RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia confirmed on Tuesday women would replace male sales assistants in lingerie shops from next month, ending an awkward anomaly in the ultra-conservative Islamic state.
The government, which wants more women to work as part of its efforts to diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy and reduce reliance on foreign labor, took the decision last June and businesses were given a year to prepare for implementation.
Many clerics and Islamists in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam which imposes a strict version of Sunni Islam, have opposed the idea as the start of reform process promoted by King Abdullah that they fear will liberalize the stringent system.
“Concern for women’s role and their participation in society’s development has been in the works for 25 years,” official news agency SPA quoted Labor Minister Ghazi Algosaibi as saying.
Algosaibi, who is despised by hardline Islamists as a liberal reformer, said plans to allow women to work in other sectors of the economy would also go ahead, citing a group of government-backed clerics who have approved the reforms.
While women in Saudi Arabia are not supposed to mix in public with men outside their immediate family, they have little alternative to buying their most intimate items of clothing from men.
Women, who are not allowed to drive or vote, also face employment restrictions because of the need to segregate sexes.
The Labor Ministry has said the women’s shops must be designed to prevent anyone from outside looking in, and that women’s sections in larger shops should have separate entrances.