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Posts Tagged ‘modesty’

Modesty isn’t what I’d describe as a universal religious issue.  When modesty is being couched in religious terms, it almost always is from our more conservative members.  I think there’s the misperception by many in our culture, including in the Christian community, that calls for modesty are either a) attempts to inhibit freedom of expression b) sexism/patriarchalism c) both.

I attended a Christian school for three years.  There was a dress code for boys and for girls.  I still remember one of my male teachers telling me and the other girls in my class how we had a “responsibility” to dress modestly so as “not to cause [our] Christian brothers to sin”.  All us girls also were held back one day after an assembly and were reminded about our need to dress modestly and how it distracted the boys while they were in class.  Overall, the message about modesty was that we girls needed to dress modestly because of the boys.  That is, so often, the message about modesty that seems to come through.  Very rarely do Christians focus on the benefits of modest dress for girls and feminists seem to oppose modesty on the very basis that it so often seems to be about the boys and therefore must be something we should get over.

I prefer to dress modestly and to cover myself and I do this for several reasons.  How we dress is part of how others form perceptions, whether we prefer it or not.  It comforts me to know that I’ve mitigated, as much as I can, someone looking at me in an uncomfortable or inappropriate way.  I like to know that I portray an image of maturity and moderation.  While it’s sad that people are judged based on their dress, it is a fact.  I find that when I’m dressed modestly, it’s not simply that others take me seriously, I take myself more seriously. 

I find that in modest dress I am more comfortable with myself.  I have more confidence and am more self-assured than I would be otherwise.  Living as a girl in modern America, we are constantly assaulted by advertisements and marketers.  One cannot even walk in the mall near my town without televisions showing more advertisements.  Everyone, it seems, is telling girls who they should be, what they should wear, what they should look like.  Everyone wants a piece of who girls are.  Dressing modestly is my way of owning myself.  In this advertisement-saturated society, it is my reminder that there is something in this world that belongs solely to me and cannot be taken away.  It reminds me that I have a self, I am in control of that self, and that it is no one’s but mine. 

While women in America often look at women in the Middle East who wear burqas and hijab as oppressed and unfortunate, many women look at American women and see the same thing.  In the book Half the Sky (an excellent book, by the way) it says, “When Nick quizzed a group of female Saudi doctors and nurses in Riyadh about women’s rights they bristled.  ‘Why do foreigners always ask about clothing?’ one woman doctor asked.  ‘Why does it matter so much what we wear?  Of all the issues in the world, is that really so important?’  Another said: ‘You think we’re victims, because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing.  But we think that it’s Western women who are repressed, because they have to show their bodies—even go through surgery to change their bodies—to please men.’”  In another excellent book called Nine Parts of Desire a veiled woman said: “She felt easier dealing with men.  ‘They have to deal with my mind, not my body.’” 

While I agree that in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter what we wore and we would be free to choose our clothes simply by self-expression, we live in a world that is more complex in that.  I am not trying to say that there is anything wrong with dressing less modestly, or that it is ever condonable when women are forced to dress modestly against their will, but I feel in America, feminists currently view modesty as selling out.  I believe that it is an option that should be respected just as much as any other choice of dress, and should be seen not as a symbol of oppression but a reclaimed tool of self-empowerment.

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The Muslim practice of women wearing headscarves to cover their hair and neck has become a symbol in the United States for Islamic women.  Some see it as a symbol of their refusal to integrate into American society, some see it as the exercise of their religious beliefs, some see it as a sign of their oppression by men.  For most of these young women their choice of clothing is something that is reflective of their personal faith and they hold to that even in the face of ridicule or judgment by people around them.

Let’s just start with some terminology.   There are many different types of coverings, the four major ones being the hijab, the chador, the burqa, and the niqab.  The hijab is a headscarf that covers women’s hair and necks.  The chador is a full-body wear that is similar to a cloak and it leaves her face exposed.  The niqab is a full-body covering that covers everything except the eyes.  The burqa covers the eyes as well, leaving only a mesh covering to see through.  As a sidenote, the now-infamous headscarf ban in France bans only the burqa and the niqab and not the hijab and chador (though these things are not allowed in places like French schools where wearing pieces of religious symbolism is forbidden).  Hijab is also, at times, used to refer to the overall practice of modest dress.  Modest dress is interpreted several ways, most believe that it should not be form-fitting and many believe it should cover everything except face and hands (and some believe those too should be covered).

Women and girls wearing some form of the headscarf is becoming increasingly common.  While some are resistant to our country changing, I believe that it is America’s versatility and ability to change that is part of what makes this a great nation.  Just as with civil rights, an African-American girl also started to become a face of America, along with her blonde hair, blue-eyed counterpart, or as Asian-American girls also became common to see in the media, so I think that these Muslim girls are also becoming another face of America, something that bothers a great number of people.  This girl—a young woman with a hijab covering her hair, a loose-fitting shirt with long sleeves, and slacks—she is also America.

Common misperception: only immigrant women and girls still wear the headscarf and wearing it is a sign that they have not integrated into American culture.  This is false.  A large percentage of the women who wear the headscarf were born and raised in America, just like the rest of us.

Common misperception: most girls only wear the headscarf because they are forced to by their families or husbands.  This is also false.  While there are cases where women are forced by their families to wear the headscarf (particularly abroad) the majority of women make this choice freely. For the record though, in a way, isn’t a family encouraging a girl to wear a headscarf or cover herself not that different from when our parents refused to buy us a piece of clothing or leave the house in an outfit because we were wearing a short skirt or a low top?  Or when we’ve done that to our daughter?  Standards of appropriate dress are different in every family, we know this.  While this does not excuse someone forcing their daughter or wife to wear something against their will, perhaps looking at it from this perspective we might understand better why some families strongly wish their daughters to dress in a way that they think is appropriate.

Most women who cover themselves do so out of a personal choice.  They do it because they feel it is something that is mandated by their religion.  Or some do it because it is part of their faith and spirituality, it helps them to connect with God.  Some do it because they feel that, similarly while many Christians believe in saving aspects of physicality (like sex) for marriage and in only giving that to one person, they also believe in only showing themselves to their family and husband.  And there are some who do it because they prefer to dress modestly as a way of respecting themselves and their body.  Instead of feeling commoditized or insecure about body image, they cover themselves as a way of taking focus away from their body and back to where they believe it truly belongs: their heart and mind.  Many would prefer the stares from their modest dress and headscarf than the stares of boys on a street corner.  Whatever motivates Muslim women to wear their headscarves and modest dress, for many of them it is a deeply personal choice that they make because they feel that this best reflects their faith and beliefs.  Christians should understand this since so many Christians also believe in dressing modestly.  This is just a different aspect and a different way of reflecting a similar belief and practice across our religions.

However, instead many Muslim women feel isolated or ostracized.  They feel pressure from peers and get disrespectful questions about their choices.  At times they have been shouted at, had people try to pull their headscarves off, and there are even a few cases where women wearing hijab have been attacked.  In spite of public disapproval, they have continued to express their faith and they should be admired for that.  We should be supporting these women’s choice instead of condemning them or judging them.

There is a lawsuit going forward by a young Muslim woman against Abercrombie and Fitch after she was allegedly fired because they said her headscarf did not conform with their company dress code.  She had been working without a problem for a number of months and had been sure to wear her hijab in company-approved colors until a district manager saw her.  When she refused to take off her hijab while at work she was fired from her job.  (It is worth noting that this is not the first time since Abercrombie and Fitch have been sued for discrimination).

Abercrombie and Fitch has a specific dress code that they require all their employees to wear, the idea being that the dress code is supposed to reflect their “All-American Style”.  Apparently they do not believe that a hijab is an American style, that it is not All-American.  Aside from the fact that by extension this is implying that they don’t see people who wear the hijab as truly American and the indignity of this, they are wrong.  We are entitled, under the bill of rights, to freedom of expression and that there shall be nothing to prohibit the free exercise of religion.  It is this freedom that entitles us to express our Christian faith, such as wearing a cross.  And all who value their religious freedom should do their utmost to defend it for others.   But further, that these women are free to wear their hijab and express their faith in this way is not un-American.  In fact, having this freedom and right of religion and expression (and to be able to live in a society that accepts their choice) is quintessentially American.

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