The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, By Malu Halasa & Rana Salam

A peek into a nation's underwear drawers can be very telling. Rustling around the chests in the court of Catherine de Medici, a historian could have deduced that the smaller the waist of a woman's iron corset, the greater the status of its owner.

As for the Victorians, if urban myth is to be believed, even the pianos had their own petticoats. But what of Syria? One would not expect much imagination in the undies department. This was, after all, a country where, 40 years ago, the bra could not be bought.

However, as any tourist who has walked through the Souk-el-Hamidiyeh in Damascus will report, Syrian lingerie is a marvel of the modern world. The country may be conservative but the underwear stalls are not. They are heaving with mannequins' bosoms barely covered by fishnet negligees, bikini sets adorned with fake flowers and singing birds, and G-strings with plastic mobile phones flimsily attached. Piled high are boxes of edible underwear in flavours including strawberry and mango, and concoctions of wire and plastic that might make a Soho sex shop owner blush.

Intrigued by the disparity between a nation of demurely dressed women and this garish underwear, designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa set out to chronicle these magnificent items of erotic kitsch and discover their provenance.

The interviews, photoessays and contributions from artists and writers in The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie take the story from the workshop through the stall-holders to the marital bedroom. On the surface the bizarre lingerie, and the detached and shameless way in which it is sold, may seem like symbols of sexual liberation. That is not quite the case. The trade in this lingerie relies on working class Muslim culture, in which women are dependent, to varying degrees, on their husbands to set the rules. The threat of abandonment hangs heavily over many of the women who were interviewed in the Secret Life. Mothers buy dozens of items for their daughters' trousseaux, and wives buy it to keep their husbands interested, lest they take to visiting prostitutes or, worse still, taking a second wife.

The article that gets closest to the women is a journal by the Canadian filmmaker Noura Kevorkian, who had been to Syria to make a documentary about Islamic women. She befriended a group of women headed up by Umm Fathi, a conservative, 45 year-old Islamic woman. Her two grown-up daughters mooched around the house, both divorced. One of them believed that it was her own fault for not keeping her husband entertained. The other had developed a markedly Western cynicism about the roles of men in all of their lives. Frank discussions about marriage and sex follow from voices that are rarely heard.

However, this not a heavy book about female oppression. It casts a light into some private areas, but also picks up on the exuberance of Syrian sexual culture. There are bawdy jokes, endless pictures of the lingerie and anecdotes. There's little pornographic about it, and Syrian men come across as sexually naive, and more interested in play.

One interviewee explains how her cleaner told her that she owned the G-string with the mobile phone attached. When she wanted to summon her husband to the bedroom, she would sit on the bed in nothing but the knickers and call him: "Dring, dring, dring, are you going to answer the phone?"

By Malu Halasa & Rana Salam



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories