Okay. This is going to be a super-biased piece from the get-go. I feel the need to write about this because I am TIRED of trying to talk to people about what feminism really is about. There is just so much misunderstanding and lack of information out there in the real world.
Feminism is, as it were, hidden in Malaysia*. There are self-proclaimed feminists aplenty, yes, and also academic conferences in gender studies, and a couple of feministwomen’s groups. But the inception of a homegrown feminist movement can be best allegorised as a pregnancy aborted in its first trimester.
From the beginnings of the country’s national independence in 1957, politicking women had relegated themselves to roles suitably subservient to their male counterparts and even voted out the equal pay bill lobbied by the Labour Party of Malaya just three years prior. Female leadership, except in women’s issues (read: children and family stuff), would be overstepping the boundaries set by patriarchal ideals – this goes on perpetuated by women as simply doing the done thing.
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.