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Monday, April 21, 2014

Activist for Getting More Saudi Women Into the Workforce Plans Book

When Reem Asaad started what would become a successful campaign to require Saudi lingerie shops to hire female workers, she had no idea how it would turn out.

Ms. Asaad, a financial adviser and mother of three girls who lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, had started a Facebook group in 2008 calling for stores to hire women because it was embarrassing and inconvenient to interact with male clerks about underwear.

It wasn’t intended as a full campaign, but others encouraged her to continue.

“I had no plan, but I just kept going,” Ms. Asaad said during a recent visit to The Times to discuss her new project, a book about her experiences and those of other Saudi women that she is writing with the New York-based author Rahilla Zafar. “Someone told me, ‘You have to have some actionable steps.’ I thought, boycott.”

The boycott ended in 2012, when the kingdom began enforcing a royal decree requiring stores that sell products intended for women, like lingerie and cosmetics, to hire female workers. Supermarkets and other apparel shops also began to hire women under the new policy.

The successful campaign taught Ms. Asaad crucial lessons about persistence â€" and also about the importance of documenting activism and social change, to provide a resource for future change-makers.

“In a country like mine, the people who are looking forward, we who have progressive views of the future, don’t necessarily have a manual, a guide to how to do things,” she said. “We just need to carve the way.”

“We dictate the future.”

Ms. Zafar’s first book, “Arab Women Rising,” was written with the journalist Nafeesa Syeed and published online by Knowledge@Wharton this year. Ms. Zafar and Ms. Syeed profiled 35 female entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa. Ms. Asaad wrote the introduction. (The entire book is available for free download here.)

The new book, still untitled, will profile successful Saudi women, from a variety of backgrounds, who are forging new paths in an evolving but insular country.

Women in Saudi Arabia are required to get permission from a male guardian to travel, marry and conduct other business. They are also barred from driving and required to wear abayas and headscarves in public. It is a very traditional culture that is difficult for outsiders to fully understand and appreciate, Ms. Asaad said.

“We’re going to take a look back at life in Saudi in the past, in the present time and what it may look like in the future given the current trends,” she said of the book.

The country, which boasts very high rates of social media use, has seen growth in technology innovation and entrepreneurship.

“The youth is leading that trend, and they’re largely aided by progressive women, financially and ideologically,” Ms. Asaad said.

Having a female clerk ring up shoppers might sound insignificant, Ms. Asaad said, but the change had important cultural implications as thousands of women joined the work force.

“They run them from A to Z,” she said of the stores. “From inventory to finance and accounting, to front-line jobs in sales and customer service, customer care and problem-solving. We are seeing an increasing number of capable women who are playing increasingly important roles within the organizations.”

Well-educated Saudi women had already been active in education and health care, as well as finance. But retail opened up new avenues for women, including those who had not worked previously.

“That means more independent women, that means more empowered mothers,” Ms. Asaad said. “That means more informed and more tolerant future generations.

“I’m quite optimistic.”