Saudi Government Orders Separation of Male and Female Salespeople in Retail Stores

Retail stores that employ women must install a partition to separate them from their male colleagues according to a new memorandum of understanding signed by the Ministry of Labor and the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Sunday. The partition should be at least 160cm high and stores have only 30 days to comply with the new regulations or risk punishment, SPA said.

The Saudi Ministry of Labor has pushed in recent years to encourage more women to join the workforce by forcing retail stores to employ female salespeople for certain items like lingerie and cosmetics. This decision has faced strong resistance from religious conservatives who warn that the mixing of genders at the workplace would lead to the Westernization of society. After a group of clerics visited MOL last December to protest the employment of women, CPVPV chief Abdul-Latif Al Alsheikh criticized the Ministry for failing to maintain a “good clean environment” for women working at retail stores.

This public criticism by the CPVPV chief has probably prompted MOL to seek a compromise in order to continue implementing their policy that aims to employ more women, especially with the unemployment rate among Saudi women reaching 36 percent according to the latest number released by the Central Department of Statistics and Information.

But gender segregation remains a contentious issue in the conservative kingdom which practices a strict interpretation of Islam. Minister of Labor Adel Fakeih admitted last year that resistance by religious conservatives is making it difficult for his ministry to implement its women employment policy, but he denied allegations of Westernizing society. “We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we’d like our families to continue to be,” he told the Washington Post last November. “We don’t want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle.”