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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Fatima Sadiya

19 August 2010

JEDDAH: The Saudi society has been debating on the Internet about the announcement by Panda supermarket chain that they will have women cashiers.

Many disagreed with the decision, believing it will only create more social problems and put Saudi women in embarrassing situations where they could be harassed by customers. Others, however, supported the idea believing that women have already been working in mixed environments for long time.

Arab News went to number of public places where women are selling, including Jeddah’s downtown (the Balad). Om Amir, a Saudi woman who sells henna and traditional clothing at the Bedouin Souq, said that she and her eldest daughter work the booth.

“We have been selling here for ages, I raised my children from what I sell here,” she told Arab News.

The Bedouin Souq contains many women plying their wares, not just Saudis but also Egyptians, Indonesians and Africans.

Meanwhile, in the malls of north Jeddah, only a handful of shops have female sales clerks and they’re all women-only establishments. Women also work in theme parks and play areas and bazaars at malls. Salaries range from SR1,500 and SR3,000 a month. About 16 women work now as cashiers in Roshan Mall in Jeddah to serve women and families.

The main criteria for women to work as cashiers is that they be Saudi, above 28 years of age, have a financial need, be a widow or divorced woman and stick to dress code that goes with the religion, a source said, adding that people who are against women working at these jobs should see the location before even criticizing them. “It will take time anyway to accept it but we will move forward anyway,” the source said.

In Saudi forums people have been criticizing the decision or supporting it based on their own views. Members of the public expressed concern that this could lead to harassment because women will meet young men and that could harm both of them. Other groups however said that though the idea is new the society can still consider it and get used to it with time.

“Our problem is that we go against that which is new even though it is permissible. There are women who already sell in public places. The whole issue is about social acceptance of these jobs,” wrote Sa’ad Al-Mutairi, a poet, at Qanof Forum.

Abdullah Al-Amri however expressed his dissatisfaction with the decision which he said is humiliating to Saudi women who might also end up working as maids and security guards.

Sheikh Mohammad Al-Habdan, the CEO of Al-Osra religious channel, told a local online newspaper that this decision violates the law of the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta, which states that women should not compete by going into men’s jobs.

“That is not permitted because it has disadvantages and leads to many harms,” he said. “Giving her that opportunity prevents men from having these job opportunities.” He said that women working as cashiers violate another bylaw of the Labor Ministry by which women are not allowed to work in mixed environments.

Former Shoura Member Mohammad Al-Zulfa attacked the conservatives who are against women working as cashiers. “They are not considering developing the society,” said Al-Zulfa who asked where the millions of girls who graduate are supposed to work. “These girls have the right to job opportunities. What is the problem if the Saudi women worked as cashiers in a shopping center or as a supervisor or sales agent or in lingerie shops?”

He called on the scholarly council to announce that there is no problem with women working. He said that scholars should clarify that this can benefit the country, especially that some women are paying the expenses of their families.

Al-Zulfa also added that people who go against women working in public places “have mixed the social traditions with their religious and their personal views.”

Saudi forums and social groups have been negotiating the matter ever since the general manager of the Jeddah Labor Office, Qusai Al-Filali, announced that Saudi women will soon work as cashiers in supermarkets.

Al-Filali added that this falls under the ministry’s requirements that include providing partitions, and giving the families the freedom to pay a man or a woman cashier.

See article at Zawya News

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