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Friday, June 20, 2008

The Political Undertones of the Syrian Underwear

Feminist writer Elizabeth Shlala Leo wrote,

Patriarchy is an inherently unbalanced and unstable organizational system in which overriding social norms postulate that men are superior to women. Therefore, men hold overt power over women through the process of social construction as evident in the depiction of sexuality, the assignment of gender roles, and the social hierarchy that exists in every facet of social relations. (2005, 131)

What Leo says about patriarchy can be partly illustrated in Lydia Wilson’s article (2007) on the many-splendored Syrian lingerie. At first, it may seem to be just a human interest report on an Arabic fashion flavor but, upon further analysis, it actually depicts some facets of one site of political contestation – that of female sexuality as constructed within or by a phallocratic regime.

In this political regime, women are fetishized; they are providers of sexual pleasures to the undisputed penetrator “who becomes the sole sexual active” (Dialmy 2006, 18 f.). As objects of sexual pleasure, they are thus expected to have a stock of 30 different wedding night lingeries some of which are perhaps “festooned with blinking lights, or play soundbites from Egyptian pop songs or standards such as ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’” or designed for a lambada dance their refusal of which would be a sufficient ground for their husbands to divorce them (Wilson 2007; Halasa 2006, 27).

Islam supposedly enjoins the mutual maximum enjoyment of sexual pleasure between couples (Bullough 2003, 94), but this belief is hard to reconcile with the prevailing notion among many Arab males that women are to be sexually passive, as expressed in the proverb, “She moves, she is divorced,” which means “that if the wife were to move during intercourse, she would be divorced, because her movement would indicate the presence of desire and pleasure, something that does not become a respectable wife” (Dialmy 2006, 21). This tenet forms part of a social control which, in the words of Pepper Schwartz and Virginia Rutter, “turns pleasure into a scarce resource and endows leaders who regulate the pleasures of others with power” (2001, 463). And this power is not only confined to this earthly plane, for even in Paradise the wide-eyed houris will be there to fulfill the carnal desires of the worthy mujahideen (Sura 56:22).

It is one thing to say, however, that the Islamic woman is sexually passive and quite another to assume that the Islamic woman is a passive participant in this construction of sexuality. For as can be surmised from the working together of conservative Syrian families to produce the racy lingeries, women themselves are conscious participants, active players in this fetishization (Leo 2005, 134). This is part of a societal tradition that ensures the perpetuation of patriarchy.

Patriarchy continues to reign partly (or largely?) because Islamic apologetes have taken great pains to explain away through various media forms the socio-political conditions evidencing a regime of phallocracy in most Muslim countries. The confinement of wives to the domestic space, for example, is justified by the argument that this condition is actually a way of freeing them from “double taxation” (i.e., being made to juggle between housework or child-rearing and office work) which women in the West have suffered (Abul ‘Ala 1960, 165). That Islam is egalitarian is also argued based on the “revolutionary” Qur’anic teaching of men and women as having been created “from the same soul...which gives women full humanity with men” (Leo 2005, 132). The Islamic male’s privilege of having multiple sexual partners is predicated upon the “natural” constitution of things which dictates that it is “unnatural” for women “to be married to more than one man at a time” (Borek 1999, 4), or the potentially destructive male sexual urge which needs “fragmentation... so that man does not become a dependent sexual passive to anyone” (Dialmy 2005, 19), or upon issues of paternity (Borek, 1999, 4). Finally, veiling is seen as “a tool for resistance to the globalization of dress and of individual, liberal sexual values it symbolizes” (Dialmy 2005, 17).

There have been pied voices of dissent from Arab women, however. Pied, for these voices issue from various camps that either work within the all-encompassing framework of Islam, outside of it, or both (Treacher 2003). At any rate, all these voices chorus the demand for women empowerment in Arab societies. They sing against the non-egalitarian provisions in the Qur’an itself, like the command for men to beat their wives– “lightly,” that is, add Muslim scholars Al Hilali & Khan (1993, 127) – for disobedience (Sura 4:34). They also cry out against the documented sexual abuses committed by men against women and against highly gender-insensitive cross-regional Islamic laws like one which allows the exoneration of a rapist when he marries his victim (WINN 1999, 46). The advocacy for women empowerment has made some headway in Syria which signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003, and where there is an increasing female presence in government and governance as exemplified by the rise of Dr. Najah Al-Attar to the position of “2nd Vice President for Cultural Affairs” in 2006 (CRTD.A, 2006; UNDP-POGAR 2007).

Nevertheless, all these advances made in the name of feminism are still to effect a massive shakeup in the male-dominated Arab world. As Amal Treacher well observed, “It has to be acknowledged that the Middle East remains a seat of contested but powerfully felt patriarchy” (2003, 67).

A word of caution must be made though regarding the danger of essentializing the Arab world especially in the area of moral conservatism. For as AbuKhalil argued, such conservatism may actually be the legacy of Western theology, particularly (puritanical) Protestantism (1997, 1). He also warns against the Orientalizing tendency of Western critics in their painting of Islam as constituting “a closed, inflexible doctrine, or that all world Muslims form some monolithic bloc” (ibid., 3). Indeed, in this era of globalization and postmodernity diversity of thought and practice has infiltrated even the most secure fortresses of religio-political systems. There is danger too in ascribing a distinctive Arabic mode of fetishizing women when in fact such mode may commonly be found in the discourses on sexuality in the West.

But if there is one thing certain that can be gleaned from Lydia Wilson’s article, it is the fact that a hoarse phallocentric political tune chimes in with the soundbytes embedded in Syrian lingeries.



Schwartz, Pepper and Virginia Rutter. 2001. “The Gender of Sexuality.” Margaret L. Andersen & Patricia Hill Collins, eds.. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Abul ‘Ala-Maududi, Sayyid. 1960. Towards Understanding Islam. Riyadh, SA: The Cooperative Office for Call and Guidance at Al-Badiah-Communities Section.

Al-Hilâlî, Taqî-ud Dîn & Khan, Muhammad Muhsin, trans. 1993. Interpretation of the Meanings of The Noble Qur’an in the English Language. Riyadh, SA: Maktaba Dar-Us-Salam.


AbuKhalil, Asad. 1997. “Gender Boundaries and Sexual Categories in the Arab World. Feminist Issues, 15 (Spring): 1-14.

Treacher, Amal. 2003. “Reading the Other: Women, Feminism, and Islam.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 4(January):59-71.

Bullough, Vern L. 2003. Review of Sexuality in Islam by Abdelwahab Bouhdiba. Sexuality and Culture. 7 (Winter): 93-95.

Dialmy, Abdessamad. 2005. “Sexuality in Contemporary Arab Society.” Social Analysis. 49 (Summer):16-33.

Leo, Elizabeth Shlala. 2005. “Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender in Modern Feminist Interpretation.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. 16 (April): 129-140.


Halasa, Malou. 2006. “What Lies Beneath.” New Statesman. (05 June).

Wilson, Lydia. 2007. “Undercover in Damascus.” Time (29 January).

Women’s International Network News. 1999. “Syria: Abuse of Women Sanctioned by Tradition and Government.” WINN (Summer).


UNDP-POGAR Gender and Citizenship Initiative. 2007. “Syria: Women in Public Life.” Accessed, 20 March 2008.

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