New Employment Opportunities for Saudi Women

In May, the conservative Saudi writer Abdullah Muhammad al-Dawood sparked a controversy when he encouraged his nearly 100,000 Twitter followers to sexually harass Saudi women working as supermarket cashiers. Dawood used a story ascribed to the prophet Muhammad to argue that the harassment was morally justified since the aim was to discourage inappropriate behavior.

Dawood was responding to the sight of thousands of Saudi women taking retail jobs for the first time. Though a few privileged Saudi women have distinguished careers, until recently, there weren’t many opportunities for others. Most jobs in Saudi Arabia aren’t open to female applicants, and even highly educated women struggle to find work (60 percent of Saudi women with PhDs are unemployed). Jobs for Saudi women without degrees have been practically non-existent, and unskilled service jobs have traditionally been considered shameful.

But a group of Saudi women turned around the notion of shame, using it to make a case for a new group of working women. In 2008, Reem Asaad, a women’s college lecturer, argued that it was humiliating for women to buy underwear from male shop assistants. In 2011, King Abdullah banned men from working in lingerie shops, ordering that the jobs be opened to Saudi women. More recently, women have begun to work in other retail jobs, including supermarkets.

Women Take the Wheel in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. However, as more women enter the workforce, transportation is becoming a major issue.

This Week: An Arab Spring in Ladies Lingerie

To have female sales clerks staff the ladies lingerie department would seem like a no-brainer, except that it took a royal decree two years ago by King Abdullah to make it happen in Saudi Arabia.