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Egypt

Under The Niqabs, A Peek Inside Cairo's Lingerie Shops

Cairo's Bahaa Makki lingerie shop
Cairo's Bahaa Makki lingerie shop
Pesha Magid

CAIRO — International lingerie store Victoria's Secret came to Cairo in 2013, but somewhat surprisingly for a country of Muslim modesty, there has been a varied and flourishing lingerie business in Egypt's capital for years.

Most of the lingerie downtown is imported from either Turkey or Syria. The owners of the two lingerie shops who agreed to speak with Mada Masr are both Syrian, having left the country before the 2011 uprising and ensuing violence. Both say they're still able to obtain lingerie from back home, despite the political turmoil.

One of the stores, Bahaa Makki (the name of a well-known Turkish lingerie brand), also sells silver and gold body glitter, flavored lubricants and lip glitter. It's not difficult to find sexual aids such as lubricants and condoms in corner shops in Cairo, but finding toys for the bedroom can be trickier. Although Bahaa Makki's selection is limited to a couple of glitter tubes and lubes under a glass counter on the second floor, it's nevertheless an unexpected find.

According to Shorouq, one of the three young women working in the shop, one of the most popular items in the shop are the costumes, which include sexy nurse outfits and sexy firemen (or firewomen, in this case).

Hurts so good

Store owner Basher Mekky says that the pleather dominatrix-style costumes made by the Erotica brand are also quite popular. The costumes usually consist of pleather bodysuits made out of thin straps and black mesh, which show off the breasts and the crotch. The costumes come in all sizes, although the most popular is medium-large.

He says that "sexy" pieces have become more popular in recent years, though he isn't quite sure why. It could be a combination of two factors, Mekky says: Women want something that's special and will stand out as unique, which the flashier costumes and lingerie pieces offer. And secondly, style has changed in general. Mekky explains that sexier lingerie wasn't available in the past, but it makes sense that women want to buy it now that it is.

Omar Mohamed Sobhan, another Syrian proprietor of lingerie shops, says that most of the customers collect it piece by piece, so that when they get married they will have a large collection ready. He says that girls as young as 12 come into the shop with their mothers to pick out pieces, although once they reach 18 and beyond, they make most of the choices themselves.

Mekky says that about 60% of the women who come into his store are buying lingerie for their wedding nights. Along with the racier bodysuits, he also sells a range of lacy white dressing gowns and sheer flowing slips that he says are suitable for the morning after the wedding.

But Shaimaa, an 18-year-old woman working at Sobhan's shop, adds that women as old as 60 are loyal clients. Shorouq says that the clientele at her shop ranges in age from 18 up to women in their 50s. All women — whether dressed in niqab, hijab or unveiled — buy lingerie, the two women explain, although Shaimaa says that foreign women are the most likely to buy the racier outfits, like a bright red mesh body suit.

Going classy

Another hub for lingerie is Shehab Street in Mohandiseen, where slightly different variations await.

On the classier end of the spectrum, the lingerie store A to Z sells bras and underwear made from high-end cottons and other material. There are still costumes and nipple tassels discreetly displayed, but the store puts more of an emphasis on the understated, less flashy lingerie than any of the other shops.

In A to Z, three young girls in their early 20s are browsing the selection. They gather to talk about an item, and then later, outside of the shop, their purchases are bundled away into pink-striped boutique shopping bags.

Yasmine Bamieh, the store's visual merchandiser, says the shop distinguishes itself by selling "good quality for good prices."

But at A to Z, like other stores, the Erotica brand with its skimpy bodysuits is still the most popular. Bamieh says she thinks these are in such demand because while people want to look conservative on the streets, looking sexy at home is still important to a lot of women.

"Underneath the niqab," she explains, "the way they dress is not so conservative."

Pleather

The most glorious lingerie store is Saxon, hidden in an innocuous residential building next to the McDonald's on Shehab Street. There are no signs pointing to the store, and we had to ask guys hanging out at the kiosk across the street to find it. It's on the second floor, and the entrance is lined with mannequins in various "character" costumes. There's a mannequin wearing a sexy army uniform (glittery camouflage Lycra with the eagle of Egypt adorning the shoulder), and the perpetual sexy pleather dominatrix outfit.

The store has a wide variety of lingerie, ranging from everyday beige bras to underwear with plastic apples and tassels hanging off the bottom. There's even underwear with a feathery bird head attached to the front.

Saxon is an institution that's been around for 25 years. Unlike the lingerie stores downtown, most of the lingerie there is made in Egypt.

Another store, Display, sells masks and feathers along with sexy lingerie. A different store by the same name — which is run by the same man, who declined to give his name or be interviewed — was once one of the first sex toy stores in Cairo. The current owner of Display says the original sex shop shut down because of lack of business, as most people buy sex toys on the Internet.

None of the lingerie stores seem concerned about being shut down over conservative religious concerns. Display's owner is nonplussed at the suggestion that the original sex shop may have been shut down by the government.

"There was not enough business," he explains.

In the window of Mekky's store, there's a belly-dancing outfit with a diaphanous yellow skirt and a matching sparkling yellow bra. There are also a number of sexy slips and dresses in the window. "This is normal," he says, gesturing to the items. "Everybody does this, everybody puts sexy underwear in the window. There are no problems."

The shop owners say they aren't aware of any precedent for shuttering lingerie businesses for morality reasons, and they aren't concerned about a perceived lack of morality in their displays because most of their clientele are married women.

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