May 14, 2006

Saudi Arabia delays barring men from lingerie shops

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has postponed plans to
replace male sales assistants in lingerie shops, saying it
wants to give outlets more time to prepare for the move which
has irritated the influential religious circles.

The government, which wants more women to work as part of
its efforts to reduce reliance on foreign labor, took the
decision last June and businesses were given a year to prepare
for implementation.

"Based on pleas by shop owners ... that they were unable to
comply with the deadline, the ministry's decision is postponed
until all the required preparations are finalized," state news
agency SPA quoted the Labor Ministry as saying.

While women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from mixing with
men outside their immediate family in public, they have little
alternative to buying their most intimate items of clothing
from men.

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

A Western diplomat said the move had irritated some of the
most influential clerics in kingdom, where women are not
allowed to drive and face employment restrictions because of
the need to segregate sexes.

"The ministry may very well be honest in its argument (for
the postponement). But the facts hint at a setback for the
ministry future efforts in integrating Saudi women in the job
life," the diplomat said.

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