TRR: Sex and the Saudi: The Lingerie Revolution

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Women in Saudi Arabia will soon be able to do what has long been forbidden: sell sexy undergarments to other women. 

The availability of stylish, frilly or colorful underwear is one of the few concessions the strictly conservative Wahabbist Muslim kingdom has made to female individuality. In a country where women are required to be covered head to toe in public, creativity is limited to what is worn under the abaya

But mixed-gender staff are forbidden at Saudi stores, which means women have had to deal with men when buying lingerie. This leads to uncomfortable and embarrassing situations as salesmen try to guess what garments they can suggest without offending their customers, and women have to reveal their private clothing preferences to men they don’t know. And since fitting rooms are forbidden, trying on a bra before purchasing it is practically impossible. 

In June King Abdullah decreed that only women work in “shops selling women’s necessities,” and Saudi Labor Minister Adel Faqih subsequently ordered that lingerie stores had to switch from male to female staff by the end of the year. Implementing the order will pose a few difficulties. According to a report by Donna Abu-Nasr in Bloomberg, “Male guards may be stationed outside [the female-staffed stores] to keep men shoppers away, while storeowners are considering posting signs saying the establishments are for ‘Families Only’ and hanging heavy curtains to shield store windows so that men won’t look in and see women working.” 

While this policy change might not seem like much to Americans who are free to wear practically nothing, it is an important step in the gender-dysfunctional Saudi kingdom. Last year after the release of “Sex and the City 2,” which was partly set in the Middle East, The Washington Times editorialized that while the movie “is certainly not America’s finest cultural export, it may be our most useful. As Muslims criticize it publicly, women in the Middle East will watch the pirated DVD in their homes with the blinds drawn, dreaming of expensive shoes, designer handbags and freedom.” And now, of selling lingerie.


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About the Author

James S. Robbins

James S. Robbins, Ph.D., former Senior Editorial Writer for Foreign Affairs, was formerly professor of international relations at the National Defense University, associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Robbins is author of the recently released "This Time ...

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