Riyadh: Saudi Arabia`s leading
supermarket chain has broken the country`s strict taboo on
women working in public with a pilot programme of women
cashiers, a company official said.
Panda hypermarkets has put 16 Saudi women to work
at one store in the Red Sea city of Jeddah to test the concept
in a country where Islamic conservatives have prevented women
from working in gender-mixed environments.
"The women, compared to men, are really hard
workers," Panda spokesman Tarik Ismail told AFP.
"If everything goes okay, then we will expand the
programme (in) the kingdom," he said yesterday.
Ismail said the company has been quiet about the
move due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A conservative Islamic educator has already called
for a boycott of Panda due to the mixing, but it is not yet
clear whether that has had any impact.
Operating more than 100 retail stores across the
country, the United Azizia Panda Co, owned by publicly listed
foods giant Savola, already employs women sales clerks in its
hypermarket in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
But inside Saudi Arabia, Islamic conservatives have
for decades enforced a prohibition against unrelated men and
women mixing in the workplace.
The result is that nearly all retail sales are
conducted by men.
A Jeddah University business professor, Reem Asaad,
has been campaigning since 2008 to force the labour ministry
to allow women sales clerks in lingerie shops, but with little
The caution in the test suggests how sensitive and
revolutionary the idea is, in a country that bans women from
driving and forces them to cover up in shroud-like black
abayas and face-covering veils when in public.
The test was permitted by the local labour office
in Jeddah, the relatively progressive Saudi city where the
kingdom`s ultra-conservative rules on women are more loosely
Inside the HyperPanda market in the Roshan mall in
a wealthy area of Jeddah, the female cashiers are sectioned
off in check-out lanes "reserved for women and families."
That models Saudi restaurants, which have separate
sections for men and for women and families.
Unlike their male counterparts, the new cashiers
are not in Panda uniforms, instead wearing abayas and veils.
Ismail stresses that the company has mainly hired
"needy" women -- those who lack other sources of income.
"We want to help them," he said.