Shoshannah F. sent us a link to a story about lingerie in Syria (it appeared in Haaretz, but not the English version; here is a link to an auto-translated version of the site, which is sort of hysterical in itself). Syrian lingerie has recently gotten quite a bit of attention because of the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, by Malu Halasa and Rana Salam. Here are some examples of Syrian lingerie from the Haaretz story (the second image is not safe for work):

These over-the-top underwear sets are worn mostly by Muslim women. As you would guess, they are not for every day wear; according to this story in the Miami Herald women wear them on special occasions, particularly their wedding night.

These could be great for a discussion of sexuality. Of course, the most obvious aspect is that conservative Muslim women in a country generally assumed in the West to be very conservative are wearing lingerie. It brings up some of the complexities when looking at religious and cultural attitudes toward sex. Cultures that value (or enforce) modesty in public, or among some groups (say, the unmarried) may or may not have similar rules about private life or for all groups. The idea of a Muslim woman wearing hijab also wearing sexy underwear surprises us because we assume that cultural proscriptions against public celebrations of sexuality would be accompanied by anti-sex attitudes in general, even for married people in their own homes. Yet this isn’t always true. It reminds me of some evangelical Christian groups in the U.S. that oppose premarital sex but highly encourage sexual activity after marriage (for instance, a preacher in Texas recently told his congregation to have sex every day for a week to improve communication).

There’s also a class element, according to this story in the Times: “It is a working-class tradition – rich and executive Syrian women see it as being ‘Sha’abi’, or rather vulgar…” You might talk about what is defined as sexy, and to whom, and how this might vary by social class, race/ethnicity, etc.

Of course, one question is whether being able to purchase and wear lingerie is automatically a sign of sexual liberation for women. Some of the articles I linked to above mention that women may wear the lingerie to try to keep husbands from cheating, which I don’t take as a sign of liberation so much as the same old idea that men cheat because their wives aren’t sexy enough or don’t interest them in bed. So while we shouldn’t assume that because women dress modestly in public, they also do so in the bedroom, we also shouldn’t confuse cultural permission for women to look sexy with permission to be in control of their sexuality and express it as they’d like.

Finally, the original article includes a quote from the author of the book (Shoshannah’s translation to English): “‘The Syrians like fat women’ says Halasa. ‘They always make fun of Lebanese who have “westernized” and worship thinness like the Americans.'” According to the Miami Herald article, the photos of women modeling lingerie in the book are not Photoshopped; I haven’t seen the entire book yet, but they might be good for a discussion of beauty standards.

Thanks, Shoshannah!

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