Sexy Things: Women or Lingerie?

You know things are sad in the world of news about Muslimahs when “Muslim women value sexy” seems like not a bad headline.  After all, it’s a nice change from “Muslim women are oppressed,” “Muslim women are passive objects and could not possibly have any personality” and “Muslim women need the West to rescue them.”

Image via modernghana.com

But this article, originally an AFP news piece that was recently re-published on modernghana.com, is about lingerie sales in a market in Damascus, making “Muslim women value sexy” a bit of a gigantic leap.  “Muslim women who visit the lingerie stalls in the market value sexy” might have been more accurate.  But then again, when was the last time accuracy was anyone’s first priority?

The headline also functions as a caption for the picture accompanying the Modern Ghana article, of a woman in hijab looking pensive.  What is she thinking?  Is she indeed deep in thought about the value of “sexy”?  We may never know.

To set the scene, the article starts off with:

The only embarrassment is of choice. Sex sells in the souk, where Syrians flock to buy the latest lingerie, some of it edible, some sporting flashing lights and all of it kitsch personified.

Chocolate knickers, panties adorned with singing canaries, feathered bras that twinkle in the dark… all this and more can be found in the popular Al-Hamidiyeh market, the best known in the capital Damascus.

Thanks to a book published last year on the subject, Syrian lingerie has already been discussed a couple times on MMW.  But this article shows that it’s still a hot topic.  What could be a more titillating image than that of a Muslim women (presumably veiled, of course) picking out something sexy to wear when in her private harem home?  It might as well be proof of the Orientalist fantasy of the seductive, exotic temptress that exists within every Muslim woman, if only we could unveil her. (*shudder*)  To emphasize this point, a Syrian sociologist is quoted:

“A Muslim woman works hard to ensure she is attractive. But she keeps her eroticism for her husband. She may be limited in personal liberties outside the home, but inside anything goes.”

In other words, for those of you who just knew that behind all that weird clothing was a sex goddess just waiting to jump out and make all your dreams come true, well, you were right.  (Okay, even though I know I’m being sarcastic, that image makes me feel icky.)  But, predictably, this sex goddess has little control over her own sexuality, and exists only to fulfill male desires.

Indeed, despite the headline, which may have suggested that women are defining and valuing sexuality on their own terms, it soon becomes clear from the article that Muslim women apparently “value sexy” only in a patriarchal and heteronormative context in which “sexy” really refers to whatever their husbands want.  Mohammad Habash, the (male) head of the Damascus Centre for Islamic Studies says, “Islam orders the woman to keep herself pretty for her husband, that’s well-known,” implying that female sexuality equals “pretty,” and that this “pretty” is only important insofar as the husband acknowledges it.  One woman interviewed for the article reinforces this perspective, stating that “Muslim wives must be desirable and pleasure their husbands so they don’t stray,” and that it is essentially the wife’s responsibility to mould herself into the object of her husband’s desire.  If he goes elsewhere, it is probably because she did not “value sexy” enough.

Of course, being attractive to one’s spouse can be an important part of a healthy sexual relationship, but the idea that women’s sexuality is only relevant as long as it fulfills her husband’s desire is demeaning, and implies that women don’t have their own needs or desires.  I would find it hard to imagine a similar article on what these husbands are doing to please their wives.

The suggestion here is also that male desire might override what the woman wants or feels comfortable with.  What bothered me this most was this quote at the end of the article:

“A woman can buy whatever she desires, even a dancer’s outfit for when she wants to give pleasure to her husband,” Habash adds. “This is not only her right, it’s an obligation.”

According to this quote, the “Muslim women” described in this article don’t actually have the choice not to “value sexy.”

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Yet there is a sound hadith stating that both husbands and wives should look nice for each other.

    The article is sadly more of the same, old same old.

  • Tina

    Maybe this is not true for you but this is true for me and it’s something my community has preached for a while. I would like for you ladies at Muslimah Media Watch to include more of Muslim women in Muslim media because such statements as “a women… must give pleasure to her husband it’s not only her right its her obligation” and “Islam orders the woman to keep herself pretty for her husband, that’s well-known,” are replete and very POPULAR. So much so that the recent controversial Afghanistan legislation that a wife must wear makeup for her husband and look beautiful for him, reflects these patriarchal notion ….

    Please don’t ignore it as just Western bias of Muslim women, because it’s also Muslim bias of Muslim women sexuality. I know its not the only perspective but it is out there and I hear it so often from a male religious leaders who never say the same about husbands.

    I’m sick and tired of hearing about Muslim women’s bodies from non-Muslims and MUSLIMS equally. I bet you feel the same but as I said don’t let Muslims get off so easily because of Islamophobia.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    I love this quote: “Indeed, despite the headline, which may have suggested that women are defining and valuing sexuality on their own terms, it soon becomes clear from the article that Muslim women apparently “value sexy” only in a patriarchal and heteronormative context in which “sexy” really refers to whatever their husbands want. ”

    Thank you for this commentary, Krista. I have to say I am very disturbed by the the exclusive focus on “the husband’s desires” from both Muslims and non-Muslims. What about feeling sexy for yourself too? What about looking good for yourself? I know some people (including) Muslims may wonder what’s wrong with wanting to be sexy for your husband. My answer is, “nothing.” However, as you so eloquently pointed out Krista “… the idea that women’s sexuality is only relevant as long as it fulfills her husband’s desire is demeaning, and implies that women don’t have their own needs or desires. ”

    Amen!

  • hjhkl

    This really hit home for me. Arn’t men concerned that with being for to demanding on their wives to please them, they are making life more stressful and making an extra marital affair, in which the women is more relaxed and dosn’t feel as obligated to please, much more appealing? Dosn’t Islam also teach that a man must also sexually satisfy his wife so she won’t feel this pressure?

    Why is this talked about so infrequently?

  • SakuraPassion

    Great analysis! I agree with what you’re saying. I think it can hard to define the word “sexy.” But what’s interesting is that being sexy may not have any connection to actual sex. If that’s the right way to put it. And also, perhaps there those Muslim women want to look sexy for themselves. Of course whenever a woman anywhere wants took sexy, it’s usually assumed she’s doing so because there’s a man involved.

    “A woman can buy whatever she desires, even a dancer’s outfit for when she wants to give pleasure to her husband,” Habash adds. “This is not only her right, it’s an obligation.”

    Yes, this quote is also bothersome for me, because of the reasons you mentioned.

    It’s like yeah you by sexy lingerie, but in reality you have to, because you need to be pleasurable for your husband .

  • http://muslimlookout.org Krista

    @ Safiya and hjhkl: You both brought up some of the key things that are so often missing from these discussions – the need for mutual sexual satisfaction, and the importance of both partners in a relationship looking to please each other. Sadly, articles like this just keep perpetuating the same old stuff…

    @ Tina: Great point. You’re right that objectification of Muslim women comes from both within the Muslim community and from the outside, and that we need to respond to both. I would argue that the presence of Islamophobia does mean that we sometimes have to be careful about the way we respond, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. As you said, this sexism is widespread, and often carries a lot of power.

    We do cover Muslim media from time to time, as you may have seen. I can’t speak for all the MMW writers, but part of the reason that I often focus on non-Muslim media sources for my critiques on this blog is that there are more of them, and that’s what I tend to come across most often. That said, if you see something in a Muslim media source that you think we should look at, you can always email it to us (muslimahmediawatch@gmail.com).

    @ Jamerican: Thanks! And I totally agree on the importance of feeling sexy and looking good for ourselves.

    @ SakuraPassion: Thanks for your comment. That’s a great point about being sexy not necessarily having to do with sex.

  • RCHOUDH

    Well I see nothing wrong with wanting to look and act nice for the sake of one’s spouse, whether it be a husband looking good for the sake of his wife or a wife for her husband. Of course people can also get dressed up to look nice both for themselves and for the times they invite guests over like friends or family members. Whenever I visit either visit my in-laws in South Asia or my own family members in America, I always make sure to include a couple of saris and salwar kameez’s (outfits I normally don’t wear either in or outside my own home) to wear for the many parties my relatives like to throw. These parties also give me the opportunity to wear the many types of Indian jewelry (most of which are only practical for wearing at fancy parties rather than at home) I received as wedding gifts.

  • Rochelle

    In Iran you can file for divorce from your husband if he cannot sexually satisfy you. This is not the same as impotence, but rather just being bad in bed. f.y.i..

  • Layla

    Great post!
    Here in HOlland there is a discussion about the pornofication and sexualization of women in the public domain, partly pertaining to lingery ads. A recent post of Dutch anthropologist Martijn de Koning on his weblog Closer (after a Muslim man went on a one-man-war to scratch off the women on these ads) has caused quite some stir. FYI:

    http://religionresearch.org/martijn/2009/04/25/against-pornofication-and-sexualization-scratching-the-surface-because-you-have-to-begin-somewhere/

    PS
    My apologies for the poor English here and there but we are not native speakers.

  • Nissa

    I thought the whole tone of the article was patronising- What is the difference between the women in Syria and those who go to Ann Summers for a sexy outfit here? Of course the Muslim women are somehow enslaved and not really expressing their own needs and desires BECAUSE they are Muslim and only do it because their men want them to. That implicit assumption is just wrong.
    Of course no mention of the fact that it is a husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife and that sex is supposed to be enjoyable for both partners…Has anyone else noticed that Muslim men do a lot of reminding women of their duties as wives whilst simply thinking getting married was their only duty to the woman-doing her the favour! I was watching Islam Channel (why I don’t know) and the very learned scholar gave a very detailed description of how a wife should act and behave, including looking nice for her husband etc. and when it came to the man’s duties all he said was ‘and a man also has a responsibility to look after his wife and children and duties towards them.’ what?!
    I don’t even want to go into the Orientalist fantasy issues!

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I’ve just clicked on the link in the previous comment. The article is interesting but the comments are absolutely vile, sub LGF spew.

  • Layla

    @11
    That is probably why the comment section there has been closed. The most vile comments have already been removed. The post has been picked up by a populist shock log and there the comments were even worse, with death threats and so on, stimulated by the shock log. It’s the ‘normal’ state of affairs nowadays when someone (journalist, researcher, or someone else) picks up the issue of sexualization and does not demonize or at least immediately condemn Muslims or feminists. Sad but true.

  • Melinda

    Krista,

    Awesome quote:

    What is she thinking? Is she indeed deep in thought about the value of “sexy”? We may never know.

  • http://muslimlookout.org Krista

    Woah, what happened to the moderation on these comments????

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Fixed! Sorry about those icky comments…


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