Examining Modesty

I have probably written more posts on this over-scrutinized practice than I had ever intended to write or would ever read from myself (I sincerely thank you all for tolerating them with magnificent patience.) While I usually approach the dynamics of determining what is or isn’t modest from the oppressive claims of patriarchal men (and the women who reinforce them by policing other women) resulting in harmful consequences exerted on women as a class, I want to point out some bizarre and hilarious inconsistencies I’ve noted when it comes to how I “police” myself. Beginning with the Qur’anic verse:

to subdue their gaze, and to be mindful

of their chastity, and not to show off

parts of their adornment [in public] beyond

what may [decently] be apparent

or obvious thereof;

hence, let them draw their covers

over their bosoms. (Qur’an 24:31)

The last part is easy because it’s so direct and specific—cover bosoms. Okay, so I won’t walk around topless. That’s simple enough. Got it. So far so good.

And then we look at what’s right above it: not to show off parts of their adornment [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent or obvious thereof. In other words, refrain from showing adornment except for the beauty that cannot be hidden because it is so apparent, or the beauty which when hidden causes obstructions from ease or interruptions to routine (I believe this is why the niqaab is not Islamic, though of course I support every woman’s right to wear one).

But here’s what I find so absurd when this is applied in practice by Muslims: we do the exact opposite. We take great care to cover beauty that is most apparent—like the hair or face or figure—and this often results in displaying adornment that creates a spectacle, whether that’s a blue niqaab or decorative accessories. In other words, when I do cover my hair, I wear sparkly hi’jab pins. And when I don’t cover my hair (which is most times) I sometimes wear hair flowers anyway, so I guess according to mainstream interpretations that’s just failing twice.

Okay I might *possibly* have too many…

Hair flowers are awesome.

One of the reasons I’ve observed this is that in my mother’s culture women take great care to make sure they look extravagantly beautiful whenever they leave the house as though they are attending a party—even if they’re just running to the store. (Altogether a look considered appropriate would be described as “tasteful.”) And simultaneously my mother always advised me to dress modestly, recommending I wear a headscarf and cover what is most obvious (especially since I have so much hair that wisps of it are inclined to escape), while handing me my lipstick. Assuming lipstick is an indication of immodesty (which I don’t) isn’t this a direct inversion of what the verse commands?

I find this both amusing and perplexing.

Of course, I don’t consider hair flowers or hi’jab pins or makeup immodest at all. Not only because the verse specifies not to show off parts of their adornment signifying that presence of conceit renders the performance immodest, not the adornment itself, but because of the following hadith:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said to his companions, “No one with an ounce of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.”

In seeking to understand what arrogance means, the companions asked, “O Prophet of God, what if a person likes to dress well?”

The Prophet, peace be upon him, responded, “God is beautiful and loves beauty. Arrogance is rejecting truth and looking down on people.”

And that is pretty clear.

Of course it’s the very thing that patriarchal men deny: that it’s not the woman who adorns herself who is immodest, but the men who look down on her and police her. Another inversion—this time one that is far from charming and is downright reprehensible and inexcusable.

The clarification on verse 24:31 provided by the hadith, particularly defining arrogance as “looking down on people” is also why I retaliate comfortably whenever anyone attempts to police me. I don’t consider it arrogance when a woman pridefully wears a sparkly hi’jab or the infamous hi’jab hump when she is commanded otherwise (by men)—this is a response to arrogance, and in fact I consider it permissible:

But indeed if any do help and defend themselves
after a wrong done to them,
against such there is no cause of blame.


The blame is only
against those who oppress
with wrongdoing and
insolently transgress beyond bounds
through the land, defying right and justice:
for such there will be a penalty grievous. (Qur’an 42:39—44)

What do I do when I hear passive agressive statements coated deceptively in sugar about how a “woman’s best jewelry is her modesty”?

Chandelier earrings.

31 thoughts on “Examining Modesty

  1. Pingback: Examining Modesty | the fatal feminist « Critical Readability

  2. I can’t speak for Islam, but here’s my perspective as a Christian: legalism fails because its interaction with culture inevitably results in its proponents having to perform outlandish mental gymnastics in order to maintain consistency.

    When the true spirit of our faith guides our decision-making others may be able to disagree, but if they also shun legalism in favor of love they will still accept and value us.

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    1. I find that very true for the most part, particularly because legalism is usually more strictly and universally applied to the intrapersonal instead of the interpersonal.

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    1. Thanks! I initially didn’t see the point of it because it is so close to my natural lip color (a little lighter than my natural lip color) but the fact that you like it makes it miraculously more appealing to me now. xD

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  3. Narjis

    The more Qur’an I read, such as verse 42:39—44 that you posted here, the less I can understand why governments like that of Saudi Arabia can claim to be “Islamic”. We are told by God not to oppress and not to be oppressed. What religion are those patriarchal asshats following?

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    1. No, I don’t know why other people do it but I just put it there so that it’s not read with a long ‘i’ since there is only one consonant separating the ‘i’ from the ‘a’. I once heard someone say hye-jab and cringed…

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  4. I really like hearing your perspective on modesty- I too occasionally question the idea of putting fancy, attractive covers over the hair that I’m supposed to be covering, and wonder at the modesty of it- then generally realize that it is no less immodest than any other sort of beautiful covering, and that what we call “hiddur mitzvah” (beautifying the commandments) is also a significant value, worthy of effort. Thank you for giving such a lovely interpretation of Muslim texts on the topic, and for weaving the texts together with your own story.

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    1. Yes! We are also commanded to “beautify [ourselves] for every act of worship.” Thank you for your comment; I don’t know nearly as much about Judaism as I should.

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      1. :) i asked because i go through different translations to find the most simplest ones usually. i use Yusuf Ali on and off but Asad i was not aware of. will seek that out. :)

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  5. I am an agnostic person. For the sake of having a peaceful society, I don’t really have problem with people believing in a certain religion, whether or not I think they should is an entirely different story. I don’t want you to take it as my attack on islam in particular, since I can name and have issues with a lot of things in this world including all the religions – trust me. The argument that a lot of well educated islamic men and women give in regards to “freely choosing” to wear headscarves always surprised me because institutionalized religions, by their inherent quality, don’t allow for absolute free will. By choosing to comply with someone else’s (specifically men in the current context) definition of whether or not one should be modest, what exactly defines modesty etc., aren’t religious people making choices that are far from free? Even if one modifies and interprets the religious verses’ definition of what exactly entails being modest, do we all really need to agree that modesty is necessary at all? And here, when I say modesty, I’m not only talking about headscarves or veils, but any kind of minimal clothing or behavior that one has to adopt in order to belong to any religion. I find it very difficult to accept how one can be a true feminist and a proponent of any institutionalized religion (I am not talking about belief in God or some higher power).

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    1. But by that logic, no one can be a “true” feminist, simply by virtue of participating in any community, because no interpretation–whether of scripture or of culture or of law–can be entirely free of the community’s understanding of it. Now you can argue that the reason this becomes anti-feminist is that when faced with the dilemma of the individual interpretation vs the communal interpretation, we subordinate our own interpretation to that of the community. But this is not always true. It is the norm today, but it wasn’t for the first few centuries of Islam.

      And for Muslims, as important as the community is–and it IS very important–individuals are not waived of our responsibility of interpreting the text. Indeed, if we could blindly follow our communities and if their interpretations were truly free of error, the Qur’an would not emphasize individual rights and freedoms to interprete in the light of reason. And there are several verses that emphasize this, over and over again. The Qur’an cannot be legally privatized, and its interpretation cannot be monopolized by one set of esteemed (male) scholars. So when you are thinking of institutionalized religion, I would point out that there are several degrees. Islam, for example, has never been and never will be, as institutionalized as the Catholic Church.

      Furthermore I have an issue with the stance that no true feminist can be a proponent of any institutionalized religion. This is very aggravating because it reinforces the power of misogynists–sadly, by the attitudes of feminists. Sexist men, who have monopolized the ulema and established scholarship exclusively for the patriarchal, claim that their own *processes* of interpretation (the processes by which they derive meaning) are flawless and a manifestation of perfection, rather than the human means by which we seek to obtain that perfection. They collapse the Divine conclusion with the human process by which it is obtained. Thus they argue that there is no such thing as a “feminist interpretation” without subject to bias (because all other processes are human and theirs are perfect). So when a feminist reaches a sound interpretation that cannot be logically countered, one that liberates women, these scholars credit their own patriarchal process rather than the woman herself, because they argue that she liberated women based on *their* patriarchal process. And feminists who assert that religions are patriarchal at the core contribute to this discreditation of feminist exegesis.

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      1. I agree with most of your response here. No doubt it is almost impossible to be complete feminist in practice (I believe one can be in ideas) since “no interpretation of an issue can be completely free from the society’s interpretation of it”. However, I do believe that there are issues that are more influenced by the society’s ideas on it, and there are issues that aren’t so much influenced. I still do believe that institutionalized religion in its present form does reinforce anti-feminism among all other problems. Sure there can be what you are calling “feminist-interpretations”, but I would call them interpretations by women, not necessarily feminist, and I take offense to you saying “it reinforces the power of misogynists- especially by feminist”.

        If the interpretation were indeed feminist interpretation, they wouldn’t be unfavorable for women. When I see a woman wearing headscarf, and fully clothed in a smoldering heat near a beach saying that she chose all that freely, I don’t buy it. Sure, I cannot probe her mind, and understand the complex psychological pattern that led her to be who she is now. However, I can surely see the similar pattern among a group of women, who make similar “free-choices” and interpret that those choices weren’t indeed “free”, for if they were it’s quite unlikely that millions of women would be making similar “free-choices” and similar interpretation of the so called holy books. To me being a feminist is not agreeing with every choices women make -including dumb ones, and vilifying all men even those who make good choices. It’s rather creating a society where dumb women and dumb men are treated the same way as dumb individuals, and smart people irrespective of their gender are treated the same.

        About people who believe in religion being patriarchal at core continuing the oppression, I would just like to point out that my comment was directed at institutionalized religion in its current form rather than a belief system. Sure there can be a belief system that’s not entirely patriarchal, but if it was not, then the rituals, the books and the people’s lifestyle who follow those religions would be indicative of so. I think this is a topic that we both will have to agree to disagree on. Thanks, anyway for taking time to respond to my comment.

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        1. I wasn’t talking about interpretations by women. I was talking about feminist interpretations.*

          And feminists are agents MORE than capable of perpetuating and reinforcing misogyny. If this statement of truth offends you, you will have to deal with it, particularly since it is historically demonstrated in racist and colonialist attitudes. (There is a reason for womanism after all.) Reinforcement of misogyny by feminists is something that needs to be kept in check.

          *Your entire comment makes absurd assumptions about my position and comes across as nothing more than a lecture.

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  6. I am more than aware of the fact that people, who call themselves as feminists can reinforce misogyny. I was simply saying that rendering institutionalized religion as patriarchal doesn’t imply so. To me, people, who still tacitly comply with the norms and values coined by patriarchal system and defend it as their own are indeed the ones who are perpetuating misogyny. Making a cross reference to your article on abortion…you must then believe that a woman “choosing” to be a catholic can indeed then slander people who are pro-chioce, and in some other religious system they also can “freely choose” to be involved in a polygamous relationship.

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    1. Perhaps I wasn’t clear.

      Rendering institutionalized religion as patriarchal does in fact imply so. There is no basis for doing this any more than there is for other institutionalized areas, such as education or medicine. These are also (still!) in their current forms patriarchal. They are *built* on oppressive premises. They only *recognize* certain strands of logic as valid or objective–the very concept of “objectivity” is defined by masculine and white standards. When a woman attempts to reclaim an institution, asserting that the institution is by its nature of being an institution patriarchal works against her. Because it *denies* that the concept itself was appropriated from her. There is a saying that you cannot take down the master’s house with the master’s tools. But you can! Because really, they’re your tools. He just stole them.

      Now to explain what I meant before–since for some reason you were under the impression that I was speaking of “exegesis by women” when I clearly stated “feminist exegesis” –when someone (likely a woman) approaches a sound interpretation of a religious text that liberates her sex from previous male interpretations that were oppressive or restores original liberating exegesis, and that cannot be argued against by even the most brilliant of patriarchal minds, she as well as the scholarly process by which she achieves this interpretation are discredited. These are not attributed to feminism as feminist achievements or feminist exegesis. Because there is consensus that institutionalized religion can only be patriarchal at the core, the male establishment is able to appropriate her credit by insisting that she had reached her conclusion through their patriarchal establishment and by the process and framework that they’ve set up.

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  7. rootedinbeing

    “And feminists who assert that religions are patriarchal at the core contribute to this discreditation of feminist exegesis.”

    What would be a way for a feminist who is not religious, to support and not discredit Muslim feminist exegesis?

    I left religion because it was severely patriarchal in my lived experience of it. As were the texts. So much so that it would literally make me gag reading hadith. I realized I would always be an angry person if I stayed, and I have enough to be angry about without subjecting myself to something I could just as well reject. I don’t think I can say my leaving and claiming it patriarchal upholds misogyny for feminist Muslims still involved in the fight, any more than calling western education eurocentric, or western medicine white male centric – discredits feminist research and innovation in changing the field. I think it means I made a choice that was right for my own sanity and health as a woman. I left because I could, and didn’t have to deal with the misogyny if I didn’t want to. I chose my fight, and religion wasn’t it. If it’s not patriarchal misogyny, then what was my experience, or does experience not matter compared to the message of the Quran (which we could call the core, and not misogynistic)? I have nothing but respect for the women who strive to have their voices heard and respected from within, but for me it became nothing but politics, and had nothing to do with anything spiritual or in reverence of god, at all. That was when I knew I had to get out.

    If it is not institutionalized misogyny (making it male centric/patriarchal) we are dealing with, then what is it Muslim feminists are fighting against? And what is it we feminists should be calling religion, instead of patriarchal?

    With this issue, in particular – how do non religious feminists keep their misogyny in check?

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    1. I don’t think I can say my leaving and claiming it patriarchal upholds misogyny for feminist Muslims still involved in the fight, any more than calling western education eurocentric, or western medicine white male centric – discredits feminist research and innovation in changing the field.

      Absolutely not. Your leaving was your right in your own sphere and discredited the struggles of no one else. What you rejected when you left was the institutionalized patriarchy and the texts that you found misogynist. In other words you did not reject feminist interpretations as feminist–you rejected them because you rejected institutionalized religion. You felt (if I am not mistaken) that you didn’t need institutionalized religion to make you a fully happy human being, and you definitely didn’t need the patriarchal bullshit that has infiltrated and appropriated it.

      That is the difference–to recognize the patriarchal base of religion is an appropriation. It has taken power away from women (even, and especially, power religiously granted to women) and called it its own. Acknowledging this contributes to the reclamation by Islamic feminists of institutionalized religion and reinforces the fight against the patriarchy that has become embedded with in it, as opposed to saying that no one can be a “true feminist” if she is a proponent of institutionalized religion–which refuses to acknowledge that religion belongs to everyone and should not be monopolized by men.

      When feminists say that religion is patriarchal at the core, and therefore all the processes by which liberation is obtained is a result of a patriarchal process (exactly with which male scholarship would agree), it is parallel to saying that feminism is a result of Westernism. It’s not–it’s just been appropriated and accredited as Western. It is men (through the processes they claim for themselves) taking credit for women’s liberation.

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      1. rootedinbeing

        Ahh, gotcha. That good ol’ “you’re Muslim, AND feminist???” **GASP!** How can that be??!!! Assholishness, and a good dose of prejudice and orientalism for good measure.

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  8. Pingback: Link Love (04/09/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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