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October 16, 2006



I would hate to disagree with al-Jazeera, but I find it a little ironic that a culture that supposedly values women like jewels does so by keeping them (metaphorically) locked up in a safe rather than displayed on the finger. So walking behind one's male chaperone, not having rights to property or not being allowed to go to school is a sign of respect? Valuing purity and motherhood is one thing, but female genital mutilation and lack of female custody rights is a strange way to show it.
But then, I would hate to have to go back to the days of corsets just to emphasize how fragile I am. Kind of hard to rototill my garden that way. Which makes me wonder; how much of historical Western modesty was more related to protection against sunburn or cold than lascivious male eyes? How have other cultures who live in hot climes displayed modesty of comportment, when they wear little or nothing to begin with? Is is harder to convey a modest attitude in a more "exposed" culture, or does each have its own clues that are easy to pick up on for both sexes?


Interesting article, Nene. But what I find even more interesting is the traditional Muslim raison d'etre for extremely modest dress for women (which I have heard before, not just in this article): "In Islam we value women, like jewels or diamonds..." Jewels and diamonds are precious and valuable, this is true. But more to the point, they are OBJECTS. They are things that one possesses and must keep another from stealing. They have no free will or personality of their own. They are not able to decide to whom they want to belong. The are inert, valuable only to those who possess or wish to possess them.

It is one thing for a woman to see her sexuality as a jewel to be guarded, and quite another for a man to see a woman as a jewel to be guarded - even if the result is that both women dress modestly. One celebrates the woman's individuality and personhood, the other diminishes it.

I am not saying all Muslims think of women in this way. I am just saying that this particular rationale tends in this direction.

Liz Neville

Wonderful piece, Nene, and something that's been on my mind for a while too. I must say my skeptical side (which is most of me) reacts to the quotes about the precious nature of women as so much high-minded hooey, and I'm not even sure it's so high-minded as self-serving. So there I jump in with Elin, and wonder exactly what this preciousness really means when it has the effect of muzzling and muffling the abilities and true worth and nature of women. I wonder what any practicing Muslim women who think I'm wrong about this would say?

Mary O'Hayes

The "bin Laden design"? "The bin Laden (abaya) covers a woman from her head to her toe, revealing only her face." Ughhh. Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot being multiculturally sensitive and being grateful for anybody that could possibly be an ally to the modesty movement. Anybody who sells or wears a "bin Laden" abaya is not our ally.

The article is accompanied by a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, which covers everything except the eyes. Talk about totally contrary to our Western culture!

Sorry, there's an enormous controversy in numerous countries around the world - including France, Tunisia, Netherlands, Iran, Morocco, and England - about the clothing being worn by conservative Muslim women. In some Muslim countries and in Muslim schools in non-Muslim countries, even non-Muslim women are forced to wear head scarves and abayas. It would be hard to find a topic that's more politically loaded than hijab. Let's not be naive bunnies here, and allow ourselves to simply focus on the modesty aspects of hijab.


Thanks, Nene, it's always interesting to read about different takes on the same subject. Especially when the differences are underscored.

I am also in shock at the Bin Laden design, and I agree with Mary that it is very scary indeed. But more generally, I'm suspicious of justifications for modesty that focus only on the women (though obviously, I believe that their role is key).

I think Nene's question about avoiding attention from men is really crucial: how far do we take that? I'd like to see support for a single high standard instead of expecting the most from the women and the least from the men. If a man is staring at a woman wearing regular clothing, and making her feel uncomfortable, I think the man needs to be educated more than the woman needs to be further covered.

Now, I am coming from a Jewish perspective where modesty for both sexes is a vehicle for the soul to shine through. But I think people of all faiths could agree that modesty to enhance individuality vs. modesty to suppress individuality could not be further apart. Perhaps even further than modest vs. immodest dress, which often share "expressing individuality" as their goal.


Liz - speaking as a Muslim woman (by way of some background, I'm a Wellesley graduate, currently working in the social development sector in Pakistan and a lurker on this blog), I think you bring out an interesting point. I'm not sure if I do have an answer for you - but I would like to point out that irrelevant of where Woman is in the world, she always struggles to be valued for her abilities, and to be seen beyond what her body represents. Given this struggle, I would have to agree that the focus should be, as Wendy points out, on modesty being required "from both sexes as a vehicle for the soul to shine through" (Wendy, thanks for sharing this!). While she highlights the Jewish tradition, I'd like to share that even the Muslim tradition - according to our faith (and not according to the cultures that stress female genital mutilation), modesty is incredibly important, with dress serving as one manifestation. Behavior is equally important - one of the most oft-quoted verses from the Qu'ran is:

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them: and God is well aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…" (Qu'ran, 24: 30-31)."

An interesting point to note is that men are addressed *first* - and sadly, this is an injunction that many men do not follow, do not internalize.

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