Modesty

Discussion in 'Abrahamic Religions' started by path_of_one, May 18, 2009.

  1. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    I've read some interesting articles about modesty from a variety of sources in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim arena. Some of the most spirited debates I've personally read are in the realm of the Quakers, who are trying to figure out what modesty and simplicity mean for Western folks. For example, if modesty is designed to not call attention to oneself, is adhering to dress codes that are out of place and thus *do* call attention to oneself still modesty?

    I'm thinking, for example, of the old-fashioned Quaker plain dress (think mid-1800s dress with bonnet and scarf over chest for women, trousers with shirt and vest and broad-brimmed hat for men), but this could also be easily applied to any sort of traditionally modest religious garb.

    Is modesty only about sexuality, or is it also about not calling attention to oneself? As a Christian, I'm thinking about the potential interpretations of being "not of this world," Paul's injunction to cover one's head in the epistles (which most Christian women do not do), and the message that we aren't to be too attention-seeking in our faith practices (i.e., if we fast, we should not make this obvious, etc.). But I imagine that in Islam and Judaism, there is also this tension between modesty in the sense of covering up and modesty in the sense of not calling attention to oneself.

    Another thing I wonder about is the equality issue for men and women. When I've looked at Islam, for example, I know that ideally, both men and women cover up with loose clothing and wear something on their head. I see this in Judaism as well. But in the Western world, it seems very easy for a man to be "modest" and yet blend in perfectly, while for women, the instant you would put a scarf, bonnet, or anything else over your hair, you become conspicuous (unless it is a beanie in the snow, LOL, or a sun hat).

    Last year, being caught in a pouring rain without an umbrella, I pulled out my neck scarf and tied it over my hair and neck to keep out the rain. I had on a long gray wool coat as well, with a long skirt under it. Suddenly, I looked conspicuous. People looked at me, stared. I think they were trying to figure out what I was. It suddenly made me realize how uncomfortable it would be to do that every day, and this is precisely what many Muslim women choose to do. It was an interesting unplanned experience. I've dressed Victorian goth before and people stare, but it is a different kind of stare. It was an interesting comparison for me.

    So, do you think modesty rules are equal for men and women, and should there be some insistence that they are, to level the playing field so to speak and get men to experience the same sort of discomfort?

    Finally, with regards to sexuality... I confess I am skeptical that covering women assists with better relationships between men and women. I grew up in southern California, the land of showing skin, and I've studied a lot of other cultures. Many traditional/indigenous cultures let people run around mostly naked and yet have very few problems with rape or assault, and cultural conditioning seems to work as a fine barrier rather than offloading this responsibility to women. It seems that if you cover various body parts, you may just be sexualizing them, making it easier for men to become aroused when they see them. For example, in Victorian times, showing your ankle or elbow would be immodest and people thought it would incite sexual arousal. In California we show our ankles and elbows most of the year, and no one cares. It would be considered a fetish or unnatural sexual desire if a man were aroused only by an ankle or knee or elbow. So in some ways, by being less covered, to a certain degree we are retraining ourselves not to see the body as a sexual object. Of course, this has limits.

    At the same time, I realize in my own culture that our "freedom" as women often translates to a prison of worry about our appearance and aging. Women are often ashamed of their bodies' wrinkles, stretch marks, and other signs of motherhood and age, which I find sad. While I am skeptical about the value of loose and broad-coverage clothing for promoting proper male-female conduct, I can easily see how it could promote women feeling better about themselves. Much harder to compare yourself to everyone else if you're all draped. Of course, draping garments just don't seem to work well for some activities. I am thinking, for example, of some of my hobbies- backpacking, horseback riding, mucking out at the barn. Things that are physical work better without a bunch of extra cloth getting in the way. Are women just not supposed to do stuff that is physical if they are "modest"? Isn't that a bit unfair?

    I seriously contemplated plain dress as a Quaker for a while, but after trying on the clothes, found it uncomfortable and well, plain. I mostly wear white, gray, black, and neutrals anyway, but I'm a girl and I like pretty things. :) I've bought some Muslim clothing because I find it beautiful, but not because I think it's necessary, and to be honest, while it would work wonderful for everyday activities, again- these floor-length skirts and so forth are lousy for exercise of most sorts. As for head coverings, to be honest, I find the Muslim ones to be most beautiful and feminine- quite alluring really. But I hate the feeling of stuff around my neck and chin, and the skin on my face/neck is so sensitive that it turns bright red when I have stuff on it. LOL This is also why I detest turtlenecks and riding helmets (with that horrible strap under one's chin). I suppose that observant modest folks just deal with it if they hate how their clothes feel, but seems a bit unfair to them?

    Anyhoo, my varied thoughts. Care to share yours? It's an area I've been entertaining for years but never do find any conclusions.
     
  2. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    The Quakers I know don't dress all that differently out here on the east coast. The Mennonites and Amish however are very distinctive with their dress as well as Apostolic women with their long hair and long dresses.

    These three groups are identifiable when you see a group of women (young and old) all in long dresses and their hair down to their waists or beyond or tied in buns.. Individually you wouldn't notice them as much. The colors aren't as muted anymore, flowered dresses and bright colors abound with them all, the critical item is covering the legs. The men are all black and grey...white shirts suspenders (not apostolics the men dress more contemporary).

    Sunday for a local Mennonite family is family day. And they'll go out on the river ice skating or rowing in their boat or swimming or fishing depending on the weather. When it comes to swimming the boys swim separate from the girls (family of 10 kids) and all swim fully clothed. I guess there is a concern for the wet clothes clinging too tightly.

    As for modesty in the west. There is some ludicrous behaviour in my opinion. Now I am not of the ilk that says 'she deserved it by the way she dressed', but the dichotomy in the way women dress and what they say is rediculous at times. We've all seen the t-shirt that says, "My eyes are up here" Well in reality if you are wearing a low cut dress you are wearing one that says "look at my ample bosum". One can say what they wish, but the same with men, if they are wearing four buttons unbuttoned and gold chains they are acting like a peacock strutting its stuff. This is a can't have your cake and eat it too situation in my mind.
     
  3. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    I think I recall a verse either in the Koran or the Hadith, instructing Muslim women to be veiled so that other Muslims would be able to identify them as Muslim. This would be an example of standing out, rather than blending in, imo.
     
  4. 17th Angel

    17th Angel לבעוט את התחת ולקחת שמות

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    Well which was it? Care to share you're source?
     
  5. Snoopy

    Snoopy Well-Known Member

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    I can only opine on my own culture/society, but doesn't modesty in dress reflect an underlying attitude of care and respect, and specifically self-respect?

    s.
     
  6. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    It would seem, yes, but only with the caveat that nudity or partial nudity is first culturally viewed as sexual and disrespectful.

    What I mean is that when you look at small-scale societies, particularly in tropical areas, you often get a lot of nudity, yet people do not necessarily view it as sexual or disrespectful. The human body is, on its own, neutral (at least, this is my belief). There is nothing innately bad about our body. It is how our culture uses the body.

    This is what I was getting at with a knee or elbow. Clearly, there are some body parts that are sexual to many people (though still not all, as we see with some tropical cultures) and yet there are other body parts that are only seen as sexual/disrespectful by some. A knee might be shocking one part of the world, whereas in California it is quite modest to wear a skirt to just above the knee.

    All of this makes it seem that while modesty is nearly universally valued, standards of modesty are almost entirely culturally scripted. We have to learn what is immodest, and in doing so, we also learn what is sexual.
     
  7. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    nudity when first encountered typically has a sexual response. However spending time at a nudist beach the norm changes and without our trappings indicating whether we have designer this or that a nude beach or camp can become quite the economic leveler...we are all human...and there are just a bunch of naked bodies...

    Now take those same bodies and cover them in various swim suits of various sizes and the sexual titilation increases...

    Leave a man to a long winter and he starts galking at the slit in a woman's skirt that shows a little calf and gets excited...

    ie the sexual exitement is about what the way something is concealed.
     
  8. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    Interesting observation Wil, and just what I am getting at. A friend of mine spent time in Norway and explained that at first, a nude beach was like :eek: if you're not used to it. But then you look around and, well, everyone is nude- old people, families. Suddenly, it's not sexual anymore. It's just the human body enjoying the sun and water.

    So covering up one's body is not necessarily the answer for modesty. It can just make other body parts seem more sexual, as we see with the Victorian era and so forth.

    And yet at the same time, revealing body parts is not necessarily the best action, either. I suppose a lot depends on people's cultural perspective and what is appropriate in a particular social context. But then it all really begs the question about the way the orthodox in each of these faiths have defined modesty relative to the particular cultural and historical context from which the faiths sprung.

    What is modest as a Buddhist nun is a robe and a shaved head. What is modest as an Amish woman is long hair and a see-through cap. What is modest as a Muslim woman is long hair totally covered by a scarf. What is modest as an Orthodox Jew is long hair covered by a wig.

    While I see the value of modesty as an ideal, I am failing to see why any of these culturally approved options is better than another, or more completely embraces the real essence of modesty. I am also failing to see why any of them is better than the nude beach, so long as people have learned to see the human body as a vessel of God and not for sexual purposes.

    Is modesty something that is interior or exterior? That is, if a person's mind is pure, is their naked body not something beautiful and pure also? And if someone's mind is not pure, all the clothing in the world will not fix the problem, will it?

    Mind you, I'm not advocating nudity or any particular code of dress, but one has to wonder why any particular dress code could be rationally seen as more modest than another, as much depends on how it is interpreted by others.
     
  9. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    Sums it up pretty well, I think. (But you know how we humans like to sweep things under the rug, or whitewash things.)
     
  10. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Depending on your environment, there maybe very little "out of the ordinary about "Muslim" dress. Most modern urban people are very used to seeing it and don't pay any attention to it at all as far as I can tell.

    Btw, it appears there is no basis for veils in Islam. So I am puzzled why Westerners are so quick to use the term "Islamic" for a dress code that was apparently developed by pre-Islamic Persian aristocracy.

    I have never seen anyone stare at a woman wearing "Islamic" garb.


    I'm not sure there's any such thing as "Muslim head coverings."
     
  11. Tao_Equus

    Tao_Equus Interfaith Forums

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    I can see why you, PoO, have trouble with this whole can of worms. It is so complex and so often contradictory. Generalisations can be made though. Well at least for Mr Generalisation, my poor wee self.

    I think a good starting point is to look at the evolution of physical modesty, as best we can. Tribal societies where the weather and flora allow tend to be near naked....complete common sense. Where there is no jungle and its hot some cloth is very helpful and as we get into temperate and cold climates clothing is essential at least part of the year. I think that in addition to climatic consideration the human ape inevitably used clothing as props in its mating rituals. And it is from this that modesty, and all its associates, are evolved and are maintained.

    It is easy for me to jump on any of the Abrahamics and demonstrate their hijacking of balance by their insidiously overt misogyny. Yet it seems misogyny and the price of woman is a rule with few exceptions. Women have had a very tough time of it.

    Yet the rules of sex are there are no rules. It does not matter a cassock or a veil. None of those stop that first giggle or wiggle. Where on top of the indignity of a beautiful woman having to hide in a sack you have rigorous policing by the grooms family you see nothing but the protection of an investment. They are not called marriage contracts for nothing. But in every society lovers find a way.

    In the Secular West we had a scientific revolution on which a new philosophy was built. Religion and the ideology of masculine supremacy were challenged by that science. Then came mass media....and its insatiable desire to sell product. Religion suddenly found itself with a second front!! Yet there are more subtle truths hidden in there. All the religions do pretty well out of moral outrage. It keeps the flocks happy after all. People are the same everywhere, they all need the gossip. And something to bring themselves off on as soon as they get a spare minute.

    Every culture has its feminine and masculine ideal and only a minority will ever be a good match for it. People less than perfect have a kind of bitchy incentive to critique the flaunters. And lets face it no matter how much of a Venus or Eros you may be the main genital regions have a rather more unpleasant dual usage. Nobody (normal) wants to see nor be seen doing their ablutions.

    The subject actually makes me dizzy. Hence the barely coherant string to all this. There are just so many influences but I think I'm with Freud on this one, they are dominated by sex.
     
  12. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    took some friends to a nude beach once...

    they thought we were kiddin (my wife and I)

    when we got there they were too embarrassed to take off their clothes..

    after a while they were too embarrassed because they were too conspicuous
     
  13. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    I see it around in urban cultures as well, but I still see people pay attention. I've also discussed the issue with Muslim women in religious studies groups before, and they also expressed being noticed and feeling conspicuous. I dunno. It could be just the two cities I've been in or that I have too small a sample. But particularly after 9/11 and media coverage, I doubt it.

    Because many, perhaps most, Muslims in the world today believe the hijab is appropriate dress for a woman. We could ask our Muslim sisters and brothers to discuss this, but I believe there is already a thread that speaks to veiling and its relationship to Muslim identity here:

    http://www.interfaith.org/forum/questions-11389.html

    Whether it is an appropriate or necessary reading of the Quran I can't say, because I am not a Muslim nor am I particularly well-versed in interpreting the Quran and hadith.

    I have, and have had students and co-workers asked about their wardrobe due to hijab. I have also met Muslim women who were lectured by non-Muslim women about how they are oppressed for wearing hijab.

    There are various ways to wear hijab, but it seems fairly prevalent. Sorry I wasn't specific, but of course some people wear it a bit differently or even wear niqab, which I rarely see on the West coast, but when I have (at the airport) it got quite a bit of attention.
     
  14. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    "it appears there is no basis for veils in Islam. So I am puzzled why Westerners are so quick to use the term "Islamic" for a dress code that was apparently developed by pre-Islamic Persian aristocracy. "
    Again, there is nothing "Islamic" about head covering and I assume you have no survey results to show that Muslim women are making a religious connection.

    From the perspective of cultural relativism, we recognize the importance of time and place. Trends are regional and subject to change over time. But in some places there has been relatively little change in matters of dress. There are Islamic tribes in Afghanistan where women have historically never worn head coverings of any kind. This is also true for some Near Eastern countries.

    Assuming we could find a survey that supports your contention about hijab being perceived as appropriate dress for women. I'm not sure what we'd make of it. Cultural conventions in a country with a certain predominant religion do not necessarily reflect on that religion.

    Cultural code and religious code are not the same. This would explain why you can find Muslim communities where women have never worn head coverings, where the so-called "Muslim dress code" is simply nonexistent. On the other hand, in a country like Iran, Saudi Arabia and post-Suharto Indonesia we see evidence of a rapid change with regard to dress code in connection with political and social change. It's hard to identify for an absolute standard when the people would presume to uphold it are tinkering with it and the motives for doing so are so obviously political.

    I personally think it would be rude and intrusive to ask people about their clothes - especially in a society that presumably prides itself on freedom of expression.

    Perhaps the same folks that lectured those Islamic women would also like to lecture Indian, Sihk, Jain, and Parsi Zoroastrian women, who wear Odhani head dress:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  15. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    It's the times when these things are done for political reasons that the women choosing a shaved head would be appropriate instead of the veil, imo. :mad:

    It's all the more rude and intrusive when clothing type is forced.
     
  16. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    I work with Muslim men and men from India at one of my jobs. (I'm the only woman who works there, and they can be quite protective of me.)

    One sunny but cold autumn day, I needed to stop off at work to pick up a few things during my off time. Since it was unseasonably cold, I wore a polar fleece sweater with the hood pulled up over my head under my long trenchcoat to keep warm.

    When I walked in to work, the men seemed skittish and gave me a wide berth while I was collecting the things I needed. I noticed this, so I approached one of them after I got the items I needed and started chatting. He got a strange look on his face, and then said, "It's cold outside, isn't it?"
    I smiled and answered, "I'm freezing my butt off!"
    When I said, this, all the men visibly relaxed. When I realized that they thought I was upset by the way that I was dressed, I added, "It might be cold, but it's sunny."
    The men all started smiling when I said that.
    It's interesting how these things work. :)
     
  17. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised
    ~Proverbs 31:30

    The appearance of modesty could actually be a form of self-enhancement. It's a way of projecting something about the woman that makes them more desirable to men who pick up on the social cue.



    For a Westerner to confront Muslim women on their choice of clothes is a form of psychological coercion.

    I wonder about the extent to which it is forced in Muslim countries. Wasn't there a survey that showed the majority of modern Muslim men believe women should exercise their own judgment about the clothes they wear?
     
  18. lunamoth

    lunamoth Episcopalian

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    I dress modestly but not for any religious or esp. 'Biblical' reasons. I dress modestly because that is who I am and the image I wish to project. I think the female body is beautiful and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It's fine to wear a string bikini at the beach or go nude at a nude beach, if that is part of the culture. But, to wear see-through blouses or crotch-revealing mini-skirts or shorts around town I think projects an image of sexuality on display for the purpose of either 1) inviting sex or 2) a power play. I do not think it should ever invite violence or touching, but don't then get angry if men stare, ask you out, and think of you as a sex object.

    How many men really would like their wives to wear skin-tight and highly revealing clothes in public? I think that says a lot about the line on our standards of modesty.

    Basically I think that modesty is culturally set and that is just fine. It is silly to try to apply the cultural norms of the Bible to today.
     
  19. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    Almost all of the Muslim women I have spoken to in the U.S. who choose to wear hijab have said they do so for religious reasons. These may be interpretive reasons (i.e., that hijab is not the only proper interpretation of the Quran verses on modesty, but rather it is a culturally acceptable and readily available way to physically interpret those verses). However, I have only found one woman wearing hijab who was not a Muslim and did not see it as a religious act. Most women I talked with cited it as a religious act of submission to God first, and other side benefits (such as being "off limits" to men) second.

    No, it was not a thorough survey nor was it a scientific study. But such has been my observations. I would imagine it would be different in a cultural context in which most women are wearing hijab, as opposed to the US in which hijab is a consciously made choice and stands out from the crowd. I agree that it is, from the outside perspective, often political in nature, particularly when forced. Yet, from the inside perspective of a Muslim woman... I cannot say without being a Muslim woman. I have to take their word on why they wear hijab or niqab and how they interpret it.

    I agree. But such is the dissonance in US culture.

    That is presuming your average US person can notice the difference or even realizes there are more people who wear a veil than only Muslims. Many don't. After 9/11, many Sikhs were attacked. People assumed that since they wore turbans and veils, they were Muslim.
     
  20. seattlegal

    seattlegal Mercuræn Buddhist

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    I agree.

    That would probably vary widely depending upon the country. (Not allowing women choice in their clothing is probably more political and/or cultural than anything else, imo.)
     

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