Uncalled-for rules will not help us progress

By : Sabria S. Jawhar

The Labor Ministry has decided it’s more important to protect women from the mysteries of interacting with men than with trifling things like employee rights.
In its wisdom that signals that it’s still 1979, the Labor Ministry has issued a decision that requires female employees to wear the niqab, respond to male coworkers’ work-related conversations with silence, and run and hide in the stockroom and curl up into a little ball to make themselves as small as possible every time a male customer enters the shop. This is all true, except I am taking literary license with the “running and hiding” part.

Here’s a short history of women in the workplace:

1) The Labor Ministry waffled for a good five or six years over whether to allow women to work in lingerie, accessories and abaya shops. The principal issue was whether a fully abayad and niqabed woman store clerk would sully her reputation and suffer degradation and humiliation if she sold underwear to a female customer. Then a Labor Ministry muck-muck woke up and said, “It’s possible, but let’s take a chance!”

2) Women were then allowed to become store clerks. The sky didn’t fall and women’s morals remained intact. They earn money, the baby gets new shoes, and they become productive members of society instead of obese couch potatoes. Life is good.

3) But wait! Men come into the shops with their wives. Partitions go up to create mini men and women’s sections. In the course of performing the most mundane chores known to man, i.e., purchasing boring stuff toothbrushes and hand cream, we have awkwardly transformed our 75-square-meter accessories shops by applying the same standards of segregation as with restaurants and conference centers.

The rules governing women in the retail workplace have worked out wonderfully well up until now. Young women are interacting with the public, earning a wage and making serious financial contributions to their families. There has been no sensational reporting by our reliable and fair-minded Saudi press that Saudi girls have gone wild with freedom and cash in their designer handbags. Rather, we have seen them flourish, gain self-confidence and remain remarkably and impressively professional about their work.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Violating the basic, but time-tested, philosophy that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the Labor Ministry decided to make it mandatory for all female employees to wear the niqab. They must minimize their interaction with male colleagues and let the guys deal with husbands who want to buy a piece of jewelry for their wives.

The Labor Ministry has now stepped into territory it has no business venturing. Wearing the niqab is a personal choice for women, whether they believe it’s a religious obligation or simply to protect themselves. It’s not the business of a ministry charged with workplace regulations.

As a nation, we are sensitive to the impediments of our rights as Muslims while we are abroad. We expect a degree of religious freedom and the freedom to wear what we choose while visiting foreign countries. It saddens us that France, for example, passed legislation banning the wearing of the niqab in public. We rage against laws that are passed with the sole purpose of marginalyzing Muslim women in public.

But we no longer can express that disappointment with any credibility because the Labor Ministry is using the same principle with a blanket order demanding that female workers wear the niqab regardless of their religious or personal preference. Like France, the ministry is imposing a dress code for reasons that can only be interpreted as isolating one segment of our society.

As is our habit in Saudi society, we find ways to pull back on the progress we have made to provide equal opportunities for men and women. For every significant step we take to ensure equality, we find a way to diminish that step.

We are so preoccupied with a woman’s honor; we fail to pursue the bigger picture that includes that honor. We allow women into the retail workplace, but don’t provide consistent, well-timed breaks. We don’t provide a space for privacy or a break room to rest. We pay them less than male workers. We don’t offer a transportation allowance and we allow fathers, sons and brothers to steal their hard-earned salaries.

These are the rights we should consider, not with invading people’s right to making personal choices.

Email: sabria_j@hotmail.com





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