Thursday, 5 January 2012

Shopping With Dignity in Saudi Arabia

Buying knickers is the least of Saudi women's problems
Saudia Arabia's ban on men working in lingerie shops is just another bizarre triumph for conservatism

I'm outside a women's clothing store in Saudi Arabia whose display window is straight out of a Nevada cathouse. Headless mannequins curl and squat suggestively, fitted into racy little numbers that any self-respecting strumpet wouldn't be caught dead in.
Lycra, tartan, and patent leather, replete with networks of zips, clasps, buckles and chains, clash in a dazzle of ridiculously tacky ensembles. On the rails inside are split-crotch knickers, tank tops with glow-in-the-dark nipple caps, and pre-ripped fishnet stockings.
But I'm watching a drama unfold across the way, in a store of far more obstinate virtue. It sells nothing but abayas, the ankle-length black gowns favoured by women in the Gulf states. Or at least it was selling them. Two members of the notorious Saudi vice squad, or mutaween, are now busy shutting it down.
Apparently the store's abayas weren't black enough. The whimsical guardians of morality had glimpsed a flash of colour on a sleeve trim or hem.
The merchandise that only seconds before was tastefully displayed in the store window, is hastily shoved into plastic bags for confiscation. Meanwhile, the shop selling bordello apparel across the way is, remarkably, left untouched.
After slapping a quarantine sticker on the front window of the abaya store, the two mutaween, distinctive for their furrowed brows, traditional long white shirt with a hem ending just above the cankles, and bushy beards, stride off.
Saudi Arabia is beginning to implement a law that says shops selling frilly nighties or even the standard M&S-style cotton combos will not be allowed to have male shop attendants. This is to spare women the humiliation of being served by the standard Pakistani gent behind the counter in nearly every store.
Within a couple of years, or so we have been told, the scandalous spectacle of men selling women's clothes may be a thing of the past, and this could pave the way for more jobs to be open to women.
As with the right-to-drive campaign, the lingerie shop issue has been adopted by well-meaning activists as a cause célèbre. Hundreds of kvetching feminists have been posting on message boards wishing Saudi women the right to "shop with dignity".
The reality is that given cultural mores, most women wouldn't be seen trying on underwear in the shops anyway. And by creating yet another hype around the issue of the libidinous energies of men and women coming into contact – this supposed step forward is actually just another bizarre triumph for conservatism: through the creation of yet another women-only zone. 
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