Let’s be honest. When it comes to dressing modestly, the rules are usually applied to women. And dressing ‘modestly’ means covering up as much as possible. But who decided that covering up is modest? What is the logic behind it? We are all born naked. Every other living species on this planet is naked. Different cultures across space and time have different standards of dressing up. A lot of it also depends on the climate where all these respective cultures originate. So why is covering up equated with modesty? And why is it applied to women predominantly? Well the answer is Patriarchy, but ideas are generally hard to break down in a single word.
I believe a person has the right to dress as they please. Of course there are exceptions, which depends on workplace rules and/or safety issues. A business might have rule about a certain dress code for employees, or a lab might have one about fully covered legs and no open-toed shoes. As long as these rules are applied uniformly, there is no discrimination. But what happens when society and/or state expects or requires certain standards. And what if those standards are invariably applied to women. I think it is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear and how to express her individuality through her attire. But what annoys me is the idea that women covering up = modest = good/pious/virtuous women.
Why does a woman’s character depend on her attire? Why is covering up seen as representative of a ‘good woman’? When someone argues “XYZ is worn as a symbol of modesty”, then doesn’t it mean that someone not wearing it is seen as immodest? If covering up is good, what makes a woman who wants to wear a summer dress, evening gown, a two-piece, or nothing at all? How many individuals and societies in the world see it as a sign of decadence and immorality? Isn’t that where the attitude ‘she was asking for it by her dressing’ originates from?
When I criticize one side, I don’t mean to say that only that side is bad and other sides aren’t. It only means I am talking about a particular side because I might be more familiar with it, or I want to talk about that side right now. Big chunks of South Asian society (and elsewhere) is highly misogynistic. There is a lot of cat-calling, harassment, and many other forms of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women. Showing of skin is seen as a sign of ‘loose morals’. And doesn’t this thinking originate from the original idea that ‘covering up’ = good? As an immigrant living in the United States, one of the most disgusting ideas I have experienced since childhood is that white women are ‘easy’ because they don’t cover up or have loose morals compared to brown women. They are seen as highly sexualized objects. And it is not just an attitude among young men. Even too many old women are against having Caucasian daughter-in-laws because they are seen as having loose morals, bad characters, or not good family values. So whenever I see immigrants sexually harassing or abusing white women, for me it doesn’t just fall under any sexual harassment. I have seen it and experienced it again and again how white women are seen in sexually repressive cultures. For men who think like that, white women are easy while brown women are properties that they own. Husbands, fathers, brothers have veto power over the lives and decisions of women. Any disobedience = woman is of bad character/morals. And sexual harassment is extremely prevalent, if hidden under the carpet. The worst part is how many women publicly proclaim there is nothing wrong, and privately bemoan the harassment and abuse they themselves or women they know have faced. Shoving this under the carpet drives me crazy.
Yes, our planet is patriarchal. Abuse and harassment happens everywhere. But not every place is the same. Some places are worse than others. And it has nothing to do with genetics. It is just an attitude that is taking longer to modernize in some places compared to others. Criticizing one place more than another place isn’t racism, it is just about facing reality. It is about trying to improve our species everywhere. And we can’t move forward in fighting sexual harassment if we keep equating ‘covering up’ = modest/good etc. And if we don’t speak out against these medieval attitudes, we are not helping the women living in those societies! We cannot support individuals and still challenge collective attitudes. If we become so scared of being called racists for questioning ideas, not individuals, we are failing the women who are fighting battles in their own cultures regarding their status. We are failing the women who are fighting to break free, if we keep saying criticizing ideas and attitudes itself is racist. Sure, fight for a woman’s right to cover her head. But don’t let someone get away with saying “this is a sign of modesty”. A woman’s character depends on the same traits as a man’s character – actions, behavior, thinking.
A woman’s character is not dependent on whether she wears a sexy summer dress or is covered head to toe in summer’s heat. Because this attitude continues the subjugation of women in a man’s world. This attitude prevents women from expressing themselves fully in many cultures and countries. This attitude supports laws passed in many nations jailing women for not covering up. This attitude continues attacks on women because ‘she was asking for it’. This attitude continues to see women as objects. Making a woman cover up so she doesn’t distract men is also sexual objectification of women. A woman is not a distraction. Men must be taught to see women as their peers and as people, not sexual objects or something they have power or control over. We have to let go of the anachronistic ideas of modesty, something so disproportionately applied to women. Modesty varies by culture. Modesty is subjective. And modesty or good/virtuous character does not depend on what a woman wears or doesn’t wear. So anytime I hear someone say ‘women covering up is a sign of modesty’, I am going to speak out. Because that single attitude sees too many women negatively. That attitude has caused too many problems for women for far too long. Skin is not a reflection of ‘loose morals’ or ‘bad character’. Skin is what we are born in. Let us celebrate our natural ‘clothing’…our skin, our individuality. Let us speak out against rules/expectations/attitudes that literally wants to hide women in clothes/curtains/four walls and sees it as good thing.
One thought on “Female Modesty and Good Character”
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