May 9, 2006

Saudi women to work in lingerie shops next month

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia confirmed on Tuesday women
would replace male sales assistants in lingerie shops from next
month, ending an awkward anomaly in the ultra-conservative
Islamic state.

The government, which wants more women to work as part of
its efforts to diversify the country's oil-dependent economy
and reduce reliance on foreign labor, took the decision last
June and businesses were given a year to prepare for

Many clerics and Islamists in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace
of Islam which imposes a strict version of Sunni Islam, have
opposed the idea as the start of reform process promoted by
King Abdullah that they fear will liberalize the stringent

"Concern for women's role and their participation in
society's development has been in the works for 25 years,"
official news agency SPA quoted Labor Minister Ghazi Algosaibi
as saying.

Algosaibi, who is despised by hardline Islamists as a
liberal reformer, said plans to allow women to work in other
sectors of the economy would also go ahead, citing a group of
government-backed clerics who have approved the reforms.

While women in Saudi Arabia are not supposed to mix in
public with men outside their immediate family, they have
little alternative to buying their most intimate items of
clothing from men.

Women, who are not allowed to drive or vote, also face
employment restrictions because of the need to segregate sexes.

The Labor Ministry has said the women's shops must be
designed to prevent anyone from outside looking in, and that
women's sections in larger shops should have separate