Saudis expressed shock after the Committee on Scholarly Work (known as Ifta), issued a new fatwa (religious ruling) prohibiting women from working as cashiers in the kingdom’s supermarkets. The fatwa reads, "It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men, which might cause attraction from both sides."
The fatwa was issued after conservative preachers called for a boycott of supermarkets that employ women cashiers.
Most fatwas that curtail women’s freedoms are built on rather peculiar reasoning. Male and female shoppers are generally permitted to mix at grocery stores, but allowing a woman to scan a man’s purchases apparently crosses into unacceptable tempting territory. Some businesses that hired female cashiers in recent months even set up separate checkout lines for men and women, but it seems that in the eyes of the clerics, females cashiers are considered too much of a threat.
Until recently all stores, from those in glittering malls to the stalls in the souk (market), were staffed by males only. In July 2012, King Abdullah made a “bold and aggressive” move.
As a response to the high jobless rate (28 per cent) of women in his country, Abdullah began promoting his "Saudisation" policy to boost the number of women in the workplace. Immediately, women began working in cosmetic, lingerie and perfume shops. Shortly thereafter, the labor minister, Adel Faqih, issued an order that allowed women to work as cashiers in supermarkets, and most major supermarkets began hiring women cashiers.
The uproar began almost immediately as preachers and conservatives spoke out against the new ruling as being anti-Islamic and against the teachings of the Koran. In November a fatwa was issued by the Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom’s official fatwa issuing body, stating, "It is not permissible for a woman to work in a place where they mix with men."
The decree was signed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the head of the council, and six other members of the fatwa committee. The fatwa explicitly addressed women cashiers, saying, "Cashier jobs were not permissible because they resulted in the women mixing with unrelated men, which is prohibited under Saudi Arabia's ultra-strict form of Islam."
Many Saudi scholars and women activists expressed anger, outrage and confusion at the new fatwa which directly contradicted the official government ruling that specifically allowed women to work as cashiers.
Fawzia al-Bakr, a professor at Riyadh's King Saud University said, "The progressive women are outraged. It is not just about a woman working as a cashier … There are more than 60,000 women university graduates looking for jobs, so this is a big thing … The clerics do not take into consideration the social and economic reality of society.".
Many other scholars also questioned the fatwa, which did not quote or cite any Koranic verse or literature in support of the ruling and was issued at record speed.
Despite the criticism, the Saudi clerics did not rescind the fatwa, however, they did commission a study to determine its validity.
The study, which was just released, was done by Mohammad al-Bogami, a scholar at the university. It quoted a number of religious rulings handed down by upstanding imams and religious scholars confirming that is it is forbidden to hire women as cashiers, since the employment of women in this profession serves as a “gateway” for women to be tempted by men.
Going further than the original fatwa, Bogami said that employing women as cashiers is actually a form of human trafficking similar to sexual exploitation, organ trafficking and forced labor. Human trafficking does not only refer to people who sell their bodies, he contended, but extends to any form of slavery or sexual exploitation.
The study stated that, according to the fatwa, women should seek work where they will not attract men or be attracted to them.