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.”

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But this article, originally an AFP news piece that was recently re-published on, 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.”

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