Aside from certain fields such as academia and medicine, historically, women in Saudi Arabia have been confined to the role of housewife. It was not until relatively recently that female employees started to form a significant part of the workforce.

As a result of a number of social developments – including the increasing numbers of female graduates, the economic and financial needs of the population, and a focus on increasing the number of Saudis in the private sector – a number of government policies have been introduced designed to increase the number of female workers in Saudi Arabia. The retail sector specifically witnessed the implementation of several government policies in this respect.

In 2011 and 2012, the Ministry of Labour (MOL) issued two ministerial Decisions requiring certain businesses in the retail sector to employ Saudi females. The 2011 Decision required shops selling beauty products and lingerie to employ

Saudi female shop attendants. In 2012, the requirement to employ Saudi female shop attendants was extended to include shops selling women's evening and wedding gowns, accessories and the traditional abaya garment.

The idea of female shop attendants in Saudi Arabia is not entirely new, as it was common for women to work in women-only boutiques (where men are not allowed entry). However, the Decisions mean that women are working in public places (subject to certain conditions), a practice previously uncommon in a country known for its public segregation of men and women.

The Decisions set out certain protocols for employing females. Key points for retailers currently trading in, or proposing to enter the Saudi market, are as follows:

  • As a general rule, the law requires the segregation of male and female employees in the work place. Stores that sell items for men and women are an exception to this general rule, and employers may employ females as long as they work in separate sections of the store.
  • Employees are required to abide by the Islamic dress code.
  • Employers must take measures to accommodate the needs of their female employees, such as implementing strict security measures and providing closed and separate utilities for women.

However, there are several gaps in the Decisions in terms of substance and drafting. The Decisions only seem to address either boutiques that exclusively sell women's products, or large department stores that have distinct sections for different products. The law remains ambiguous when it comes to smaller stores that sell both male and female products, where those products are not in separate sections. This makes it difficult for business owners to simultaneously abide by the new obligation to employ females and the condition of segregation.

Moreover, the Decisions define women-related products as lingerie; evening and wedding gowns; abayas; and accessories, but do not address other women's apparel. This makes the position unclear for many stores that sell women's apparel extending beyond the limited scope of the definition of "female related products". Additionally, it is unclear what is meant by "accessories" and whether it includes bags and footwear or only ornamental accessories. However, the Decisions are relatively recent; it is likely that these ambiguities will eventually be explained or clarified, even if simply by practice.

Social response to the Decisions was varied and Saudi society was split between support and opposition of the Decisions. In May 2012, a case was made at the administrative court in Saudi Arabia by a businessman objecting to the compulsory nature of the Decisions. The court overturned the Decisions, stating that by allowing for the mixing of men and women the Decisions do not conform with Islamic traditions (as the court interprets them) and make women more vulnerable to harassment. The court's decision reflects the position of the more conservative segments of society. But, despite the judicial decision, the MOL, relying on previous decisions of the royal cabinet on providing more employment opportunities for women, is still applying the policies and carrying out enforcement measure to ensure compliance.

Although the Decisions address the employment of females in places that sell female-related products, these laws have paved the way for women's employment in the retail sector in general. As a result, in some parts of the country, there has been a general increase in female employees in shops selling generic items, such as furniture stores and supermarkets. Such anecdotal observations, however, may vary depending on the region: it is less common to see female employees in the more conservative and traditional regions of Saudi Arabia.

Social change almost always faces resistance. Although the changes introduced by the Decisions may be viewed as humble by some, in Saudi Arabia they are considered significant breakthroughs. Given that today, public attention has shifted towards promoting other rights and that government policies tend to eventually support and actively endorse rising demands, we could see further significant developments in the near future. Watch this space.

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