You cannot find a city in Saudi Arabia, regardless of its size, whether it was a vast capital city like Riyadh, a costal city like al-Khubar or Jeddah, or an inland city like Tabouk, Hayel, al-Hafouf, Medina, Mecca or Abha, without seeing female street vendors in the central markets downtown, selling items such as simple food, clothes, textiles and accessories for the home or for children. They are trying to sell what goods they have to passers-by and the general public. This is happening everyday without a second thought, in a simple and safe manner without harassment or disturbance, with anybody doubting their intentions, and no harm being done to the women’s reputation or honour. Therefore, it was both a natural and anticipated development that one of the largest supermarkets chains [in Saudi Arabia] opted to recruit women as cashiers to account for their customers, whose only goal is to pay for their shopping and leave.
This is such a negligible issue, but there are those who considered this company’s actions as ‘hypocrisy’, ‘westernization’, or a ‘crime’, ‘debauchery’ and an ‘assault against the sanctity of God’. These labels were amongst other calculated descriptions launched against the innocent people involved. Having inquired about the type of women who apply and are appointed by the company’s initiative, I discovered that the majority of them receive a low income and include widows and the divorced, who support their children or their sick parents. Thus, in all cases they were suffering from utter financial destitution, and for them, this work was neither an ‘amusement’ nor was it a means to fill their leisure time. It is rather something of great importance in order to support themselves, address their needs and refrain from begging, which is both humiliating and degrading.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exerted great efforts in the education of women and in implementing a curriculum and infrastructure to serve the female half of society. This aims to eradicate illiteracy and provide girls with the necessary knowledge to serve as a tool in their hands, in case they decide to enter the labour market for a living. However, even today, there are still objections to women working, which is incomprehensible. According to the justification provided by radical networks, and on some websites, if women work in supermarkets they are vulnerable to the danger of [gender] mixing. Yet, those who provided that justification have overlooked the fact that in a supermarket – just like any other market – mixing is understandable, and it is natural to see families come shopping, and leave in peace. But to have an organised campaign to boycott these shops and threaten their owners, curse them and defame them in the name of religion, is something that needs to be seriously reconsidered. Especially when we consider that these shops, in taking such a step, are only helping these women in dire need to support themselves, by practically applying the principle of social solidarity, preserving the dignity of women as well as their families.
Of course, this organised campaign, complete with its Shariaa fallacies, has put the company under pressure, forcing it to cancel its initiative of hiring ‘female cashiers’, whilst implying that it had retracted the idea. Women in Saudi Arabia work virtuously, honourably and in a dignified manner in several sectors, as is evidenced by the noteworthy successes they have achieved in the medical sector.
The Saudi memory is still vivid regarding those who objected to female education, and the angry voices that used to condemn government measures in this regard. However, now the number of female graduates exceeds their male peers, yet the labour issue remains a formidable obstacle in their path.
Recent Saudi heritage is full of stories and tales about women in pastoral farming, agriculture, harvesting, buying and selling, and trade. This is was natural role that women performed without such drama or exaggeration, because these roles were derived from human instinct. True Islam has adopted these instincts and shielded itself from the pollution of social ignorance, which produces extremism and radicalism.
For a woman, to work as a cashier in a store that is open to the public and in which she is not vulnerable to any harassment, is both acceptable as has been permitted by wise Muslim scholars. It is dangerous to consider her work in such a respectful firm something that “contradicts Shariaa.”