The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie

Some years ago I was summoned along with colleagues to an editorial meeting with our Director. The subject, as usual, was how to boost the audience for

“People won’t read your stuff unless you write about sex and death”, declared Anuradha. She brandished a copy of the Thame Gazette in evidence.

I must confess that I have struggled to execute the directive. There’s certainly no shortage of death and sex in the developing world but the issues involved don’t fit the Thame template of sensationalism.

This long-forgotten episode resurfaced in the most unlikely context. My first task after the holiday was to update our Syria Guide. In refreshing our bookshop selections I could hardly miss a title which has become something of a bestseller, The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie.

The “secret” is the custom of Syrian women to compensate for the drab clothing imposed by their culture through wearing something much more exciting underneath. Furthermore, the manufacture and retailing of unimaginably exotic lingerie is openly conducted in Syrian markets, patronised by both men and women.

In telling proof of Anuradha’s theory, big media has shown sudden interest in Syria in the wake of the book’s publication. A review appeared in the Financial Times. The BBC despatched its Arab correspondent to the souks of Old Damascus, relishing every innuendo.

This coverage, together with the mix of essays and interviews in the book, tiptoes around the question of whether freedom of expression in lingerie implies an unexpected degree of liberation for Syrian women in domestic life. For me, the interviews conveyed an unreasonable burden of expectation on a married woman to please her husband, weighed down by fear that he will exercise his “right” to resort to prostitutes.

Nevertheless, I’m very conscious that our Country Guides for this region tend to reflect the concerns of western human rights campaigners which, although valid, are one-dimensional. This unusual book, together with Persepolis and Caramel – two excellent films about Iran and Lebanon released in the UK in 2008 – offer helpful insights into the emerging roles of women in the Middle East.

I’ve just spotted a review of a new book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution, which promises frank revelation of orgies and promiscuity in defiance of the Ayatollah. This job isn’t all bad…..


this article was first published by OneWorld