Book review: The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie – Intimacy and Design by Malu Halasa and Rana Salam

This was written by Cycads and originally published at her blog.

Syria’s unlikely notoriety for racy underwear collides head on with the stereotyped image of the veiled and prudish Muslim woman. In a way, ‘The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie‘ (2008, Chronicle Books) had come at an opportune time to dispel these fossilised images, but at the same time will feed to a ‘Western’ obsession with what lies under the veil.

Some of the raciest, most imaginative articles of ladies undergarments can be found in Syria: from G-strings attached with toy mobile phones, angel outfits complete with a pair of wings, to ‘curtain’ bras that draw open at a naughty touch of a remote control. It is perhaps a surprise then that these are manufactured by conservative Sunni families for an equally conservative clientele. Suffice to say, there is no hiding the fact that a fulfilling sex life for married couples is crucial for Muslims, and the expectations of a new bride to be at her most erotic on her wedding night is paramount.

The history of Syrian-made lingerie became interlinked with the country’s economic success story following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Before the days of outrageous underwear, Syrian women wore imported bras and cheap ill-fitting cotton vests and elasticised bands. Today, home-grown lingerie competes with transnational brand names as a coveted commodity found everywhere in the shopping complexes, hairdressing salons and in the souks across the country and its neighbouring regions.

Class distinctions are sewn and sequined onto lingerie design; working-class women tend to distinguish themselves from so-called ‘posh’ women who are considered boring in bed and pretentious.  Most telling of the socio-economic divide comes from the views of women on who buys what in Syria. A story of a cleaning lady who loves to dress up in the bedroom comes to mind for Lena Lahham. The cleaning lady, who wears the hijab, has one with a mobile phone attached to the thong and puts it on when she wants to have sex. She would then call to her husband, “Dring, dring, dring,dring, are you going to answer the phone?”.

Opinions on OTT underwear in Syria also reveal a startling co-relation with old-fashioned conservatism; the more conservative the clientele, the more risqué. Perhaps the intense pressure to be modestly attired in public is overcompensated by overdressing for housework and raunchiness in the bedroom.

Women’s lingerie exists in ambiguity between the realms of the private and the more public worlds of class distinctions and open souks. While there is no denying the obvious that patriarchal norms are deeply entrenched in Syrian societies where it is the menfolk who are typically defined as the ‘active’ participant in heterosexual relations and women ‘passive’ sexual objects, I am not ready to dismiss the Syrian wedding lingerie as simply perpetuating the fetishisation of wives – men and women can be equally active participants in acting out their sexual fantasies. For Muhammad Emad Haliby, who manages a women’s clothing shop in Damascus, there has to be laughter in bed.

If the man doesn’t make the woman laugh, the sex is dead. The more she laughs, the better the sex. If Syrian lingerie didn’t exist, sex would be boring.

His wife isn’t the only one who dresses up for their ‘appointments’. He wears satin shorts and cologne.

For many women across the Gulf states and North Africa, the purchasing of lingerie represents aspirations of romantic love and modernity, and an act of resistance against their elders and tradition. It is often symbolised as a rite of passage from virginity to respectable (but very married) womanhood. However, this is often entailed by submission to market-driven consumption and of course, to the fear of losing one’s feminine and sexual value.

Perhaps the darker side of Syrian lingerie are its evil step-sisters: prostitution, male infidelity, and the unstable nature of marriage. The threat of husbands taking mistresses and another wife seems to be the driving force behind the hypersexualisation of married women, says nearly everyone in the book, from the shop proprietors, designers, and the women who wear the underwear in question themselves.

Inevitably, the well-trodden roads of Islamic fundamentalism and arranged marriage are explored in an interview with novelist Ammar Abdul Hamid, writer of the rather controversial Menstruation. The interview begins with Ammar talking about his former ‘fundamentalist’ days and how that became an inspiration for his book, followed by his thoughtful opinions on various other topics that sometimes have nothing to do with lingerie, like homosexuality and the availability of pornography in Syria.

Ultimately, this is a book about lingerie design and how it has become a cultural phenomenon, and shouldn’t really be hijacked by how the ‘Western’ media views Muslim women. The authors and interviewees stress the complexity and the myriad of contradictions within Syrian society that should be like any other living, breathing heterogeneous society anywhere in the world where men and women are constantly finding the balance in the sexual equilibrium.

For another analysis of the book, read Yusra’s take on it.

  • Fatemeh

    I think you bring up a great point about hypersexualization within marriage. This is just another facet of the role women are supposed to play, i.e., that of a sexual wife. Whether these women are actually interested in that role isn’t stressed, but the societal and religious pressure are.

  • cycads

    I included the story of the lady and her mobile phone thong in this review because it’s an example of a woman who is not passive when she is being hypersexualised, and also because I find it really lovely and amusing. I think the hypersexualisation of wives occurs quite often, but not many people think that that’s such a bad thing. A friend of mine who is doing her post-doctoral research on the Polish underwear industry says that it happens a lot among Catholic married women. So it may not be unique to Syrian Sunni Muslims after all!

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I would like to read the book, articles on it so far have missed what the actual women themselves think of the underwear.

    Also, I think in the West, the concept of what constitutes a “healthy” attitude towards sex is very much in flux and so western analysis isn’t as bias free as it would like to make out.

    Plus with the lingerie issue, like so many other female beauty issues there’s the whole “Am I doing this because I enjoy it or because it’s expected of me?” and the blur between the two.

    This might just be me, but I find that there’s something always slightly fearful about any western article concerning Muslim* sexuality. The portrayal is often that Muslim men have animal like sexual appetites which they struggle to control. Muslim women are simmering with suppressed desire, incredibly fertile and have secret bedroom skills in order to satisfy such voracious men.

    On the other hand, we’re shown as a bunch of sexless drones who flagellate ourselves over the slightest erotic thought.

    However, the fascination often only extends to speculating about Muslims rather then actually speaking to any.

    *Other ethnic groups also get this treatment.

  • Fatemeh

    @ cycads: I agree that Muslim women’s sexuality isn’t given much credit in the “active” department. But I think the point you brought up about hypersexualization’s “sisters” rings a bell.

    I think it’s also really interesting that sexuality gets funneled through lingerie. As in, lingerie = sexy. While I highly doubt that this is all that men find sexy, I think it’s interesting that over-the-top lingerie is what sets the standard for “sexy.”

    @ Saffiyah: You’re totally right about the dichotomy: hyper-chaste vs. hyper-sexual. That’s why I was initially so “wtf” about this book: admittedly, I assumed that it would be another “Muslim women are voracious sex beasts!” deal. LOL at “secret bedroom skills.”

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  • Namman

    Articles like this are absolutely worthless without pictures…