Fashionable Protests: The Unexpected Source of Saudi Women’s Independence

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With the glut of oil and rising Sunni – Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure all of us have been wondering,”what happens if the Saudi regime actually falls?”  The impact will be dramatic, no doubt.  The region will be in that much more turmoil. But I can’t help imagine what would happen after all the potential catastrophe.  In particular, how would society change — the social strata and gender dynamics? After so many years of limitations, could Saudi women actually fulfill the independence they so deserve? This question reminds me of a post I wrote a year ago based on a New Yorker article about Saudi women called “Shopgirls” by Katherine Zoepf.  This story shows a glimmer of women’s liberation.  What’s interesting is that these seeds of independence aren’t starting in the schools or the home but in the beauty and fashion subcultures.  Read below for the edited down version.

In June 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that women could, no, should, replace men in shops where female customers are seeking intimate items.  First the law referred to lingerie shops and then the law extended to other typical feminine spaces like apparel and cosmetics, and even into supermarket checkout counters.  For women who have not gone to college (and there are many), this is their first opening to a sort of financial independence.

To us Westerners, that should feel like a “no duh”, especially in a country with such rigid rules restricting contact between the sexes.  Wouldn’t you rather be told your true bra size from a woman than a man?!  Ironically, there are many protesting such laws because they fear women (that is, the shop girls) will be in that much more contact with men.

The article certainly highlights the intimidation and family pressure many people receive once starting to work.  It ain’t easy.  But it also shows how much more confident and happy these shop girls are.  Instead of living secluded lives at home or maybe in the malls shopping, these women can learn a skill, broaden their social network and secure themselves against financial ruin (the divorce rate is high in Saudi Arabia and often women lose custody of their children because they can’t afford to care for them).

While so many of us independent, well-educated Western women love make-up and a cute bra or two, we would probably think the last place women would gain a sense of freedom and independence would be at a Victoria’s Secret shop or at the Macy’s make-up counter. But in Saudi Arabia, these places may not only be wonderful, liberating places for women, but may actually prove to be the spark to set in motion so much more change.

What strikes me about this story is how people will find interesting and unexpected ways to assert themselves.  For some it’s beauty for others it may be music or sports.  Let’s not think that just because some people are pushed down by society that they can’t find ways to rebel and eventually fulfill their dreams for a better life.  The key is to open our eyes, look for those sparks and help ignite them further.