An awkward cheap lingerie sites exchange is taking place at the till of a lingerie shop in the hyper-modern Al Faisaliah shopping mall in downtown Riyadh. A male sales assistant is advising a veiled woman on the benefits of buying a pink, lacy under-wear set, as she listens with her head bowed.
Half a mile down the road, in the women-only section of the Kingdom Tower mall, one of the few places in which a woman can work on the shop floor, things are distinctly more relaxed.
Fardos, a Palestinian shop assistant, stands smiling in a sharp suit and a T-shirt with the word “Babe” emblazoned across her chest, and points to the sexy negligees in the boutique, “Boudoir”. “Women come in here and try on these wonderful things. They ask me what looks good on them and what doesn’t. Do you think they feel as comfortable when a man serves them?” she asked.
Her question is one that is dividing Saudi society, after a government edict broke with tradition and ordered lingerie shops in mixed-sex shopping areas to replace salesmen with women across the kingdom, as part of the drive to provide more jobs for females.
From 22 June, women such as Fardos will no longer be restricted to finding work in small, women- only shopping zones but will become employable in lingerie stores across the kingdom, at least in principle.
The Saudi labour ministry has warned that it will begin inspections to ensure men are not serving customers and those who fail to comply will face fines.
In reality, the edict could be difficult to implement. A survey in Jeddah found that of 247 shops selling lingerie and beauty products, only three employed women.
Once enough women are trained for the shop floor, windows will be blacked out and men will be barred from entering the premises, moves that consumer experts say are not conducive to boosting sales.
The salesmen who risk losing their jobs certainly see no benefits in having women on the shop floor. Samar Masri, a Syrian working in Lailaky Lingerie store in a Jeddah shopping mall, said 70 per cent of his customers were men buying for their wives.
“I think it’s good for a woman to get advice from a salesman. We know what looks good on them,” he said.
But working cheap lingerie sites women such as Fardos say the presence of women on perfume, make-up and lingerie counters would strengthen the economy by encouraging women – as well as their husbands – to spend.
“Of course it’s embarrassing to speak to a man about intimate things. I don’t like it when I go to a lingerie shop and the salesman tells me what cup size I should buy, or when a man touches my face because he is putting make-up on me,” she said.
There is little doubt over the newconfidence of the modern Saudi women. As young teenagers enter the segregated lift in the Kingdom Tower mall, they discard their headscarves and traditional abayas to reveal jeans and kitten heels.