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By your shoe size, ma'am, I'd judge you a C-cup

Why, despite a head-to-toe coverage rule, Saudi women must still buy their underwear from a man.

A Saudi woman shops at a mall with her children in Jeddah March 8, 2009. Some Saudi women are pressing the government to allow retail shops to hire female sales clerks to sell women's lingerie. (Susan Baaghil/Reuters)

RIYADH — Reem Asaad finds it annoying to buy her bras and panties from a man. But she doesn’t have much choice in the matter.

Although Saudi Arabia has the strictest gender segregation in the world, only men are hired as sales staff in most retail stores.

“We have men selling g-strings in stores to women which doesn’t happen anywhere in the world,” said Asaad.

But the 37-year-old professor of finance and banking is even more frustrated that a three-year-old regulation permitting female sales clerks has not been implemented.

For now, that regulation is languishing in the proverbial bureaucratic bottom drawer, a vivid example of the barriers to women in the workplace put in place by an ultraconservative religious establishment opposed to women working outside the home.

Asaad has launched what she calls “a consumer protection campaign” to force Saudi retailers to follow the regulation, but is facing an uphill battle.

“The religious establishment is against the empowerment of women, period,” adds Asaad. “They would like to limit them from taking care of their own finances.”

The lingerie saga began in 2006 with regulation #120 from the Ministry of Labor stating that only female sales clerks should be employed in stores selling women’s products.

The ministry thought they could kill three birds with one stone. The change would help the ministry’s efforts to provide jobs for Saudi women. It would give women a more comfortable consumer experience. And since women would be selling to women, it would reduce the “mingling” of genders that religious leaders reject.

But things are not always that easy in Saudi Arabia and the fine print of the regulation was telling: In order to overcome the concerns of conservative religious folk, the regulation required physical restrictions at stores designed to shield the presence of women staff from the shopping public.

For example, lingerie stores with female clerks had to have partitions around them so men could not see inside. They had to be locked from the inside. And men, who now accompany their wives or sisters into lingerie stores, would not be allowed to enter.

For retailers, the restrictions were profit-killers.

Not only would partitions be costly to build, but also they would defeat the purpose of having windows: to entice shoppers into stores.