“Modesty”–more unpacking

Sorting through all the mental baggage that those experiences have left with me, one thing that I notice is… shame. There is still a residue of shame about the body. My body, as well about other female bodies. The idea that a woman who is sensibly dressed for jogging or yard work or whatever-it-is in the middle of the summer is being “immodest.” The idea that being uncomfortable in order to cover a bit more skin is better than the “shame” of exposure. And that judg-y undercurrent that still to some extent filters my perceptions.

As well as the constant awareness of being (for lack of a better word) seen, whenever I am in places that Muslims might be. Seen, and judged.

Back in the day, we used to interpret feelings of shame about our bodies and others, as well as that feeling of being “seen” as a positive sign that at last we were managing to internalize “true modesty.” Our consciences had become Islamified, we thought… and that could only be a good thing. We must be increasing in iman and taqwa.

Now, I suspect that these feelings and thoughts had little or nothing to do with either iman or taqwa. Sure, we strongly believed that hijab is an obligation and that whatever we did God would see and punish or reward us accordingly (note the order). But we were also immersed in an environment in which women’s bodies, clothing and behavior were constantly being scrutinized and piously dissected. To this day, those judgmental (and usually male) voices sometimes pop into my mind unbidden whenever I see a woman wearing something that we used to be cautioned about in the past. Or for that matter, when I get dressed in the morning.

There’s an awful lot of glurge on the internetz about “Islamic modesty.” So, I was delighted to see an article that takes apart the usual apologetics (that yes, I used to repeat back when I was a hijabi…) about hijab as something that frees women from objectification:

“…Mainstream religious modesty and fashion/pornography both treat women as erotic objects: people whose bodies, hair, and even voices are sexual by nature. (This is why breastfeeding is taboo for so many people: breasts have been defined – by men, of course – as inherently sexual, regardless of context.) By treating women as sexual objects whose interests are secondary to those of men, both groups have created a culture which empowers men to police women’s appearance through scrutiny and criticism.

Posing for Playboy does not challenge mainstream religious conservatism, because religious modesty begins with the assumption that women are Playmates (whose bodies, as sexual objects, must be hidden from society and surrendered to husbands). And wearing a headscarf to cover your “charms” does not really challenge the fashion industry, because the industry already views women’s bodies as a fitna (to be packaged and sold). The two sides disagree about “what is to be done” to women, but not about what women’s bodies fundamentally are….”

Yes, yes, and yes.

Instead of dressing for the secular heterosexual male gaze, we dressed with the standards set by conservative Muslim male scholars (and sometimes affirmed by conservative Muslim women) in mind. Strict hijab outside the house, or whenever we might be glimpsed by men who weren’t our maharim. At the same time, we were supposed to adorn ourselves for our husbands at home. And we were told that this is liberation.

If it didn’t feel all that liberating, then it must be because we didn’t have enough faith, or because we hadn’t surrendered completely to God’s will, or because we were corrupted by modernity. After all, it had to be good and just, because this was the way God wanted it.

This was years before I would read Kecia Ali, and realize that in fact, it wasn’t ever meant to be liberating—at least not in the way we thought that it should be. The jurists hadn’t been concerned with freeing all women from objectifying male gazes or giving women the right to decide who should or shouldn’t have the privilege of looking at her. They had been concerned with social order, and to their minds, controlling women’s sexuality (especially in the case of free as opposed to slave women), was a necessary part of that.

We had believed that by wearing hijab, we were following in the footsteps of the pious women of the past, like Rabia of Basra, who had somehow managed to find an escape hatch in the patriarchal structure and in a sense, leave behind their bodies. That by deemphasizing the body, we were doing something very different than those “worldly” women who wore the latest fashions. And that if we sometimes felt objectified by all the scrutiny, then it was just our nafs and we needed to learn to be more humble…..

And now, to realize that essentially we were had. That we never felt that we had escaped the male gaze because in reality, we never did escape it. We internalized it, and heard it as God’s voice.

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  1. #1 by Vicky on January 20, 2014 - 12:56 am

    This is something that bothers me so much. Living in the Middle East for so much of my life (in various different countries), and having Muslim friends and acquaintances in the UK, I am on the receiving end of a lot of daw’ah attempts – from strangers on the bus to people who know me well enough to be concerned that I might be shoved on the cosmic barbecue when I die. And almost all the preaching focuses on how liberated I could be if I changed the way I dress. I have often wondered why this is so central to daw’ah, as opposed to prayer, for example.

    It reminds me of the Bible verse, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” in a very literal way: I know that the ‘man’ in the text refers to humanity as a whole and it’s just a patriarchal use of language, but to my mind it applies specifically. Men are obsessed with how women are dressing, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re slavering over Playboy magazine or making posters that show ‘correct’ hijab – it’s all the same thing, the same mentality. I am not dignified by the suggestion that my wrists are so erotic that they ought to be covered up for the exclusive enjoyment of my husband. That is about as much a compliment as being groped in the street, because it amounts to the same message – “You are a sex object”. It upsets me. Reading your post has helped me to understand why it upsets me. Up until now, I have been soothing myself with, “They’re well-intentioned, you know that,” and, “They only want to be kind” – but I do not say this to myself when someone wolf-whistles me in the street and tells me that if I put on a bit of weight I’d be gorgeous. In that circumstance I feel that I have every right to be annoyed. So surely I have an equal right to be annoyed when a stranger plunks herself down next to me on the bus and launches into a speech about how I would look more truly beautiful in hijab, or a friend shares a Facebook picture comparing hijabi women to pearls inside oysters? It’s the same thing. I have been making excuses for the second sort of objectification, and I need to find a better way to respond to it than just smiling politely.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 21, 2014 - 2:44 am

      Oh yes, the woman in hijab is like a pearl in an oyster thing… good grief.
      In those days, we somehow never noticed that comparing women to pearls, jewels—or even in one odd little poem aimed at preteen girls, to peas in pods and oranges in their shiny thick peels(!?)—that we were really objectifying ourselves. Pearls are objects to be bought, sold, owned, hidden away… ditto for jewels.

      I’m not sure how best to respond to unsolicited advice about one’s appearance. That’s really annoying and intrusive behavior on their part.

      Love the expression “cosmic barbeque”, btw. 🙂

    • #3 by nmr on January 22, 2014 - 12:06 am

      Maybe a little lecture of your own along the lines of Karl Marx’s “commodity fetishism”?

  2. #4 by Ex-H on January 20, 2014 - 1:06 am

    As I was reading this, I just kept nodding. Speaking as a woman who was raised in a conservative Islamic community, I was fed every apologetic line of hijab since birth and by the time I wore it at eight, I did believe that it protected me. Being young, I defined the hijab as the extra clothing I had to wear and never took the time to understand the message behind it (beside the apologetic messages, anyway). But this line stuck out to me:

    At the same time, we were supposed to adorn ourselves for our husbands at home. And we were told that this is liberation.

    This is when you realize that all of those messages about modesty and how important it was for us to cover because we were special, or prized (like Queen Elizabeth, as one apologetic meme explains) is crap. Rather than being objectified by all men, we were basically being told to allow ourselves to objectified by one – our husband. Like you wrote, we were encouraged to beautify ourselves for him, to take care of our looks, buy the latest fashions to wear at home – all for him. And I find that to be a much more troubling message to send young girls.

    • #5 by xcwn on January 21, 2014 - 2:51 am

      Yes, it’s a really disturbing idea. Like men have a right to their own personal Playmate. Which is again, more objectification.

      I’ve never encountered the comparison to Queen Elizabeth. LOL. She sometimes wears an Audry Hepburn-ish scarf, but that’s about it.

      • #6 by Ex-H on January 21, 2014 - 4:10 am

        Queen Elizabeth comparison was made in some meme when a nonMuslim asked a sheikh/imam why Muslim women couldn’t shake a man’s hand. The sheikh/imam responded with, “Do you shake Queen Elizabeth’s hand? No? Because she’s the most important woman in England. That’s why we don’t shake our women’s hands. They’re too important.” So it wasn’t really a comparison with her wardrobe just a *nudgenudge* to how important and treasured Muslim women are, only their husbands can see them and no man can shake their hands. They are like precious, precious jewelry, not just anyone can touch them.
        I found it eye-roll-y even when I did like hijab.

      • #7 by xcwn on January 22, 2014 - 2:39 am

        Oh, I see. So, does that mean that the shaykh also instructs Muslim men to bow when greeting women instead? 🙂

  3. #8 by threekidsandi on January 20, 2014 - 1:55 am

    Yes. This is exactly right.

  4. #9 by DBS on March 3, 2014 - 9:30 pm

    Well said… These same apologetics are used in other religions as well.

  5. #10 by beeluci on January 30, 2015 - 5:07 am

    I lived in a Muslim country when I was 12/13 and it increased my shame in my body and sexuality. I was only briefly exposed. My sympathies to all who grew up with this.

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