The Panties are Political
“Freedom to the panties!” This is what the 30 women who got arrested in Kazakhstan in February 2014 shouted as they held up lingerie. (1) Three others were arrested in Almaty for trying to put lace knickers on a city monument.
Women protesting in Almaty, Kazakhstan (8)
This demonstration was prompted by an Eurasian Economic Union’s decision (the EEU groups Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia), that banned any underwear containing less than 6 percent cotton from being imported, produced or sold within its territory. (2) According to the Russian Textile Business Union, such a ban would essentially outlaw 90% of the undergarments sold in these countries and de facto any lacy, “sexy” undergarments. Considering that 80% of underwear sold in Russia is imported from foreign countries and that the lingerie market represents more than 4 billions dollars annually (3), this ban could have induced a deep transformation of the lingerie market overnight.
The Eurasian Economic Union claims that their concerns are not to do with modesty, but instead with health. Synthetic materials do not absorb moisture well enough, which means that bacteria and sweat may be trapped inside underwear while being worn, increasing the risks of yeast infections (the scientific community is still debating about it).(4)
In examining the opposing viewpoints here, I cannot help but see this as yet another attempt at controlling women's private life through controlling their way of dress. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the improvement of textile standards and protecting women’s health. . Whether they’re made of cotton, lace or any synthetic materials, most underwear are treated with chemicals that are potentially dangerous for our health.
It is important to consider, however, that an assembly comprised mostly of men (about 87% of men at the Russian Duma in 2011) (5) is deciding the ways women can and cannot dress and this is certainly worth questioning. Cigarettes and alcohol, despite their proven negative effect on health, didn’t get banned. Only a warning was added on their label in the face of public health concerns. The Eurasian Economic Union could do the same with synthetic underwear. Why not raise the awareness of the consumers rather than making the choice for them? Aren’t women mature enough to decide for themselves?
Valeria Ibrayeva protesting in Almaty, Kazakhstan (9)
In Russia, more than 10 000 women die every year at the hands of their partner (and the number has increased since the beginning of the pandemic). Yet, the country partially decriminalised domestic in violence in 2017, in order to prevent the “destruction of the family”. (6) If the Eurasian Economic Union is so concerned about women’s health, a law addressing domestic violence rather than lacy panties seems like the obvious place to start.
Seven years later, it looks like the ban was never strictly enforced. Yet, it tells a lot about the constant political and male overseeing of the female’s body. Whether these injunctions, judgements and nice advice (“don’t wear a miniskirt, you’ll be harassed!”) are the results of safety or moral concerns, they stem from the conviction that women cannot be given full responsibility over their lives.
Textiles and clothing have been as integral to womens’ fight for equality as they have been to their oppression by those in power. This was shown again with the 2018 #ThisIsNotConsent movement in Ireland, although this will be the topic of a forthcoming article.
'This is not consent': Protests sweep across Ireland after lacy-thong defense in rape case (7)
Footnotes and links :
8-9. Pictures from "Kazakhstan, Lace Underwear Ban Sparks Protests", BBC, February 17, 2014
Additional link :
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.