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Saudi Women Boycott Lingerie Shops Until They Start Employing Women

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Before her wedding last year, Huda Batterjee went abroad to buy her bridal lingerie _ she just couldn't bear the humiliation of discussing her most intimate apparel with a man. She had little choice: there are almost no saleswomen in Saudi Arabia. Now a group of Saudi women _ sick of having to deal with male sales staff when buying bras or panties, not to mention frilly negligees or thongs _ have launched a campaign this week to boycott lingerie stores until they employ women.

It's an irony of the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes. Only men are employed as sales staff to keep women from having to deal with male customers or work around men.

But in lingerie stores, that means men are talking to women about bras or thongs, looking them up and down to determine their cup sizes, even rubbing the underwear to show how stains can be washed out.

The result is mortifying for everyone involved _ shoppers, salesmen, even the male relatives who accompany the women.

"When I buy underwear in Saudi, some salesmen say, 'This is not the right size for you,'" said Batterjee. "You feel almost taken advantage of. Why is he looking at me in this way?"

So for her wedding trousseau, the 26-year-old went to neighboring Dubai to shop. She now lives in Virginia with her husband.

Heba al-Akki, a businesswoman who supports the boycott, said when she shops for underwear, "I go to a store, pick this, this and that and leave quickly. It's as if I'm buying illegal stuff."

It's not easy on the salesmen either.

At one lingerie boutique in a Riyadh mall Wednesday, salesmen blushed when asked about their jobs. All said they back the campaign to hire female sales staff.

"Even in such open regions as the U.S. and Europe, men do not sell underwear to women," said store manager Husam al-Mutayim, a 27-year-old Egyptian. "I don't let any of my female relatives buy underwear from men. It's just too embarrassing."

Mannequins _ headless in keeping with a ban on realistic depictions of women _ were displayed in the shop window dressed in modest pajamas. Inside, racks held an array of colorful bras, lacy panties and sexy nighties _ along with more day-to-day undergarments.

Under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law, women are required to cover themselves head-to-toe in black robes in public. But in the privacy of their own homes _ and bedrooms _ they can wear whatever they want, and sexy undergarments are popular.

But buying them is another story. Fitting rooms are banned in the kingdom _ the idea of a woman undressing in a public place with men just outside is unthinkable. So a woman is never sure she has chosen the right size until she gets it home.

"I have bras with sizes ranging from 32 to 38 because I can't get to try them on," said Modie Batterjee, Huda's sister and one of the boycott organizers.

Even male relatives get dragged into the embarrassment. Women are allowed to shop without a male relative, but husbands or brothers sometimes insist on coming along _ or the women want them there _ to ensure salesmen stay respectful.

Modie Batterjee recalls how her husband fled a lingerie store because he could not bear to hear her explain to a salesman that she wanted high-waisted underwear to hold in her tummy after their daughter's birth.

The boycott was launched on Tuesday by about 50 women who gathered in the Red Sea port of Jiddah at the Al-Bidaya Breast-feeding Resource and Women's Awareness Center, which is run by Modie Batterjee.

The aim is to push for implementation of a law that has been on the books since 2006 which says only female staff can be employed in women's apparel stores.

The law has never been put into effect, partly due to hard-liners in the religious establishment who oppose employing women in mixed environments like malls, where religious police are always on the lookout to keep men and women from interacting.

Hiring women would also deprive men of jobs in a country where more than 10 percent of men are unemployed.

"We are raising awareness and calling for the implementation of the law," said Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at Dar al-Hikma Women's College in Jiddah, who supports the boycott.

The campaign calls on women to shop at the country's few women-only lingerie stores. Usually stand-alone boutiques or located in malls that have women-only sections, these shops have no windows to ensure passing men cannot look in _ and giving women the freedom to actually try things on.

How much impact the boycott call will have is unclear. Almost 1,700 people signed an online petition posted by Asaad on the social networking Web site Facebook. A few Saudi papers have written about it, but the campaign depends mostly on word of mouth.

Not all women support the idea. At the Riyadh lingerie shop on Wednesday, one woman _ only her eyes visible through the black veil covering her face _ said she is suspicious of women-only lingerie shops.

"Bad things happen there," she said.

What might that be?

Women can sneak a picture of you changing with their mobile phones, she replied and refused to give her name.

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