Lingerie, labour and equality in Saudi Arabia


The work on the emergence of otherwise silent issues has brought to light the campaign “ban men from selling lingerie” in Saudi Arabia. A dumb campaign, you would think? not at all.

The campaign was voiced and supported by influential bloggers all over Saudi Arabia and discussed throughout the blogosphere in 2009 and, again, in 2010. The issue of lingerie emerged very briefly, replete with political criticism. SusieofArabia claimed “Intimate apparel business owners who have tried hiring sales WOMEN are […] complaining that […] saleswomen are incompetent. Rubbish! Poppycock!”[1]

The initial boycott started with Dr Reem Asaad, lecturer at the Business and Finance Department at Dar Al-Hekma.[2] She highlighted how the choice of salesmen rather than saleswomen was not a religious requirement; on the contrary, it was an economic manoeuvre that would reduce labour costs because immigrants from South East Asia could accept lower salaries.

The issue brings with it a set of societal taboos as well as political and economic issues. The campaign was mostly organised and existed online, specifically on blogs and forums. It received very limited attention by local media, with only one article published by Arab News, as a blog post reports.[3] International press instead showed interest, in particular with two articles appearing on the BBC Middle East website, one in 2009 and one in 2010.[4]

The boycott and the campaign became an occasion to reiterate women’s aversion toward the government’s conservative position with regards to their participation in the making and functioning of the social, economic and political life of the country. Boycotting lingerie stores became therefore a way of standing up against the status quo of salesmen in women’s stores but also a fiery criticism against the country’s ban on driving, leave the house unaccompanied, and working in mixed environments.

At a closer look however, the campaign became a way to criticise the government’s slow response toward the staggering increase in women’s demands to enter the job market and the related female unemployment figures. As probably we all know by now, women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive nor can they own their own documents; they are not allowed to leave the domestic premises without a chaperone or a male guardian. The ban on driving stops many women from full-time employment. The restrictions on the types of jobs that women can be hired for -despite the fact that things are slowly changing- significantly reduces the range of roles women can apply for and be hired to cover.

The lingerie campaign therefore becomes an occasion to stress the multiple issues that emerge on different layers—economic, social, political and religious—and that assemble and coalesce on the digital layer through blog posts, discussions, Facebook posts, and closed groups.[5] It didn’t solely entail online communication and coordination to boycott stores but it also served the goal of reiterating women’s determination to improve their status in the country, and become visible.

However, although the campaign remains as part of the network (data), the boycott was somehow ‘forgotten’, despite the fact that a 2011 Crown ruling allowed women to work in lingerie shops was overturned in early 2012, bringing with it a whole new set of issues.[6]

The temporary dimension of this campaign and the multiple issues it encloses must be recognised in that they point at the emergence of what it is a multi-layered map, a theoretical concept and an empirical tool of analysis. This campaign, along with other initiatives that have emerged in the overall project on the Egyptian and the Saudi networks, bring to the fore the temporary dimension of some issues that, despite inactive accounts, lost comments  or fading memories (mainly non updated blog profiles) highlight the archival dimension (“traces”) of digital artifacts and the necessity to maintain and value their presence in the respective networks.

 

[1] Khalil, Susie. “Much Ado about Nothing”. In Susiebigadventure blog [Online] Available at < http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/much-ado-about-nothing.html >. Retrieved 2 Fenruary 2015.

[2]  Hancock, Stephanie. “Saudi Lingerie trade in a twist”. In BBC Middle East, 25 February 2009. [Online]. Available at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8514201.stm,&gt; last accessed 2 February 2015.

[3] Article now disappeared; original URL: http://www.arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article20118.ece. Link embedded in the post “Much Ado about Nothing”. In Susiebigadventure blog.

[4] “Saudi call for boycott against men selling lingerie”. [Online] <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8514201.stm >. Last accessed 2 February 2015.

[5] it is the case of the group !!الملابس الداخلية النسائية للنساء فقط, https://www.facebook.com/groups/20469931029/

[6] “Saudi court overturns circular allowing men and woman to work together in shops”. In Al Arabyia, 30 May 2012. [Online] < http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/05/30/217556.html >.  Last accessed 2 February 2015.

Overview on the findings: Presentation Orilia (CA), 2016.

orilia_women-space-and-ksa

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