CAIRO - In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, women's fashion is governed by a simple, overriding rule: No flesh. Women are supposed to wear long sleeves and billowy skirts, cover their hair and demurely lower their gaze when walking in the street. It says so in the Koran.
In the bedroom, however, it's a different story. Married women can wear whatever they want in front of their husbands, and judging from a recent stroll through Cairo's Moski shopping district, many do.
Moski is where Cairenes go to shop for sexy lingerie. Sold openly from shops and street carts, the selection runs from filmy thigh-length nightwear to microscopic G-strings that would not look out of place in a Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue. "Fires of Jealousy," reads the sign pinned to a peach-colored teddy.
"I'm buying these things mainly for my honeymoon, but I hope I can go on wearing them afterward," says 23-year-old Hoda, wearing a head scarf with makeup and high heels and chaperoned by a married sister.
Such sentiments have not been lost on Egyptian clothing manufacturers. Rising purchasing power, a growing appetite for Western fashion and a gradual loosening of economic controls have contributed to a boom in Egyptian-made lingerie, much of it just as skimpy as similar products sold in Europe or the United States.
Several Egyptian firms now manufacture lingerie under license to large European companies, trendy boutiques carry the latest offerings from Victoria's Secret and some companies even exhibit their products in fashion shows, albeit for women only.
"This is the contrast of Egypt," says Chantal Rohr, a Paris-born choreographer who now directs fashion shows for Egypt's fledgling fashion industry.
"The women in the street, they are veiled. But underneath they want exciting and sexy stuff."
That might seem like a contradiction. Egypt remains a deeply conservative society, especially where sex is concerned.
Several years ago, authorities jailed a cinema owner for displaying risque billboards; the actors union is currently up in arms over the criminal conviction of an actor and actress for appearing in a bed scene that somehow found its way back into their film after being cut by government censors.
Even belly dancers are prohibited by law from baring their navels; they have to wear a filmy veil that covers the midriff.
Such attitudes are rooted in the Koran, which enshrines the word of God as related by the Prophet Muhammad. And the Koran is emphatic on the subject of skin: Outside the home and in front of strangers, the holy book says, women should "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands." Exceptions are made for close relatives, small children and slaves.
The Koran contains no prohibition against sex for pleasure, however, and Islamic scholars generally have taken a much more relaxed attitude toward birth control than has the Catholic Church.
A quick check with religious authorities at Al Azhar University, the oldest center of learning in Sunni Islam, confirmed that sexy lingerie can have a place in the private life of a good Muslim.
"There is nothing wrong with a man getting pleasure from his wife . . . as long as both have pleasure (and) as long as they are married," says Sheikh Abdel Azim el Hemaily, a member of Al Azhar's fatwa committee, whose "fatwas," or religious opinions, on topics from organ transplants to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel carry enormous weight in the Muslim world. "If they both fulfill their sexual duty it prevents them from searching elsewhere."
In Moski, a teeming pedestrian bazaar in downtown Cairo, Westerners often do a double take at the sight of lingerie that might arrive in plain brown wrappers back home. But shopkeepers who sell the stuff see no contradiction.
"Even the completely veiled people, they come and buy lingerie," says Mohammed Muharram, 48, whose shop displays wispy teddies with plunging necklines and transparent, Egyptian-made G-strings trimmed with feathers and fringe.
"It's not wrong if she wears it in private," he says before excusing himself to pray. "Our religion is very forgiving toward this sort of thing."