Thursday, July 17, 2008

Modesty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Recently, Anam Majeed wrote a two-part piece for the The Western Muslim on the concept of modesty in the West, with the first of the two entitled Islam, Modesty and Sex in the West. The piece made some valid points, as well as some questionable ones. Overall, Majeed states that modesty is loathed in the West and thus the the hyper-focus on the sexuality of women has made sexuality uninteresting and asexual. If modesty was still held in high regard, sexuality would still be of interest to people. Modesty appears to be defined in one way. But this is the overall gist. Let's get to some of the details.

The piece starts by presenting an 80-year-old quote on modesty and women by D.H. Lawrence from A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the excerpt, D.H. Lawrence (a man) appears to be warning against women showing too much flesh and encourages maintaining modesty. Fair enough. However, having a man telling women how to dress and behave makes myself, and many women, defensive. Additionally, 80 years prior was a long time ago and a very different time. The quote exposes the views of the time by making the woman into a sexual creature whose power resides in her sex and who men desire. This belief seems dated in a Western context, as the feminist movement has brought focus onto the woman as a whole since then, not just her sexuality. A more recent quote would have much better suited the piece.

As I read the article, I began to wonder how Majeed was going to define modesty. What is she picturing when she pictures modesty? The remaining article made it fairly clear that Majeed had one particular version of modesty in mind, which can be problematic regardless of how valid the claims may be.

Majeed makes the extremely exaggerated claim that modesty is "public enemy number one" in the West. This statement may help her 'sell' her article but it creates an unnecessary and simplified dichotomy between the West and modesty, pitting one against the other. This statement implies that modesty is not tolerated in the West. For anyone living in the West, we know this is not the case. Even if modesty is how she defines it. When mocking the West's view of modesty she assumes that modesty is "Little-House-On-the-Prairie chic" or a "too-long skirt" providing insight into her mental images of modest dress.

No doubt, there is a pressure on women to dress stylishly and often that style includes clothing which many Muslim women may not find modest, but the way Majeed presents modesty one would assume non-Muslims of the West loathe and fear modesty. According to Majeed in the West modesty is repressive, controlling of female sexuality, oppressive, and subjugating. Again, a a tall tale, if you ask me. However, if Majeed is thinking of the hijab and/or niqab only when thinking of modesty then such claims make more sense. The hijab and niqab have traditionally been seen in such negative ways, but not modesty itself. When was the last time a knee-length skirt was considered oppressive or subjugating? Majeed appears to be making the assumption that only the hijab and niqab equal modesty. Therefore, throughout my reading of the article I could only assume that the hijab and/or niqab were being referred to when speaking of modesty.

Majeed admonishes the culture in which women feel a pressure to look a certain way. Very valid derision. However, Majeed then continues to deride the stereotype that modesty is not sexy and claims that indeed modesty can be sexy. At this point I began to get confused. Can modesty be sexy? Does sexy not contradict modest? Isn't the point of modesty not attracting attention to oneself while the point of sexy is to attract attention to oneself? Especially since the modesty she refers to is that of the hijab and/or niqab. Should those even be sexy? Would that not defeat the purpose?

While speaking of the pressures women face to look a certain way, Majeed states that we are told by the media that we are ugly unless we do as the marketers say. Women are made to hate our bodies as we are told our bodies are ugly. The way we then feel better about our bodies is by buying the products we are told will beautify us and by seeking male approval (obviously this relates to heterosexual women only). All very good points. Indeed the marketing world does prey on our insecurities about our bodies. However, I'm not clear how modesty is the panacea. The marketing world would still be trying to sell us something by preying on our insecurities about one thing or another (skin colour for instance).

By pointing out the verse in the Qur'an which speaks about modesty, Majeed makes clear that in Islam, all women are considered beautiful. Unlike the common message we receive from the marketers, Islam teaches us that our bodies are beautiful. Again, a great point. Indeed the philosophy that all women are beautiful is one with which many women will agree happily. My confusion occurs again when Majeed then states that women's bodies are not "to be hidden away because of some inherent loathsomeness." On the one hand she is praising and supporting modesty, but on the other she appears to be saying that we do not need to cover our bodies. Does she mean that women's bodies should not be covered? Or that they should be covered but not because we hate our bodies, but because we are told to by the Qur'an?

Finally, Majeed appears to further propagate the belief that women are inherently sexual creatures. We see this in the following quote:

And so, the truly empowering force of modesty can be seen in the woman who fully accepts her desirability, her femininity, her ability to attract a male, her feeling that her sex is too powerful to remain unguarded. This is an innate sense of the female’s power; it is a subconsciously realized truth, one that is so deeply connected with the female psyche that it cannot be labeled as conceit.

So a woman's power thus is her sexuality. What happened to her mind? To her skill? No doubt sexuality is a powerful force, but in both men and women. To state that a woman's power is in her sexuality denies the other ways in which women can hold power.

Majeed is buying into Al-Ghazali's Theory of Sexuality which states that a woman in inherently a fitna (chaos) causing creature whose sexuality is so powerful she must be controlled and kept away from society.

"Thus, the Islamic notion of hayat, or shyness, is like a veil placed upon women to protect them from the power that is their sex."

Al-Ghazali wanted to protect men from women; Majeed wants to protect women from themselves.

Majeed then presents a quote which states that a woman who is not dressed modestly is one who is for "public use." Again, whose definition of modesty do we use when judging which woman is for public use and which is for private use? To imply that a woman is for use at all, whether private or public, is highly offensive. Majeed again should have been careful with which quotes she used.

Majeed ends the piece by again re-iterating that modesty, because it projects self-confidence, is indeed sexy. Fair enough. Perhaps modesty can be sexy. But is it the modesty or the self-confidence? A woman who is not "modest" can also be very self-confident. Again, who decides which woman is modest, and which woman is not?

Overall, Majeed did makes some vaild points. Her criticisms of the marketing world and the pressures on women to look a particular way were accurate and would resonate with many, if not most, women. However, as she never did define modesty, but only gave a few hints as to what her definition was, I was only able to assume what she meant by modesty and the assumption did not serve her argument well. By appearing to define modesty in rigid terms, her arguments only pertained to certain group of women. It also isolated a large group of women who also dress modestly but not as imagined by Majeed. Perhaps a rewriting of the piece with more forms of modesty in mind would help her present her argument more appropriately

Part two for next week.