrere who prefers his lejaby lingerie white! Too much suffering for Saudi residents--best that I didn't!

You are welcome for the support, and congratulations on extending yours in a post.

Chiara said...

Imperfect Stepford Wife--I agree that these aspects of Saudi life make little sense. I do see this particular issue as being beyond lingerie though, since one of the initiatives to increase employment for women was legislation to eliminate this phenomenon and replace the men with Saudi women. It has been stifled, and so another opportunity to make inroads into employment for women is lost. In that sense I do think that deliberately taking safe protest stands is warranted.

I suggested some others in the post, and Susie has suggested in a comment on Eman's blog that she will deliberately go into shops, ask to be served by a woman, and when the inevitable happens to walk out without a purchase, in order to bring home the point.

Another action I thought of would be to sell lingerie at home sales parties, and that some women would have a job out of doing this. I am not sure how well it would work in Saudi but perhaps some of those who live there could give their impression of how well it would work.

However, only a persistent and cohesive campaign to boycott lingerie shops with salesmen would be effective. The Facebook campaign organized by Reem Assad is a powerful start. I wonder who else will join in a major way and what tactics they will propose. Finding systematic alternatives to these shops would be important as would the backing of a broader group.

Thanks for your comment.

I hope others will chime in as well.

single4now said...

That's really sad. Saudi govt needs to wake up and make appropriate changes in certain ways things work in Saudi. I would feel very odd buying undergarments from men. I'd probably have someone else get it for me. I'm glad women are standing up against this.

Chiara said...

Single4now--interesting observation. A female someone else or a mahrem?
It is a good idea to start with something relatively simple but meaningful and persist, as valuable in itself and symbolic of other changes. I would imagine it would be easy enough for the women in the EP to do all their purchases in Bahrain as a further form of protest.

oby said...

I agree with coolred...It would feel so uncomfortable buying lingerie from a man...the only saving grace would be on those days I could wear a niqab and they would have no idea who I am. Besides, how if it is haram to talk to a strange man is it NOT haram to buy undies from them??? Weird!

AnnMarie said...

Although I am not in Saudi Arabia I will definitely be following to see how effective this boycott is, but how are you going to get everyone on board for this? I can imagine that women in colleges will be able to take part as you can make them aware of the boycott, but what about the stay at home mothers etc.? What's the plan for than? It would be fantastic to see a feminist movement take flight in Saudi. I will be watching this story with interest!!! Is it possible you could get some womens magazine involved as well?

Nabeel said...

Excellent post,one that will unfortunately (for me) force me to go through the rest of your blog for quality blogging.

I work part time at Wal Mart and even after three months,it's still kind of weird to scan lingerie and bag it for customers...but it's not so weird (in fact almost negligible) when the same items are packaged in a cardboard box. that's another possible solution for saudi arabia.

having women work is great,and i completely back that,but to have a lady working somewhere like Giant Stores, ONLY because of a certain group of items (we can add pads,jewelry,and cosmetics too),might be unfeasible...i mean it'll be difficult to implement on the large scale. but yes it should be legalized and perhaps if a few shops can do it successfully,or if it can be implemented in one city,it should spread to the rest.

but i think all of this would be so much easier if the lingerie were simply packed in boxes with sizes written on them.women should know their sizes - if they don't,then after the first time they buy anything,they will.

weirdest of all - having 80 year old men walk up to the counter carrying Kotex in one hand and an open bra in the other.

i mean,uncle,wtf?

NidalM said...

I've heard countless stories about how awkward this is. A friend wold me of one of her own experiences, where she walked into a well known lingerie chain here in Saudi.

Not being able to find the size she needed, she walked upto one of the male salesmen and asked for a particular style. The man gives stares at her discerningly and replies, "No ma'am, I think for you this one will look nicer". I shuddered when I heard this exchange, I cant imagine how bad it would've been there for her.

Most women, I'd imagine, wouldn't dare try the fit of something before they buy it in such circumstances, even if there are appropriately private fitting rooms.

It should also be noted that its definitely not easy for the salesmen either. If they dont make suggestions, theyre bad at their jobs. If they do, they are creeps.

Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for your comment. Yes the niqab might come in handy here. I have vague memories of a male lingerie salesmen but our interaction was non-creepy and he was helpful re: colours and styles without "checking me out" just responding to a query about a certain style in my size, and finding many more options than were on display, but were in his display drawers embedded in the counter. Of course, I had the option of not talking to him at all.

Ann Marie--Welcome, and thank you for your support and suggestions. I will have to check Reem Assad's facebook site and see whether she has all of these and if not leave a message. You have also inspired me to do a follow-up after the 2 weeks are up. It will be interesting to see the impact. I would imagine for the stay at homes with access to the internet that the Facebook site is one way of becoming aware. Students in high school, college, and uni, can share the information with family and friends which is a good starting point as you mentioned. Thank you again for your comment, and I hope you will comment on new and older posts as well.

Chiara said...

Nabeel--Welcome and thank you for your kind words, and comment. You have a very interesting blog as well. I wish you luck in your activist endeavours. Puça of Sic Itur Ad Astra (see side bar for blog link) is a regular commentator here, and a Catalunyan Barça fan.

Interesting suggestion about boxing the lingerie as a way to minimize the discomfort for the women and the male salesclerks. My understanding is that most lingerie shops in Saudi are boutiques, often within malls, rather than department store counters. Hopefully someone in Saudi will enlighten us. It would be one good way to increase employment for women by creating niche employment sectors like those catering to women (and the men who love them): lingerie shops, jewellery, makeup, accessories, maternity wear, abayas, women's clothing. This would be easiest to do in the boutiques but could be done in the relevent sections of a department store with a cash area in each section.

Your story of the 80 year old with the Kotex and the lingerie made me laugh. Maybe a helpful grandpa? It reminded me of my rather prudish aunt being surprised that my father added feminine hygiene products in 3 types (for mother, sister, and I) to his grocery list and routinely went through the checkout with said items. He took over all grocery and much other shopping while my mother was teaching fulltime and going to uni part-time.

He had less problem with this than going through the check out with my mother after a car accident which left her with a very fat, and very black and blue upper lip. The dirty looks he got from cashiers and patrons assuming he had hit her made them stop shopping together until her lip was back to normal.

Thanks for your comment, and I look forward to your comments on older and newer posts!

Chiara said...

NidalM--yes it is true that this must be uncomfortable on both sides, and I assume that most of the men doing this job are normal and in need of work/ good employer evaluations/ commissions rather than creeps.

Trying on lingerie is dicey in the best of circumstances, since the women salesclerks have a tendency to burst in to see "How you are doing" and to grab the front mid piece to shake you in to place. Very unsettling until I learned how to dodge that manoeuvre. Also one of the better boutiques I am aware of locally has a staff with a kind of Yiddish American approach to shouting advice and size recommendations throughout the other wise upscale specialty shop.

When I think of the fuss the hub made over the way one shoe salesman was testing my foot for fit, and making suggestions about clips to add interest to the plain black high heels, the thought of the lingerie salesmen does start to boggle the mind more.

Imperfect Stepford Wife said...

Chiara, je comprend et c'est vrai, c'est un grand probleme.. My sister is a lingerie designer and she had private showings and sales once every month.

I am sure this is something many women in closed societies do, but I wonder how far they could take it. It is more pleasing anyway for women to fit and support other women.

Chiara said...

ISW--Merci et je m'excuse. The tone of my comment was unintentionally "sec". Sorry about that.

I agree with everything you said here, and it must be nice to have a sister who designs lingerie! Mine designs jewelery but she has that on hold at the moment.

Sandy said...

Well, since I travel out every year- I hit the lingerie shops when I'm outside the kingdom. It creeps me out even in the US when there are men wandering in a lingerie shop- so I can't handle the Saudi situation. I understand Victoria's Secret mail order does quite well- I've done that on occasion as well.

Once I needed nail polish and I was at one of the big make-up stores and the men were so helpful trying on all the colors I was interested in. It was hilarious. Of course, they had a completely different skin tone than I do- so it really couln't help me decide- but they were very eager to help!!

Other make up options are Avon.

Anonymous said...

I came across this a couple of months ago at SaudiJeans - Good on them!

It is very odd and creepy for men to staff lingerie stores (as most people have mentioned). Plus the obvious ironies when it takes place in a society with such a strict separation of the sexes.

Small steps, I say! Who knows? Maybe one day, Saudi women may also be able to drive?! I know, can you believe it? Revolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and to add to Nabeel's post - what is with women not being allowed to work in most places?

I mean, how idiotic can you get to stop half your population from working, even though allowing them to work would contribute so much to the economy? And you can't even use religion seeing as the Prophet's (SAW) first wife was a businesswoman who, by historical accounts, earned more than her husband.

Again on SaudiJeans' blog, there was a post about an extremely talented young woman who studied graphic design, but was unable to get a job. She now designs T-Shirts and sells them online.

Chiara said...

Sandy--thanks for your comment and your suggestions on how to boycott. True the skin tone differences would take some mastering and are hilarious in the meantime.

Shafeeq--yes I believe Saudi Jeans did a post shortly after Reem Assad created her Facebook activist group. I do see this as a doable small step that could have a larger symbolic impact.

There are convincing studies showing that the countries which only operate with 50% of their brains in the workplace do less well than the others. Hopefully they all, including Saudi will see the value of having the input of 100% of the population. Provision of pre-uni education in these countries is usually very good to both genders. That is a first step, but only a first.

I also remember the other post of Saudi Jeans on the graphic designer. Self-employment via the internet is one viable option for women with few work opportunities.

Thanks for both your comments.

Chiara said...

Shafiq--My apologies for my misspelling of your name above. The Brits have invaded by Gallic orthography! And some would claim the 100 years war is over! LOL :)

Majed said...

Dear all,

It is mere hypocrisy, all that talk about ooof yaakh !!!!, males driving our ladies to their destinations regardless that some require that their drivers made to specific dimentions and complexions, and also about males selling stuff and even the most blushingly embarrassing intimate stuff too, our ladies are our counterparts, knowing that we are not saints hence, naturally our ladies are not angles, we are simply human beings and should not look forward to being more than that
even though i agree, that, like any other society not all that walk on two in respective socities are alike, but Saudi arabia is not like any other country or society this is sort of the formal view point and the believe of a vast majority of the natives who think they are the highest ranking in the moral scale.
well, I think those who have raised this issue are not living reality, or may be they are just trying to attract some attention since hypocrisy sells well.
have anyone ever tried to be Lingerie,cosmetics seller, taxi driver, private taxi driver, house driver or even simply a grocery shop round a corner keeper in saudi arabia, well I hope no one will ever give it a try, specially those who are high in the moral scale because the least I can say that they will be thunderstruck and will stop believing in morality, the ladies passengers and frequenters of those shops just treat those men like eunuchs i prefer not to say anything about how they behave.
It is a good idea that women should have the choice whether to buy their stuff from male seller or female seller, but it is wrong to use " BAN MEN FROM SELLING LINGERIE IN KSA" in insinuating that male sellers misuse or take advantage of their job to molest or to make improper advances to ladies ,they just grabbed the chance they got to make a decent living and it never happened that they have ever messed around with their livelihood so far as i know. As far as I am concerned I personally prefer to purchase my wife `s
( stuff ) myself.

Chiara said...

Majed--Welcome, and thank you for your comprehensive comment. You have captured well the problems with human nature everywhere, and the contradiction between assuming all persons must therefore be gender segregated, and allowing women to be in the company of male drivers and to make their most intimate purchases from male sales clerks. You make a good point that allowing men in these positions is to treat them as a different class of men, ie emasculated ones or eunuchs.

I do think this particular Ban is free from accusing the men of being problematic, and this Ban is more focused on the issue of increasing women's employment, and general desegregation. As a first step, it is proposing that women be the ones to sell lingerie, as did an official proposal which has been ignored, ie has never been enacted.

I am glad you support the ideas of choice, and desegregation of these workplace options, yet I understand that in such a situation as the current one you prefer to do the lingerie shopping for your wife.

Thanks again for your comment, and I hope you will comment on older and newer posts as well.

imran said...

"How big is she?", a question blanketing the bluntness in "how big are the twins", in decency, was the first question I faced with shaking knees on my first attempt to buy the first ever lingerie item. And then the salesgirl in the City Centre in Doha, seeing the state I was in on my face, tried to help out by pointing out the size of her colleague, and then her ownself. "Is she as big as Maha or then me?" Maha, I must point out, was loaded, while the one I was talking to could hide behind the t-shirt she was wearing. "Or then somewhere in the middle, sir". I chose the last option extended and realized how difficult it was for me to shop lingerie. Perhaps this was my first time which added to the saga. But then it must be very difficult for women, especially in KSA, who spend hours concealing themselves in black abayas, to actually go with their daughters/daughter-in-law or otherwise to complete strangers and asking for something that "fits". If I were the salesman there, I would seriously have my thoughts drifting to where they should not go. I am sure that the Bengali salesmen, most salesmen of lingeris shops here are Bengalis, living a life deprived of the fairsex in all its true form, it must be very difficuly to focus on the work.

No wonder the women feel the infringement on their privacy. I wonder why the reluctance on having female salespersons there. There are afterall, some malls boasting a female exclusive floor or enclosure.

Chiara said...

Imran--Welcome, and thank you for your excellent comment. You certainly told that in dramatic style to match the discomfort of the situation as a man purchasing lingerie from women, as a parallel to women purchasing from a man.

You do raise good points about the challenges for the salesmen, despite their morals and professionalism, and in particular when they are in a segregated society without their wives. Tahar Ben Jelloun, the Moroccan novelist, wrote his doctoral thesis in social psychology on the challenges for North African immigrants, either single or away from their wives, and not able to socialize with Frenchwoman, and the psychological disturbances this led or contributed to. Anyone who reads French and is interested can access it through a university library system.

Thanks again for your comment, and I look forward to you commenting on older and newer posts.

single4now said...

Sorry for not responding earlier. Well, probably my mom since I'm single and it would be awkward to ask a male mehram.

As it is, I hate salemen who hover over me and try to "help" me. I prefer places where the staff minds their own business. If I need help, I'll ask.


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