defining modesty

There is an absurd amount of focus on modesty and women when Islam requires that both sexes incorporate modesty into their lifestyles. This is because we live in a patriarchal society in which men believe they have a right to women’s bodies–and also because such societies encourage the development of reputation over character: modesty is more than just a visual veil, it is a check of your own pride and vanity and sense of entitlement. By policing women’s bodies, men–and some women–have violated the Islamic standard of modesty by neglecting to check their own sense of entitlement over another human being.
As I’ve already told Muslim men to fuck off when it comes to this topic, what’s left to discuss is what is or is not considered modest.
There are several layers to examine on the subject of modesty, especially considering that modesty is policed by masses when it should be set by the limits of each individual woman herself. Because our own comfort levels often coincide with those in our society through an innate desire for acceptance as well as a development of schema through exposure, this already creates a delicate balance–one that is pushed into imbalance when the demands of society drown the voices of its underprivileged members and infringe on their rights.
Most of the Islamic definition of modesty comes from hadith specifically for the Prophet’s wives; what the Qur’an defines is this much:

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts from sin and not show of their adornment except only that which is ordinary or apparent, and draw their covers over their bosoms […] (Qur’an 24:31)

That is all the Qur’an says in terms of specifics: to lower your gaze and cover your breasts. (If anyone is wondering, men are also required to lower their eyes when speaking to women as a sign of respect.)
As Queen Rania said, “…the dress code for the Muslim women according to the Quran is righteousness and modesty. God knows that this modesty will be understood differently in different communities and that is why [God] left it open to us to decide for ourselves.”
The rest of the verse continues to list the individuals who are allowed to view the adornment because they would feel no sexual desire (family members, the elderly, certain women, etc.) as well as those who are permitted to these desires (their spouses) and so there is undoubtedly an inclusion of a third party: the standards of the respective society.
What everyone always overlooks is that women are actually an active part of said society, and therefore are the party primarily responsible for deciding how women dress–as they are the party it primarily affects.
Not men. Ever. Any society allowing for men to dictate the dress code of women is doing it wrong. Of course, as men interpret the Qur’an, they interpreted the verse to be entirely male-centric. Can you imagine the possible interpretation, had the sexes been reversed and men were told to cover certain areas lest they attract women? No doubt it would be used to “confirm” that women are easily led astray and should be not only herded into the confines of margins but kept out of dudes’ ways as often as possible as to not hysterically barricade the dudes from running the world just as dudes are meant to do.
Another thing the verse mentions is adornment; the deliberate use of that particular word and the deliberate exception of “only that which is ordinary or apparent”–ordinary for the culture, or apparent in the obvious indisguisable transparency of said adornment–further confirms that modesty is defined by era and area. The immense flexibility of the word adornment covers not only natural beauty (hence the need to exclude what is apparent) but also artificial ornamental pieces and practices, like make up and jewelry as well the unnecessary accessory of vanity.
On a couple of occasions I have openly professed my vanity. To make matters worse, I am kind of unabashed about my vanity–but with reason good enough for me: I am outwardly vain because society tells me I must be destructively modest, and it takes all the vanity I can muster to counter this demand that infringes on my rights, and to reestablish the balance. But that’s not always the sole cause: sometimes I’m vain just because we are a nation of consumers and this is how we have been programmed to function. And that’s where I need to check myself.
It’s not the quantity of the items, or the loveliness of the clothes, or the prestige of the position, or the level of intelligence and ability–for these are just objects–it’s the attitude. It’s whether or not there is still humility, whether or not humility has been replaced with conceit, whether or not the behavior has become meaningless by virtue of depth due to the rivalry amongst human beings–and that is for each individual to judge. It’s a question of when we begin to indulge with a sinful purpose.
The fairly shallow interpretation of the verse, and of modesty, to be measured only by quantity and by what others can see and police is hugely erroneous as well as self-defeating: because when we judge the modesty of others, we have lost it in ourselves.

Update 6/13/11. This is an excerpt from an article by Umm Zakiyyah. (I don’t agree with huge chunks of the whole article, but this part gets the point I’ve made in this post across better than I did.)

And so long as a woman is breaking no Islamic rules, he argued, she should not be required to adjust or change her manner of covering simply because some men find her beautiful.

And yes, the translation said. It is true that if there is fear of fitnah, she should adjust her cover. But even the fear of fitnah is not necessarily related to men, but to the woman herself. If she fears fitnah for herself, then she should adjust it, not if men fear fitnah from her.

He gave as evidence the story of a woman coming to ask the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, a question. One of the Companions was with the Prophet when she came, and the Companion kept staring at her, overcome by her beauty, and the Prophet kept turning the man’s head away. The man would look again, and he’d turn the man’s head away again, and so on…

Never did the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, ask the woman to do anything, the translation said. He made it clear that the Companion was the one who should be lowering his gaze.

[…]In each of these verses, Allah makes it clear that when men lower their gazes, it’s for their own benefit. Just as when women cover in the jilbaab (and lower their gazes), it’s for their own benefit.

In other words, take it if and when you need it–if and when you fear for your own salvation. If you feel that you’re becoming vain or distracted–that is the time. No one else decides for you.

18 thoughts on “defining modesty

  1. You have less crap than I do.By policing women's bodies, men–and some women–have violated their own Islamic standard of modesty by neglecting to check their own sense of entitlement over another human being.THIS. THIS FOREVER. This is crucial to understand. I love what you said about modesty being more than just clothes but a check of excess, and that excess can be of a number of things, not all material, and that excess is measured by our attitude toward it, like whether we think we're better than other people, etc.


  2. You kind of touched on this already, but modesty as a social attribute can also be a way to demonstrate your superiority over someone. I don't have experience with Muslim social circles, but I hear plenty of women slut shame other women, for instance, based on their dress and perceived promiscuity. That men shouldn't be weighing in on the topic is most obvious, but I don't think women's opinions on the modesty of others is really relevant, either. As I know you agree.


  3. You mentioned this, but the verse talks about what men are not allowed to see. So even if women set up the standards of modesty, doesn't it ultimately matter what men find attractive?


  4. Nahida, I think that's an oversimplification. Foot fetishists are not told to find feet attractive; fat admirers are not told to find fat attractive. To use a math metaphor: while the beauty standard may be the mode of what-men-find-attractive, it's far from the mean or median.


  5. I wasn't entirely serious. =P I was just being pushy and overly defiant. You're right of course.Debora to answer your question, the verse doesn't just mention which men are allowed and which aren't–but also which women. The complete verse also mentions "female believers" and "women under your right hand." Not only what men find attractive, but also what other women find attractive. Again, that is to include everyone for consideration. It's not nearly as male-centric as most choose to remember.Also, there are reasons to include the attention of others: we as human beings often use it to measure ourselves, and that is when we forget what is important.


  6. Nahida. I had a horrible, hostile, and frankly unjust view of Islam before I started reading your blog. This was particularly true with my view of Muslim women, who I thought to be… well, not like you. You're forward, sympathetic, and freakishly intelligent. (I thought you were around 35.) And so I stuck around and kept reading.I don't know how to say this without sounding creepy, but you're also strikingly beautiful. That might have to do with why I stayed, but I'm equally ashamed to admit that it also caused me to discredit you in my mind. It was the same bias and misconception, that any Muslim woman who looked like you would be covered if they were truly devout. I don't know why that stayed with me even when I knew all the other misconceptions I had were corrected by each of your posts, but I can see that it was wrong to think this now. You have a deeper and clearer understanding of Islam, with analysis of text that I didn't think could be so extensive, than anything I'd been told.


  7. almostclever

    "That is all the Qur'an says in terms of specifics: to lower your gaze and cover your breasts. (If anyone is wondering, men are also required to lower their eyes when speaking to women as a sign of respect.)"And that verse is why men will go so far as to not look at or speak to a woman, instead addressing only her husband/male relative with her. It is always lovely seeing how people take verses and twist them to extremes. I know a guy who takes this verse to the extreme. I have met him over ten times with hubby, even went bowling with his family, and he still refuses to acknowledge me when I see him. He annoys the hell out of me, to the point I got fed up and waved and made a big display one evening, just to get him to say hi to me.. Haha!


  8. That must be annoying. I've actually never had it happen to me, now that I think about it. I've had the weird experience where I'm walking down the stairs at the mosque and a guy is coming up the same stairs and moves far to the side to avoid even slightly brushing past me. It was strange but I didn't mind it, because he still speaks to me! I'd be infuriated if anyone only ever addressed a male relative, and would order my brothers to never speak to him.


  9. Nothing to disagree on :(. Work with me here will ya?"Men will find attractive what they're told to find attractive." This had me all riled up and ready to go but "unfortuantely" you clarified yourself later.The male centric interpretation of this verse is very insulting to men as well. It assumes that we are slaves to our instincts and cannot control them. Hello?I will not lower my gaze when talking to a woman. I will maintain eye contact without staring at her inappropriately because I believe that is how one engages in good polite conversation. A nice gentleman told me I would go to hell for this indiscretion. I replied by saying that its ok as long as I get the upper bunk and he gets the lower. I am not allowed in "his" mosque anymore. Thats ok too because there are others.



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