A new decree from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Labor, expected to be formalized in the next few days, will mean that Saudi men are barred from buying and selling “feminine products” like women’s clothes, makeup and hygiene products.
On its face, it seems like another step to fully segregate the sexes. But for once, Saudi Arabia might be pushing segregation for the right reason—women’s protection.
Sexual harassment is a huge problem in Saudi Arabia, and only recently have women been empowered to organize and speak out via social media. Videos of men stalking women through shopping malls have gone viral on YouTube, capturing the world’s attention, as well as the attention of women’s rights activists who wonder why a Saudi woman can’t shop on her own in peace. This new labor rule aims to change that, and has the backing of the public.
A study conducted by a female Saudi researcher about “sexual harassment of women” on a sample of women aged between 18 and 48 has shown that 78% of respondents claimed to have experienced sexual harassment directly, while 92% said that sexual harassment is on the rise. The study found that 27% of them have been subjected to verbal harassment; 26% were subject to “tarqim” attempts, which is the attempt to pass on a phone number; 24% were subject to harassment by looks; and 15% were physically touched.
This editorial cartoon helps explain why men will soon be prohibited from working in departments that sell women’s clothes:
Additionally, stores that sell these products will have to put up signs that say men aren’t allowed in, or that their establishments are for families only (i.e. no single men).
The latest move is in line with other social trends in the country, like restaurants that allow only families to dine on Fridays and Saturdays. At the time that story was published, Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations noted that “there is suspicion in Saudi society of single men. There might be establishments that want to minimize risk.”
Much of the chatter on Twitter in Arabic about the decision was supportive, like this user, who wrote “women have the right to security and the right to buy clothes on their own—away from the sight of male employees and other shoppers.”
In the past, Saudi politicians have blamed the problem of harassment on laws that allow women to shop in markets. Rather than limiting women’s freedom of movement, the Ministry is taking the opposite tack and banning the main source of harassment: the men.