SAUDI ARABIA

A tailor’s ‘sexual’ gesture outrages conservatives in Saudi Arabia

A tailor working in the Saudi holy city of Mecca has become the target of a public outcry, after he was secretly filmed wrapping his arms around a woman to take her measurements. His supposedly ‘sexual’ gesture has sparked a lively debate in a country where physical contact with women is seen as taboo. 

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Screen grab from a video posted to the YouTube channel Kurdzanist

A tailor working in the Saudi holy city of Mecca has become the target of a public outcry, after he was secretly filmed wrapping his arms around a woman to take her measurements. His supposedly ‘sexual’ gesture has sparked a lively debate in a country where physical contact with women is seen as taboo.

The video lasts a little under one minute. It was filmed from outside the boutique where the tailor was working. The tailor, it appears, is from South Asia. It shows him taking a woman’s measurements at least three times: twice around her chest and once around her waist. Another woman watches the scene inside the shop. The camera pans to the storefront, where it is indicated that the store only sells women’s clothing.

According to the website Gulf News, the tailor was arrested on Tuesday, June 16, and taken to a police station in Mecca. Though it isn’t expressly forbidden by law, in Saudi Arabia it is seen as taboo for a man to physically touch a woman who isn’t part of his family.

The video has provoked a mixed batch of reactions across social media networks. On the one hand were those who slammed his actions as out of place, some going so far as to call his gesture ‘sexual’. They called for his arrest – along with the two women – who they reckon should both be whipped as punishment. Other Saudis called for leniency, pointing out that perhaps the tailor had never had to conform with such strict rules in his country of origin. Still others criticised the video’s author for ‘spying’, whilst also poured scorn on the tailor and his clients.

We asked two of our Observers in Saudi Arabia to give us their view on the incident.

"I wouldn’t let a male tailor take my measurements, but every woman should make their own choice”

Sarah is an English teacher in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

According to Islam, a woman can’t be touched by other men except for those in her family – her dad, brothers, uncles or grandparents. Other men don’t have the right, unless it is absolutely necessary, like in the case of a doctor, for example [Editor’s note: A fatwa issued in 2014 aims to force any woman who goes to see a male doctor for a consultation to be accompanied by a male guardian, except in emergencies].

So I understand how certain people could be shocked by this video, given the strong influence of Islamic traditions in Saudi Arabia. Despite that, I believe that everyone should be able to tell their tailor whether or not they want their measurements taken. The woman’s decision must be respected. From the looks of things, she herself asked the tailor to take her measurements and touch her. That’s her problem and no one should judge her for it, let alone film her in order to vilify the tailor in front of the whole country. No one should be punished on the grounds of this video.

In Saudi Arabia, we can choose whether to go to see a female or male tailor. In general, male tailors are cheaper, but also less skilled than the women. Personally, I wouldn’t let a male tailor take my measurements and touch me in that way. Like many women, when I go to see the tailor, I take the clothes that I already wear. The tailor then uses those clothes’ measurements to make me new ones.

"Those who describe the gesture as ‘sexual’ are greatly exaggerating”

Madiha Al Ajroush is a psychotherapist who also works in Riyadh.

The video has gone viral because it highlights the contradictions in Saudi Arabian society. Here, women are asked to cover themselves from head to toe whenever they set foot outside their homes. But that doesn’t stop some of them going to the tailors to get themselves measured. It’s like driving: women aren’t allowed to drive yet many do it anyway. In Saudi Arabia, you can do whatever you want as long as it stays hidden.

Under Islamic tradition, both clients and the tailor could be fined. But for me, those who describe his gesture as ‘sexual’ are greatly exaggerating. The man didn’t do anything that could be considered out of place, he was just doing his job in a professional manner.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has adopted new rules that aim to progressively ban foreign men from working as tailors for women. The reforms are part of a bigger drive to get more women into the workplace at the expense of foreign workers, who currently make up one third of the country’s active workforce.

Post written with France 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).