Before I graduated college, I had a hard time walking into Victoria’s Secret. The thought of picking out lingerie in front of total strangers made me uncomfortable, even if most of the other customers were women. Growing up an Arab Muslim woman, my shyness, genuine or not, was expected and encouraged. Our culture teaches us to be wary of sex, sexiness and the opposite sex, even as we voluntarily advertise, solicit and welcome it.
Rana Salam and Malu Halasa expose this hypocrisy in their book, Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design. Damascus, the manufacturing capitol of the Syria’s lingerie industry, is the place to shop for pre-bridal goodies, (an Arab-American friend of mine insisted on buying her wedding dress from Syria) and that includes lingerie. According to Salam, five or six factories in Damascus alone export lingerie to markets in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. A few summers ago, I accompanied my mother through Libya’s souk district, where she stopped in front of a lingerie store. The shop owner and workers were all men, but that did not deter women (most of them fully veiled) from perusing the most intimate apparel. “They are all from Syria,” the shop owner proclaimed with pride as an elderly woman inspected the embroidery on a crotchless panty. The authors ask why a society known for sheltering women would design and sell the kinkiest styles of lingerie. Of course, all women need bras and panties, but the lingerie described in this book is more Frederick’s of Hollywood than it is Hanes.
“Some lingerie designers resort to gadgetry (blinking lights or sound loops of pop music) or the sweet tooth (candy- or chocolate-encrusted panties), while others stick to classics like the thong panty, featuring a bird embedded in a ring of fluorescent pink boa feathers: called Ish Al Asfour (bird’s nest” in Arabic)—a kitsch interpretation of women’s pubic hair.”
Other works of art found in the market include G-strings in edible flavors, or thongs decorated with coconut shells, television remote controls and glow-in-the-dark toys. In private, the Arab world is anything but prudish, so to an Arab, it kind of makes sense for lingerie to come from an Arab country. However, if we always have two contradicting views, one we share with the public and one we don’t, what does that say about our own identity?
The book raises an important question regarding the many contradictions of Arab society, but the authors dumb-down their argument when they take a foreigner’s point of view: “Why would a veiled woman buy crotchless panties? Or underwear with zippers and feathers? Or panties with cartoon birds and musical buttons?” The prejudice towards women who wear hejab is already annoying, but when an Arab woman resorts to it, it just sounds bitchy, as in, “You wear a hijab; what do you know about looking sexy?” The point raised sounds all the more ridiculous given the context of the book. We are to believe that the women are buying the lingerie only for sex with their husbands: “Most likely these indulgences are meant to be worn only in the house, possibly just in the bedroom.” Because the women in the book, veiled or not, only wear these elaborate panties in the privacy of their own home, asking why a veiled women would buy them is irrelevant.
In the Syrian lingerie industry, men are in charge of designing and selling the lingerie (go figure), the women are consumers. Salam visited the factories to find out what inspires their creativity. Her favorite bra is curtain shaped and it opens and closes with a remote control! That’s hilarious, thinking of how much TV the average Arab man watches, but it made me think about the role men play in encouraging the women to buy it. Are most of these women introverted Umm Kulthoumes who are pressured to be something they aren’t or are they extroverted Haifa Wehbees who know exactly what they want? It is no secret (thanks to movies like Sahar el Layali) that in many Arab and Muslim unions, sex is reduced to a man’s pleasure. It is easy to believe that a woman buying edible panties is sexually fulfilled at home, but conventional wisdom makes me think otherwise.
In any case, Syrian Lingerie helps show that Islam is not anti-sex. Titillating lingerie may not symbolize revisionism in the Arab world, but the racy garments manufactured by traditional families for traditional families, show that sex between a husband and a wife is very much encouraged in Islamic societies. The playful lingerie emphasizes a woman’s femininity and what many old schoolers would describe as her Islamic obligation to please her husband. But if no such obligation is placed on men, the lingerie is just another obstacle in the way of sexual freedom.