Aside from listening to a male Saudi on the subject, there is nothing quite so exasperating as reading a Western man’s chipper views on what he sees, from time to time, as liberating measures for the lucky ladies in veils. It’s touching, the changes that male outsiders consider revolutionary among women who cannot drive. This time it is, strangely, Thomas W. Lippman of the Middle East Institute in the New York Times, and what Lippman is braying about is that—we’ve all been waiting for this remarkable sign of progress—some Saudi women are now permitted to work in Saudi lingerie shops and sell bras and panties and such to other Saudi women.
This is the kind of advance that, I am certain, warms the heart (or something) of many a man outside the desert kingdom, because, aside from being allowed to see everything of the female form, there’s nothing quite so enticing to those suffering from the heartbreak of satyriasis as glimpsing absolutely nothing at all. It leaves so much to the imagination.
But I am not so sure it spells female Saudi emancipation. No, not even the beginnings of “a social revolution,” as Lippman insists straight off in his opinion piece. In fact, I’m pretty sure what it spells is more of the same. Men are no longer allowed to sell lingerie to women, as used to be the case, because women, by which we mean decent, good, modest, religious, and easily embarrassed women, need to hide themselves from the searching gaze of the guy behind the counter.
So what, after all, is this new Saudi decree, backed by King Abdullah, but a commercial reiteration of a vital passage from the Koran, 24:30-31? Here it is:
And say to believing women … / That they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; / That they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty / Except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers / Their sons, their husband’s sons / Their brothers or their brothers’ sons or / Their sister’s sons or their women or / The slaves whom their right hands possess or / Male servants free of physical needs or / Small children who have no sense of the shame of sex.
Well you get the general idea: no exemptions in the Koran for, say, the eager salesman at your Jeddah Victoria’s Secret boutique. It’s entirely possible that these lingerie employees, unlike slaves or even small children, might have a “sense of the shame of sex.” You never know. And boy, does that ruin the sales pitch for a D-cup.
So the fact that King Abdullah has, to quote Lippman, “put his personal authority behind the new decree,” insisting that only women can sell flimsy nothings to other women—or that Saudi lingerie and cosmetics shops must put women behind the counters by June, thereby releasing the men from their shameful profession—means only one thing. The unveiled woman, the woman who buys nighties or lipstick, is still viewed as nothing more than a fast passage to sin. And the best way to avoid that temptation, the kind of temptation only a woman can present, is to remove unrelated men and non-slaves from her company, as the Koran advises.
Should we cheer the Saudi woman for her the latest job opportunity that has come her way? I suppose. It’s nice to know that some women in that peculiar country will be able to earn a salary (although let’s wait until June to find out if their salaries will be commensurate with those once earned by their male lingerie counterparts). It’s pleasant to speculate on the sorts of rights they may demand once they feel relatively flush.
But to my mind the latest round of applause greeting this so-called reform for Saudi women, this unlikely sign of emancipation, is reminiscent, oddly, of the mass outcry that accompanied the stripping and beating of the “Blue Bra” victim during the riots in Egypt in December. It isn’t simply a piece of normally hidden lingerie that unites the two incidents. It is shame. In Cairo, there was a mass sense of shame not because a woman was beaten—but because she was, as videos show, stripped by soldiers down to her bra during an attempted (and thus far, failed) revolution.
And in Saudi Arabia, there is also humiliation. Shame not that a woman possesses almost no rights compared to men, but that she should have to subject herself to the scrutiny of men who are not her sons. There may be revolutions in the offing in both nations—political as well as sexual—but so far we have seen no real signs of them.