x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Saudi Arabia's social revolution woven from silken finery

Profile: The day it all started, Reem Asaad only wanted to see what the lingerie would look like on.

Reem Asaad, whose annoyance at the behaviour of a man working in a lingerie shop sparked a campaign that led to male assistants being replaced by women. Courtesy Warwick Economic Summit
Reem Asaad, whose annoyance at the behaviour of a man working in a lingerie shop sparked a campaign that led to male assistants being replaced by women. Courtesy Warwick Economic Summit

The day it all started, Reem Asaad only wanted to see what the lingerie would look like on.

But this was Saudi Arabia and there were no changing rooms to look at the item privately. Even the picture on the price tag had been covered with a sticker by censors. So she tried to peel the label off.

Unfortunately for Ms Asaad, the act did not go unnoticed, attracting the attention of the eagle-eyed male shop assistant, who shouted at her fearing the fallout from the religious police.

But her reaction, although quiet, made a much bigger noise - sparking nothing short of a social revolution. Ms Asaad, who works in investment advisory and sales at Saudi Fransi Capital bank led a successful campaign to enforce a law in Saudi Arabia to replace male shop assistants in lingerie and cosmetics stores with women.

"If you think about it, it was a silly story that happens every day," says Ms Asaad, who was named third in a list of 500 of the world's most powerful Arabs by Arabian Business magazine last year.

"It wasn't a big deal. But what came out of it was my drive to change things."

But her immediate reaction that day was to open the packet containing the underwear and hand them over to the store clerk.

"I asked him to open the knickers up and stretch them out in his arms," she says, laughing. "I was a difficult customer. I was not going to settle for this. I think I had a lot of time on my hands back then. He was embarrassed. He was blushing, and I was enjoying it."

Once she got home, Ms Asaad started up a Facebook page calling for male shop assistants to be replaced by women.

That was in 2008.

The page gained momentum over the next few months, but the tipping point was an Arab News article that was picked up by the BBC in 2009.

The story went global, and Ms Asaad became an instant celebrity. A Saudi royal decree enacting the law followed two years later in 2011.

"It was gratifying to finally be able to create and induce a change on a social level, on a public level," she says.

But the law, as she points out, already existed, being introduced in 2005. It just had not been implemented. The authorities had been dragging their heels, fearing the reaction of some sections of society in the conservative country.

"You have to mention this," suggests Ms Asaad during our interview. "The reason why I think this campaign is important is that it signified to the authorities the readiness and preparedness for social change because all major changes pertaining to women in this country are attributed to social readiness and preparedness and acceptance.

"That is constantly the quote by the government. Women driving? It's something that is dependent on the society, the social acceptance. Women working? It is depending on social acceptance."

The campaign proved that society was ready for a change. In fact, more than 28,000 women applied for the jobs, according to the kingdom's labour ministry.

Ms Asaad admits that the fact the campaign involved issues relating to women's underwear probably helped it to garner more media attention. But she insists that it is about more than just lingerie.

"It's a social movement telling everybody that this is a new generation that is willing to accept work that was previously stigmatised or belittled," says Ms Asaad.

"This was a revolution on many fronts. The social preparedness, the kinds of jobs that society is willing to assume, the readiness of women to take on these jobs and the economic need. Most importantly the economic need that will drive women to accept US$1,000 [Dh3,673] per month."

Ms Asaad interviewed a number of the women who have taken on the sales roles, and many were in desperate need of work to help to support their families.

Previously they did not have access to health insurance, and now they do.

"We are talking about an overhaul. It's not simple change. This is an overhaul."

The only campaign with the potential to equal it is the call to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia. You might assume Ms Asaad is among its staunchest supporters, but you would be wrong.

"I do not oppose it but I know that logistically speaking and practically speaking a lot of women don't want to drive in this country, and probably myself being one of them," she says. The accident rate is high, and the infrastructure is not great, she adds.

"If one us got into a problem there would be very little support. It's more dangerous than many people like to believe it is.

"That's why you don't see me involved in calls for women driving."

However, she supports the idea of women driving in principle and has even held a licence for the past 15 years from the United States. She lived there while studying for her MBA, and planned to stay and work in America but the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which happened a couple of months before her graduation, changed everything.

"There was no way as a Saudi citizen I would have got a working opportunity there. I felt such a dramatic loss because I was lining up interviews and it was such a great opportunity, but I was not able to pursue it."

Ms Asaad returned to Saudi Arabia and took a job with the National Commercial Bank, which turned out to be a good move financially. Within five years she had enough money to buy a house.

"If you ask me how I went on the women's empowerment path, that was the beginning. The fact that I felt that I owned property and I was financially independent pushed me in that direction, pushed me to encourage more women to pursue the same path, whether in banking or other [sectors]."

But Ms Asaad also credits her parents with inspiring in her interest in women's empowerment issues.

Her mother has always worked and her father supported her ambitions, paying for her to attend university in the US at a time when there were none of the Saudi scholarship programmes for women that exist today.

"The 1990s were not a very good era in the Saudi landscape. Things were very limited for women," she says.

Times have changed, and although progress may seem slow from the outside, she insists women's employment prospects are now a lot brighter.

"It's not that bad, by the way. It's happening.

"This campaign has opened doors for women in every sector, not just in lingerie, not just in cosmetics. In every front desk you will find a woman today."

But that does not mean she is ready to stop campaigning.

"I don't know what's next. I think financial awareness remains to be something that all women need. This is also a humongous cause. Women need to be financially independent and they are on their way."