Using colorful bras donated by employees at Victoria's Secret, a group of 26 mostly Saudi women completed the first course of its kind to be offered in the kingdom — how to fit, stock and sell underwear — a training organizers hope will help boost a campaign to lift the ban on women selling underwear in the kingdom.
The graduates held a small ceremony at a college in the western seaport of Jiddah on Tuesday, capping 40 hours of instruction during which they learned to overcome their embarrassment at doing bra fittings, deal with customer complaints and display the stock in an appealing manner.
"It was a beautiful experience," said Faten Abdo, a 32-year-old coordinator in the offices of a lingerie company.
"The most shocking thing for me was the bra sizes," she added. "We didn't know how to get proper measurements before."
The 10-day course comes three months after a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to boycott lingerie stores until they employ women. Almost all the stores in the kingdom are staffed by men. The only exceptions are a few women-only boutiques, some of them inside popular shopping centers.
The restrictions are ironic in a country that goes to great lengths to segregate the sexes. Men and women, for instance, who are not close relatives cannot stand in the same line at fast-food outlets or even be in the same car together. Conservative clerics have strong influence on government and society, and they ban anything they believe might lead to women's emancipation, such as driving or voting.
But those pushing for saleswomen in lingerie stores say they were tired of discussing intimate details with male staff and enduring their scrutiny when they ask for a particular cup size.
Their aim is to push for implementation of a law that has been on the books since 2006 which says only female staff can be employed in women's apparel stores. The law has never been put into effect, partly due to hard-liners in the religious establishment who oppose employing women in mixed environments like malls.
Because of the mortification many women feel ordering bras, thongs and negligees, the lack of trained sales staff and the absence of fitting rooms — they're banned because the idea of a woman undressing in a public place is unthinkable — many women end up with the wrong underwear size.
The training was the idea of Suhair al-Qurashi, head of the private Dar al-Hekma College, according to Reem Asaad, a finance lecturer at the college and the main force behind the boycott campaign.
"She wanted the training to be a part of the solution because the industry was complaining that there's a lack of qualified (women) in the market who can run and manage lingerie stores," said Asaad. "So we covered fitting and technical issues, we covered selling and handling customer complaints."
The trainer was an Australian woman who had heard about the boycott campaign online and then offered to give the course.
A group of Victoria's Secret employees who also heard about the campaign on Facebook sent a box filled with colorful cotton bras to be used in the training, according to Asaad.
Suzanne al-Hindi, 33, one of 26 graduates, said she and the other women were shy at first to role-play and do fittings on each other, "but we got over it."
British consul-general in Jiddah Kate Rudd said she attended Tuesday's ceremony to show support for the idea that women should be allowed to play a more active role. "It was a small step, but perhaps from this little drop there will be bigger ripples," said Rudd.