A women’s revolution has begun in Saudi Arabia, although it may not be immediately evident. This fall, only a few dozen women got behind the wheel to demand the right to drive. Every female Saudi still has a male guardian—usually a father or husband—and few openly question the need for one. Adult women must have their guardians’ permission to study, to travel, and to marry, which effectively renders them legal minors. It took a decree from King Abdullah to put tens of thousands of them into the workforce. For the first time, they are interacting daily with men who are not family members, as cashiers in supermarkets and as salesclerks selling abayas and cosmetics and underwear.
One afternoon in late October, at the Sahara Mall, in central Riyadh, the Asr prayer was just ending. The lights were still dimmed in the mall’s marble corridor, but the Nayomi lingerie store had been unlocked. The rattle of steel and aluminum could be heard as security grilles were raised over nearby storefronts. Twenty-seven-year-old Nermin adjusted a box of perfume on a tiered display near the entrance, then turned to greet six saleswomen as they filed out of a storeroom, preparing to resume their shift. Nermin started working at Nayomi eighteen months ago, as a salesclerk herself. She was warm and engaging with customers, and was recently promoted to a position in which she oversees hiring and staff training for Nayomi stores across four Saudi provinces. All the employees wore long black abayas and niqabs, which revealed nothing but their eyes. They positioned themselves among the racks of bras, underpants, nightgowns, and foundation garments—black-cloaked figures moving against a backdrop of purples, reds, and innumerable shades of pink.
Nermin is one of the Nayomi chain’s longest-serving female employees. She was hired nearly a year after King Abdullah issued a decree, in June of 2011, that women were to replace all men working in lingerie shops. Early in 2012, on a visit to the Nayomi store in a mall near her house with her younger sister, Ruby, Nermin noticed a poster advertising positions for saleswomen. The sisters had never considered working, since there were virtually no jobs for women without a college degree or special skills. Nermin and Ruby mostly spent their days watching television, exercising, and surfing the Internet. In a blisteringly hot city with few parks, the mall was one of the only places to go for a walk. They filled out applications on the spot, and their family encouraged the idea. “I was surprised to find that I like to work,” Nermin said. Ruby, who got a job at the same store, is now the manager there. She wore its key on a yellow lanyard around her neck; pink-trimmed platform sneakers were visible beneath the hem of her abaya. After graduating from high school, she had spent four years feeling increasingly trapped at home, she said. “Nayomi gave me the chance to go on with life.”
Learn more about Saudi shopgirls through Pulitzer Center grantees Katherine Zoepf and Kate Brooks’s reporting project: “New Employment Opportunities for Saudi Women.”