Cultural Differences

04.13.12

Who Knew there were Breasts Under that Burka?

niqab-photo

A particularly stunning piece of photography has recently come under attack in Canada from some offended parts of the Muslim world:

An art student who wears Muslim headdress is defending her right to freedom of expression after a photo she snapped was removed from public display at a British Columbia university.

The large black and white print depicts a woman in full Islamic scarf and cloak holding a flower-embossed bra while folding laundry.
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Not long after it had been hung in the school hallway, she overheard a woman who also wears a head scarf saying she had peeled the artwork off the wall.
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The 24-year-old photographer, who grew up in small town Northern B.C. and has been studying at the B.C. Interior institution for several years, said the reaction was unexpected.

"I found it really intrusive," she said of the unilateral move to censor her work.
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Since the incident was made public, an education centre in Kamloops funded by the Saudi Arabian Embassy has gone public with its opposition as well, Graham said.

The photo (which you can see the full version of here) is certainly striking. Angelina Chapin notes in Huffington Post Canada that the photo invites a much more extensive discussion about the role that lingerie plays in the Muslim world:

Numbers usually work to calm down hysteria so here are a few: The market for underwear in Saudi Arabia, for example, was US$1 billion a year in 2010, according to Reem Assaad, a banker and financial analyst based in Jeddah. Last year, I wrote a story for Canadian Business magazine titled the "Undercover Economy," about lingerie in the Middle East. What I uncovered was that the industry is thriving there more than it is in North America.

You think Europe is sexy? A 2010 advertisement for Motexha, the Middle East's largest garment, textile, leather and fashion accessories trade event, boasts that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia account for 77 per cent of Europe's total lingerie exports. At the time I wrote this article -- September 2011 -- La Senza had 44 stores in Saudia Arabia, and 52 others in the Middle East.

Perhaps the most fascinating point that Chapin makes is that in some parts of the Muslim world, the types of undergarments that would have been worn under that niqab would be much more sensational then what showed up in the photo:

Then there are other, darker reasons why women wear lingerie. In Syria, for example, it's common for a man to have multiple wives, and buying sexy undergarments is a way for a woman to gain his favour over the others. As a result, the lingerie markets in Syria (yes, these exist) have bras and panties that would make full-grown North American women blush. Think light-up Tweety Birds on the crotch, buttons you press to hear music, and a lot of feathers.