Saudi fatwa bars women from cashier jobs

Saudi clerics challenge govt women jobs policy

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Saudi Arabia's top clerics have challenged the government's policy to expand jobs for women with a fatwa ruling that they should not work as cashiers in supermarkets, media reports said on Monday.

The official fatwa issuing body said that "it is not permissible for a woman to work in a place where they mix with men," the news reports said.

"It is necessary to keep away from places where men congregate. Women should look for decent work that does not make it possible for them to attract men or be attracted by men," it said.

The ruling came from the Committee on Scholarly Work and Ifta, the official issuer of fatwas, or religious rulings, under the Council of Senior Scholars, the top authority for Islamic issues in the kingdom.

The fatwa was in response to a question -- published with the ruling -- asking specifically if women should work as cashiers in supermarkets.

The ruling was unambiguous, and signed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the head of the Senior Scholars Council, and six other members of the fatwa committee.

The fatwa came some four months after the labor ministry quietly authorized stores in the western city of Jeddah to employ women as cashiers, in an attempt to open up opportunities for women who are forcibly segregated from men under the strict Saudi version of Sunni Islam.

The first to test the policy was the Saudi-owned Panda chain, which started by putting 16 Saudi women to work at one store in the Red Sea city to test the concept.

While there were grumbles from clerics, there were no concerted challenges, and at least two other popular chains, Marhaba supermarkets and Centrepoint, a general department store chain, had moved to employ women cashiers.

In an attempt to adhere to the spirit of the rules, Panda set up separate check-out lines for families and women, but not for single men, in the way that Saudi restaurants are separated into sections for men and for women and families.

However, that apparently has not satisfied the conservative clerics -- even though shoppers themselves in supermarkets around the kingdom are not segregated.