(Wo)manning the tills in Saudi Arabia: Women start work as shopkeepers


A decade of embarrassing discussions with salesmen about undergarment sizes and styles is coming to an end as Saudi Arabia implements the first phase of the Labor Ministry’s directives on hiring more women as shopkeepers.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz had ordered officials in June to set in place the requirements needed to allow only women to work in shops which sell women’s necessities, including perfume, cosmetics clothes, and child-care products. The step was welcomed by officials and businesswomen, especially since earlier attempts to create similar initiatives in 2006 had failed.

Then, efforts would be met with seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Take the case of Panda Supermarket which on August 2010 reassigned 11 women cashiers after prominent cleric Yusuf al-Ahmad called for a boycott of the store because it employed women.

Many preachers and conservatives have attacked the move by Panda to employ women as cashiers at that time. However, this directive is being seen as the result of a large social campaign led by women’s rights activist, 28-year-old Fatma Qaroub established a Facebook page called “Enough Embarrassment” which had around 11,000 supporters, both women and men. The page called for outlets where women could buy products in women-only stores.

Many women would boycott women’s clothing shops that hired only men only while others would fly to neighboring Gulf nations just to be able to shop.

The idea of a female shopkeeper is fairly new in a country that relies heavily on male manpower in general and places what many call “overprotective measures” for women to ensure a friendly work environment.

The debate on this topic has encompassed a wide range of views but seems to have now settled to the idea of women shopkeepers and finds out to have an over exaggerated judgment, many of whom made their first appearance in shopping malls in Jeddah recently.

Jeddah initiative marks the beginning of an auspicious trend for more shops and business owners to take the lead in hiring more women as cashiers or other positions at their stores, taking into consideration necessary measures and instructions from the labor ministry.

According to Qaroub, this shift in manpower is important for two reasons. First, it will lower the unemployment ratio among women and second, it will provide women with a better atmosphere to shop in and feel secure.

Saudi women make up 14.4 percent of the workforce ─ triple the rate in 1992 ─ according to a March 2010 study by Booz & Company found. Women’s unemployment rate is four times that of men.

Saudi labor ministry estimates that 28 percent of the Kingdom’s unemployed are women; the country’s official unemployment rate is 10.5 percent.

The “feminization” of Saudi employment across shops will officially begin early next year. The government estimates that this will create nearly 1.5 million jobs for Saudi women, said Ahmed Al Humeidan, a labor ministry undersecretary told Al Arabiya in July.

In related news, Saudi Arabia has banned gender-based salary
discrimination between men and women working in similar jobs, according to one of the new regulations announced by Labor Minister Adel Fakieh on July 2011.

The announcements are in line with the government’s “Saudization” plan, which is designed to encourage more nationals to work and remedy the escalating unemployment rate. The kingdom will also replace millions of expatriate workers with Saudis as part of the program.

The labor ministry has estimated that there are currently eight million foreign workers in the Kingdom, of which six million are employed in the private sector.