Modesty and False Empowerment

Wearing the hijab or dressing modestly (no low necklines and leaving miniskirts to models) can, for some women, act as a way of empowering them, and I’ve seen its benefits first hand. When I wear a top that goes up to my neckline, as I do when I’m around Usama’s family (or to be honest most of the time – I wear hoodies a lot!), I feel like I’m actually being listened to and enjoy engaging in debates about religion and feminism with his family, without the feeling that someone is staring at my tits – which was the case in a lot of other situations. It reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of female freedom lying in a woman’s ability to be removed from her physical attributes. Maybe there is something in it, after all. From guest post “Islam and me” on The F Word (UK).

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the concept of manufactured need. Usually it appears in anti-consumerist arguments about the psychology of advertising, and how marketers first have to make people feel inadequate to sell them products that alleviate the feeling of inadequacy. Today, I’m going to apply it to the modesty doctrine.

The guest blogger above doesn’t seem to realize that she’s being sold a line about empowerment that’s not empowerment at all. Patriarchal religion (in this case, a particular version of Islam) tells her that modest dress empowers her by preventing people from staring at her breasts. She feels more comfortable covered up around her fiance’s family. She talks about the relief of being “removed from her physical attributes.” What she doesn’t seem to notice is that other people’s behavior is what was making her uncomfortable in the first place. The beliefs of her family-to-be (that modest dress is a prerequisite for respect) cause them to stare at her breasts and make her uncomfortable in that subtle, infuriating way that Christian fundamentalists patronizingly smile and conspicuously try not to look at the legs of a newcomer in a short skirt. Her family-to-be’s body language is sending her subtle social signals that she is not okay. Because she is internalizing their ideas and bad behavior, she feels like she is “empowered” when she does what they want and covers up.

Niqab: not helping.
(From American Bedu.)

This dynamic is huge in patriarchal religion. When newcomers join a fundamentalist Christian church that demands skirts-only attire or long hair, they are struck first by what they’re told (“Jesus loves you and we welcome you into our family!”) and later by their own failure to fit in. The perceived acceptance they feel from other church members prevents them from connecting their sense of “outsider” status to judgmentalism on the part of the group. Instead, the pressure to change is internalized. It’s peer pressure, plain and simple. But Christians call it “being convicted” for their “sin” of “immodesty.” The “empowerment” that the woman above feels when she acquiesces to the modesty demands of her family-to-be is the same “empowerment” that Christian women feel when they throw out their blue jeans or grow out their hair: it’s just fancy language for “finally fitting in.”

If Simone de Beauvoir really intended for her ideas to be used this way, then she was full of crap. If other people can’t listen to your ideas because they’re too focused on your breasts, they are the ones disrespecting you. Changing yourself to suit them does not change their basic lack of respect for you as a person, it just satisfies their demands and causes them to stop pressuring you. That’s not empowerment, it’s just the relative absence of shaming.

  • math_geek

    Well, you’re right, and I’m no fan of the modesty culture in the greater church, but I’m not convinced that things are as absolute as you say. That people should be “respected” regardless of what they choose to wear seems too simple to me. Certainly if someone came into my home stark naked or wearing an Incredible Hulk costume I would find that distracting, regardless of gender.

    As a Christian, I think that a key condemnation of the modesty culture is that it makes for a ton of unnecessary extra work. It’s just a big extra task on the already demanding nature of Christianity.

    In other words, there should be some kind of dress standard that we are held to out of an expectation of courtesy and self-respect, but we should guard ourselves from making these standards too demanding. We all have plenty of more important work to do.

    • guy fawkes

      So math geek, you don’t think that the fact that nudity or a costume *out of context* would be the thing that would make concentration difficult? If, say, you were in a room of nude or costumed people, would you find that as distracting? I cry red herring.

      • math_geek

        I don’t think I’d be very comfortable at all in a room full of naked people. I’ve never had any desire to go to a nudist colony. Sure, costumes have their place, as do bikinis, cassocks, tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Wearing something out of place is certainly one way to draw attention to yourself and distract people from what else you have to say.

        What I’m trying to say is that the problem with “modesty doctrine” isn’t that it sets a code of dress necessary to receive proper attention and respect, it’s that the code of dress necessary to be “respected” is absolutely ridiculous. I’l still be wearing a suit to my next job interview.

  • Contrarian

    This is like how some women feel like they can’t be feminists if they decide to put children and family as a priority: it’s the same manufactured need, masquerading as empowerment. Think about the second-wavers who said that any woman who chose to stay at home and raise children was capitulating to, or at least participating in, the patriarchy. This still exists — I know women who are choosing to have families now, at the possible expense of future careers, and feel that subtle disapproval from their feminist friends.

    More generally, I think that any time you have to interact with people, you’ll feel to some extent this peer pressure. As you conform, they will accept you and take you more seriously. You’ll feel empowered, because you are (literally) empowered: you have more influence with them.

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  • smrnda

    The problem with modesty is no matter how you dress, someone is going to argue that you still aren’t modest enough. The whole idea is to put the burden for controlling men’s sexual desires on women and making it into a full-time job where you always have to be thinking of not just how to dress modestly, but how to talk, think, move and probably even smell modestly. It’s just a ton of extra work dumped on women to show them their place in patriarchy.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    The point of modesty is to choose who you want to be sexual with. Looking at breasts is not always disrespectful. I look at my wife’s breasts. It is a good thing. We don’t want men and women to be naked or nearly naked around each other and not feel any sexual desire. That would be awful.

    So a woman wants her breasts to effect men. But not all men and not all the time. The difference when you become Christian or Muslim is that you choose fewer men and fewer occasions. You take sex more seriously. It turns out many relationships get a lot better because the sex or the potential for sex is removed from the outset. Often even a very small chance of sex can have a huge impact on one side of the relationship and the other person has no idea it is even there.

    • Kina

      You’re conflating nudity or even just having noticable breasts or whatever with sex and sexuality? Or am I misunderstanding

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