How Does Modesty Relate to Dress?

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Question and Answer Details

Name of Questioner

M S

Title

How Does Modesty Relate to Dress?

Date

10/Apr/2005

Question

I am interested and intrigued in learning more about Islam and have just read your article online about women and modesty. However it has left me confused and with a couple of questions I am hoping you can address for me. I understand modesty as a behavior—being humble, unpretentious, being noticed for the kind things one does as opposed to one’s appearance, and being truly altruistic—but what I don’t understand is how this relates to dress.

The article seems to imply that women who do not wear oversized clothing, perhaps a head scarf/veil, and who expose legs and arms are doing so explicitly to lure sexual advances or seem sexy. And I am not really sure how that conclusion is drawn. Is it not true that regardless of what one wears—whether modest, culturally conscious, or exposed—it is a form of self-expression? Perhaps it’s just my belief that we are all responsible for our own behavior, and if someone thinks my sleeveless shirt—that I have worn because I like it, or it’s hot out, or it makes me feel good, or was clean, whatever the reason—is sexy, then it is that response that is inappropriate, not necessarily the article of clothing. And is the article saying that men (and inevitably women) are so sexually charged that they cannot control themselves or judge a situation and respond appropriately? Is everyone so preoccupied with sex that it is all we think, see, and are?

I do see the point that it is very nice to be noticed for who one is, and what one does rather then what one looks like, but this form of “modest dress” can frequently be noticed before the person inside is (specifically where it is unpopular and/or in Western areas). And it certainly relays to onlookers (no matter where) one’s gender, inevitably making that woman, “shy” or otherwise, uneasy. I genuinely would appreciate hearing any thoughts in response.

PS. I love “The World in Pictures” on this site. They are amazing!

Topic

Culture & Society

Name of Counselor

Ælfwine Mischler

Answer

Salam, Friend.

Thanks for your questions. I don’t know exactly what article you read, but I have read many on the subject, so I can guess the kind of content.

I must say that I do agree with you in some things here. But I want to make it clear from the start that the Islamic dress code, hijab, is obligatory for Muslim women. Some have argued that it is enough for Muslim women to dress “modestly” by the standards of the society they live in and that they need not cover their hair, for example, but that argument is not supported by the Qur’an, the Sunnah (practice of the Prophet—peace and blessings be upon him), and the consensus of Muslim scholars through the ages.

1. Let me start by commenting on your remark “I understand modesty as a behavior … but what I don’t understand is how this relates to dress.”

I find this odd because I see one’s dress as a very basic behavior, from one’s choice of clothes to buy to one’s decision on what to wear at every occasion, even in the house. Back when I was in Catholic high school, we girls all had to wear the same uniform of a skirt, blouse, and blazer; and whether the school rules or our mothers dictated, the skirts were all about the same length, reaching just to the knee. But there were certain girls who would roll their skirts up at the waist as soon as they got out of the house so that they would expose more of their legs. They certainly knew what they were doing, attracting the boys’ eyes. Their immodesty was directly related to how they dressed.

Go to any shopping mall, office, or other public place and you’ll see a range of dress on women and men. (Let’s not forget that men also have a responsibility to dress modestly.) Can you honestly tell me that you don’t prejudge people, even a little bit, based on how they dress? I’m not necessarily talking about “modesty” here. Would you trust a lawyer who met you for the first time in his/her office dressed in shorts and a tee shirt? Would you trust a physician who came to work in a mechanic’s coveralls? Would you be happy with your husband having a private secretary who wears miniskirts and tight, low-cut tops?

The fact is that people do usually behave differently when they are dressed differently, and consciously or not, we do tend to judge people—men and women—by how they dress.

2. You also wrote “is it not true that regardless of what one wears—whether modest, culturally conscious, or exposed—it is a form of self-expression?”

I totally agree with you on that.

In some Muslim societies where tradition dictates that a woman wear a certain type of outer garment—such as a chador or burqa—there is less opportunity for self-expression. But even there a woman might possibly wear an item that is embroidered (even if in the same color as the garment) to be distinguished, and what she wears underneath will expose when she visits other females is a form of self-expression.

In societies where women have a larger range of choice—such as here in Egypt or in Western countries—their clothing is definitely a form of self-expression. Many of us here choose to wear loose, long garments and head-coverings of one style or another, but we have a great range of colors and choice in how decorated the clothes are. And all of those choices say something about us and our social class—including to some extent our degree of commitment to Islam—though perhaps to an outsider the message is not so clear.

3. You also say that you believe that “we are all responsible for our own behavior, and if someone thinks my sleeveless shirt—that I have worn … [for] whatever the reason—is sexy, then it is that response that is inappropriate, not necessarily the article of clothing.”

Yes, we are all responsible for our own behavior. But part of our behavior is how we dress. A truly modest woman probably would wear her sleeveless blouse only in the house or with a jacket over it, and she’d be sure that she did have something else clean to wear outside.

I don’t think it is fair, in the example you gave, to say that if someone thinks your sleeveless blouse is sexy, it is his responsibility for an inappropriate response. We do know that certain kinds of clothes are likely to draw certain responses, and if we don’t want those responses then we shouldn’t wear those clothes.

4. “And is the article saying that men (and inevitably women) are so sexually charged that they cannot control themselves … ? Is everyone so preoccupied with sex that it is all we think, see, and are?”

No, not everyone is so charged that they can’t control themselves, but some people are. Since we can’t always know them, why should we tempt them? No, sex is not all we think, see, and are, but for many it is a large part of their lives.

I have to admit that I also get a bit impatient with articles that tell women to wear hijab in a way that makes it sound like men can’t control themselves at all.

The Qur’an tells us to dress this way so that we may be recognized as believers, not only so that we may not be sexually harassed and assaulted. I am reminded of a Mormon woman I met some years ago who told me that they, too, have a dress code, though it is not as rigid as the Muslim one. “But on a hot day in summer, you can tell who is a believer and who isn’t,” she said.
5. Your final remark was “I do see the point that it is very nice to be noticed for who one is, and what one does rather then what one looks like, but this form of ‘modest dress’ can frequently be noticed before the person inside is (specifically where it is unpopular and/or in Western areas). And it certainly relays to onlookers (no matter where) one’s gender, inevitably making that woman, “shy” or otherwise, uneasy.”

I think you raised two points here. I’ll address the second one first, that “it certainly relays to onlookers … one’s gender.” There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, Muslims are forbidden to dress like the opposite sex. Most people do wear clothing (or at least a hair style) that identifies their gender, and I doubt if many employers would be happy if an employee (especially a man) showed up dressed as the opposite sex. So there is no reason why a woman should be uneasy because people can see that she’s a woman. Remember that the Qur’an also tells men and women (in that order) to lower their gaze and guard their modesty.

You are correct, of course, in saying that a woman dressed in hijab may have her clothing noticed before she is. By that I understand that you mean she may be the object of prejudice as a result.

My own experience of wearing hijab in the United States (before September 11, 2001) was a positive one. I wore hijab for over 10 years there, and I can count on one hand the number of nasty remarks I got as a result. Most people recognized it as some sort of religious garb—they weren’t always sure what religion—but I often was treated with extra respect by people because of my dress.

Yes, sadly, the events of 9/11 and following have changed that for many Muslim women. Yet few of us remove hijab because we insist that it is our right to practice our religion and dress according to it. So we now find ourselves the victims of prejudice, much as the blacks and other racial or ethnic groups do (or did). The difference is that while they cannot change their skin color, we could change the way we dress—yet most of us don’t. Our hijab is so much a part of us that we could never remove it, and we are proud to wear it.

Muslims must now do what those others who were victims of prejudice did to gain their rights: educate people about who and what we are; become active members of our communities; take our cases to courts; lobby for our rights, etc. It may be a long battle, but we take comfort in knowing that we are obeying the Creator and that He will reward us for our efforts.

And a woman does have some flexibility in the style of hijab she wears, so she need not look too “foreign” while still following the Islamic dress code.

I hope these remarks have clarified things for you, Meredith. I hope you will continue to learn more about Islam. If you have any more questions, please send them to us.

Thank you and salam.








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