Saturday, November 7, 2015

Naked Under My Burka II: The Decline of the Saudi Arabian Lingerie Industry


This is a partial follow-up to an earlier post. It has been given a Nihil Obstat by Cardinal Dolan.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a closed Muslim society. Its economy is also a great example of what the Marxists might call "state capitalism" with a mix of hyper-twentieth-first century consumerism and "medieval" attitudes and regulation.

The articles below describe the recent travails of the Saudi Arabian intimate apparel industry. It's notable partly for the questions it raises and things left unsaid or unexplained as much as for the story itself. Though I am a card carrying Islamophobe, who believes that Islam is more often than not the root explanation for phenomena that are often described as merely cultural, I don't know how much Islam itself is responsible for some of the quirkiness of Saudi Arabian society and culture. Most likely much of it is the partially unpredictable outcome of mixing Islam--largely Wahhabist Islam--with windfall profits and good old-fashioned cross-cultural human greed. This mix has been called "petro-Islam", often derogatorily by other Muslims.

Or perhaps whatever cultural and religious values people accept or that are imposed on them, even of the "conservative" variety, there will always be the desire to look sexy. Or wear frilly pink "things" or whatever.

Why are there so many lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia? If 7,127 shops constituted 40% of all lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia in 2012, that implies there were a total of 17,818 shops. With a population of 28 million, that's one shop for every 1,571 people, or 786 women or (if you exclude the elderly and children--a huge part of the total), arguably one shop for every 400 consumers.

In comparison, there are roughly 1,000 Victoria's Secret stores in the United States (with over ten times the population), which constitute one-third of the intimate apparel market. Dividing through by a somewhat larger proportion of female adult non-elderly consumers (I'm assuming 60% of all females as opposed to 50%), one gets one intimate apparel shop for every 30,000 consumers.

So, per capita, there are (or were) approximately 75 times the number of lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia as in the United States.

Who knew?

Come up with your own theories:

Saudi Arabian lingeries stores are really small, perhaps equivalent to street stalls: "Get your melons, hand-made rugs, hanging lamb innards, thongs and feather boas here!"

Living in Saudi Arabia is boring--especially for women. Buying lingerie gives them something to do. "Damn, I'm not allowed to drive. And I've seen all those streaming movies. I know, I'll buy another teddy!"

Saudi Arabian men like buying frilly stuff for their wives--well, at least those who have wives after the richest sheiks have snapped up multiple ones.

And so on.

Why are Saudi Arabian women such unreliable employees with chronic absentee and abandonment issues? I'm not blaming the women per se here, of course. But there must be something about the economy or culture that causes it. I've heard that with windfall oil profits generously filtering down (in one way or another) to most Saudi Arabian citizens, laziness, for lack of a better term, is endemic among both sexes. But what about the non-Saudi temporary workers--who many sources report keep the actual economy going? Do lingerie stores not pay that much? Why? If you were a Filipino migrant, wouldn't you rather work retail in a mall than serve tea and field harassment attempts from some abusive sheik?

One of the articles claims that it might be a function of the lack of "resting areas"  and bathrooms for women in Saudi Arabian malls. Is a "resting area" different from a bathroom? If so, where are the resting areas in my office?

Okay, I use my desk as a resting area, but still.

And why the shortage of female bathrooms? Granted, Saudi Arabia is almost the definition of a sexist society, but even so. Don't men own most (virtually all?) of these stores, and don't they have an interest in profits? Is it that hard to build a few extra bathrooms, especially if it means your stores won't go under and your wives can look more sexy indoors? Also, wouldn't the shortage of female bathrooms be noted by female consumers?

I find it all interesting and strange. And no, its not because I'm obsessed with Islam or middle-eastern women or female undergarments or whatever.

Stop snickering.

Here are the articles:

Okay, shut up, here are the news stories. You know what I mean:
Saudi shuts down 7,127 lingerie stores after police find men selling female wear 
(IBD, 1 November) Saudi Arabia has shut down over 7,000 lingerie stores after a police raid found the shops employing men to sell the items meant to be worn by women. 
Local newspapers said 7,127 shops were raided by the police after reports that they were employing men. The authorities have shut down the lingerie stores and have asked the owners to pay a fine of SR10,000 (about $2,600 or Rs 1.75 lakh), Emirates 24/7 reported. 
"During visits to markets, ministry inspectors caught 7,127 shops offending the new rules," said a Suadi ministry statement. The official statement added that the government was poised to intensify the raids to ensure compliance to the rule. 
In 2012, the late King Abdullah had issued a royal decree banning men from selling female ware at lingerie stores, following a series of complaint from women who said they felt uncomfortable buying wearables around "strange" men. 
Since then, nearly half the lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia have shut down as undergarment stores are unable to find women to work in them. 
According to the Saudi Gazette, the 2012 rule has been welcomed by Saudi women, but has hit businesses hard.

Nearly half of Saudi Arabia's lingerie shops shut after law allowing only women employees 
(IBD, 1 October) Nearly half of the lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia have shut down after the kingdom brought in a law that allowed only women to be employed at apparel and undergarment stores three years ago. 
Saudi Arabia had enforced the law in 2012 on a royal decree from the late King Abdullah, following voluble complaints from Saudi women who said they felt uncomfortable buying lingerie from men. 
While the women in Saudi Arabia have come to appreciate the rule, it has hit businesses hard, with investors claiming that over 40% of lingerie shops in the kingdom have closed down, according to the Saudi Gazette. 
Difficulty in employing enough women to work at lingerie shops was one of the main reasons for the businesses to shut shop, according to the report. 
High attrition rate among women was another factor for the setback to lingerie shop owners, who complained that most women left their jobs without notice while many remained absent for several days. 
The Ministry of Labour has now begun conducting field trip to shopping centres to investigate reasons for women's absence and to discuss the issue with the owners on creating a suitable environment for women. 
The labour ministry had said in 2012 that as many as 28,000 women, including many migrants, had applied for the jobs at the lingerie and apparel stores. 
"The reason why women leave their jobs at shops, according to what the ministry recorded in some shopping centers in Riyadh and Jeddah, is the lack of resting areas designated for women only," an official from the ministry told the Saudi new agency. 
The official also cited the lack of enough bathrooms as a reason women abstained from working in shopping centres. 
The law to allow only female employees at lingerie stores was implemented after years of campaigning by Saudi women, and was brought into force despite a warning from the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, that employing women was 'against Islamic Sharia law'.

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