I was told that what I wore played an immense role in how I would be treated. Not only that, but I was told that what I wanted to wear was ‘immodest’. That term sounded sinful, dirty, and bad to my young ears. It seemed almost inconceivable that a young girl could be ‘immodest’ and be accepted by society. I was forced to police my body and maintain constant vigilance, under the guise of ‘modesty’.
The thing about modesty is that it lies in the eyes of others. The understanding of modesty I grew up with is inherently tied to policing of bodies, to the fact that others could dictate who you are and how you can be perceived.
The first use of modesty was associated with balance and moderation. It’s a term that arose out of the era of Enlightenment – it revolved around reason, restraint, and order. It’s turned from being about one’s attitude to being about one’s body; specifically the woman’s body. It’s gone from being humble and balanced to being conservative and narrow. Being modest is something that is ascribed to you, making it fickle, superficial, and difficult to attain. Since it depends on others’ perceptions, it becomes unattainable, a way for others to control you.
Growing up, I was told that talking to boys, or spending time alone with male cousins, could be construed as ‘immodest’. I was told off for having male friends, for attending tutoring classes with boys, for hanging out with male family members! I’m not alone in this, and the Muslim community does have restricted, constraining ideas on modesty.
It became about one-sided restraint.
Women must be modest, must be covered, must be restrained. What would others think? The worst thing about modesty, in my opinion, is how it’s enforced – not by men, but by other women. My mother would tell me to be modest, women in my community lectured me about modesty, which went beyond attitudes to include behavior and actions.
I was asked to cover up and wear loose-fitting clothes (so no jeans), and I was not allowed to have male friends. I have a distinct memory of getting punished and called ‘shameless’ and ‘immodest’ when a boy I went to tutoring with called my house to ask my questions about the physics assignment that was due. It was confusing, and it angered me – I didn’t even see this boy as a friend, but the mere fact that he was a boy was grounds for punishment. It was my mother that lectured me, that watched what I wore and how I carried myself. She made sure I didn’t sit too close to male cousins, that my clothes weren’t too fitted, that I was quiet and not too opinionated.
My father may have been watching, but it was my mother that enforced the rules.
The phrase ‘people won’t take you seriously if you’re dressed immodestly’ is one I’ve heard far too often, and I hate it. I hate that my mind is somehow in second place to my body. It’s high time to recognize that women are more than their bodies; that I deserve respect even though I may not wear the hijab.
The fact that I was told off for spending time with a male cousin when I was 12 (we were the same age, by the way) is something that still annoys me. It made our relationship awkward, and it took years for that relationship to heal. Why are modesty and restraint a concern when I’m with family? Why must I restrict myself in front of someone I’ve grown up with?
In terms of valuing women for their contributions to society, it’s high time to value women the way we value men – for their talents, for their skills, for their growth and for their capabilities as human beings, and not for their obedience to a system that tramples all and benefits none. It’s time we re-define modesty to its older meaning; to mean humbleness, reason, and balance. It’s time to bring modesty back to one’s attitude, not to one’s clothing.
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