04/12/2012 06:05 EDT | Updated 06/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Who Knew There were Breasts Under that Burka?!

2012-04-13-Screenshot20120413at8.33.52AM.pngI know bras can get people stirred up, but I think we all need to calm down a little over the recent photo of a Muslim woman in a niqab and abaya holding one up.


I know bras can get get people stirred up, but I think we all need to calm down a little over the recent photo of a Muslim woman in a burka holding one up. The story is that a fine arts student from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. took a photo of her friend wearing a niqab -- a veil covering her face -- and an abaya -- a full-body cloak -- holding up a bra as she sorts through her laundry.

It's been met with outrage. A staff member of the school "tore it down" from where it was displayed with the other student photos. The Saudi Arabian Embassy also has their knickers in a twist and is involved (how, I don't know). And generally, you'd think... a Dutch magazine had published cartoons of Mohammed. But no, it's just a photo of a woman holding an under garment that is just as, if not more common in the Middle East than it is in North America.

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.

Montreal-based lingerie company La Vie en Rose has also bloomed in that part of the world. The company has 25 locations in Saudia Arabia, and since opening has expanded to include seven more countries in the region. The Middle East now makes up 20 per cent of the company's total profits.

Why? Besides the fact that many places in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are extremely fashion-forward (one source told me they don't have to bother with Paris now that their shopping malls have all the international designer brands), many women use lingerie as a way to express individual style. Much in the same way those that can afford it buy expensive hand bags and shoes to accessorize, lingerie gives them a sense of individuality Muslim veils often conceal.

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.

Not that we should be surprised or offended to see a Muslim woman holding a bra, if not just for basic anatomical reasons. She does have breasts you know, and those things can get heavy (the point of a bra in the first place).

So I think rather than freak out over here in the West, the least we can do is acknowledge what the photo is: art, which captures a real Muslim, if not any woman's, experience. And though Middle Eastern women may out-do their Western counterparts when it comes to frills and lace, we still have a lot more rights in terms of self-expression (lingerie companies in these countries alter their ads so as not to show women baring flesh).

The least we can do as citizens of a country where women are apparently "sexually liberated" is celebrate this photo, perhaps for the very fact it wouldn't be allowed in the Middle East. What kind of a message are we sending about our own country to insinuate this portrait of daily life is "offensive?"