Joining the Fight for Freedom at the Underwear Counter

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Lynsey Addario—II Network for TIME

A man's job With few females allowed to work, Saudi lingerie stores are almost entirely staffed by men

Majid wants to show me a negligee. It's on sale, and comes with a striped thong. When I demur, he eagerly shows me a frilly lace concoction in yellow. Quickly appraising my figure, enveloped in a black abaya, he ventures a guess: "D cup?" Without waiting for an answer, he trots over to a wall lined with lace and satin. The push-up bras are especially popular, he informs me. And the matching panties are three for the price of two. As he shows me more items, I idly wonder if his generous overestimation of my cup size is part of the sales pitch, like a bartender asking an older woman for her ID in the hopes of cadging a bigger tip.

In Saudi Arabia, where nearly every interaction between unrelated women and men is assumed to be illicit, the actual dimension of my bosom, or whether I prefer thongs to briefs, is not something I want to discuss with a strange male. But I have little choice. Like almost every store, lingerie shops are staffed exclusively by men. It's part of the country's policy of segregating the sexes at work. Sure, women can shop in the malls, but female sales assistants are limited to the few women-only floors of select shopping centers. Which is why Majid is now explaining to me the relative merits of spandex vs. elasticized lace.

Men like him may soon be out of a job, however. In a bid to combat the kingdom's 11% unemployment, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud recently ordered officials to clear the way for lingerie shops to appoint all-female staff. The hope is that local women will replace male staff, many of whom are foreign (Majid is Pakistani). For Saudi Arabian women, it was a welcome sign of common sense. And yet, on the same day as the long-hoped-for loosening of regulations, a council of religious scholars issued a fatwa reiterating prohibitions against men and women working together. Illogical as it may seem, the clerics don't mind men selling things to women, but object to mixed-gender workplaces.

It's another sign of tension between the royal family and religious conservatives. Since he came to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has enabled some reforms (permitting more women to work and slowly paving the way for female voting in municipal elections). At the same time, he is careful not to raise the expectations of his subjects for broader change. Although the Saudi "day of rage" protests called for March 11 passed in muted fashion, they had the leadership worried and grateful for the religious groups who came to its rescue by declaring the protests anti-Islamic. Now, in return for supporting the authorities, the conservatives want a brake on further liberalization. Clerics have condemned women taking to their cars in current acts of defiance against the ban on female driving.

Retailers, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about female-only lingerie shops. Kamal Jamjoom, head of Nayomi, the Gulf's largest lingerie retailer, concedes that they will make women feel more comfortable but believes sales will suffer. A few years ago, Nayomi experimented with women-only stores, but unsurprisingly had a hard time hiring experienced saleswomen. And to prevent voyeurs from ogling groups of women handling frilly lace, shop windows had to be covered — not ideal for luring passing trade.

A strict interpretation of clerical decrees could also see male customers banned, which would be bad for business. Couples "like to shop together," says Nayomi salesman Fahad Abdul Aziz. When women come alone, he says, they buy basic beige bra-and-panty sets. When they come with their husbands, they choose fancier merchandise. Men shopping for gifts also go all out, picking up items like one recent best seller — a black satin corset with a matching thong and bunny ears. "Customers like novelty," Aziz explains.

The thought of leaving lingerie saddens him. "I like my job because I am good at it," he says. I decide to put him to the test. With barely a pause he — unlike his more ingratiating colleague Majid — correctly assesses my size. Skills like that are in short supply, I tell him. Aziz shrugs. "This is my specialty, underwear. I will miss it."