Modesty Discourse, Women, and Bodily Entitlement

Dear fellow Muslims,

I am TIRED. Tired, tired, tired. Actually, sick and tired, of the modesty discourse within our Muslim communities. Like, very effing tired of it. It is dehumanizing, it is objectifying, and it is dangerous for women. And I need to rant.

But before I move on, I want to clarify two points.

First, that I am speaking of modesty discourses, or the messages surrounding modesty that are commonly promoted and believed in Muslim communities, and not women’s individuals choices to dress modestly. Women choose to dress modestly for a variety of reasons, including spiritual, personal, etc. This is not about them.

Second, the arguments I raise here are not in the least new. In fact, what I speak of is what many feminists in Canada, the US, etc. speak about today. None of this is specific to the Muslim community. All I am saying is that the misogyny and patriarchal oppression we see in mainstream Canadian and other Western societies is the same we see in Muslim communities, just expressed in different ways. Body policing, body shaming, and control of women’s bodies are universal phenomenon, as is the assumption that women are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and behaviours. (Skim through any feminist blog and you will read countless examples.) And why wouldn’t Muslims be the same as others. We ALL live in patriarchal societies. All societies (with the exception of some small tribal societies here and there) oppress and objectify women. So non-Muslims need not get all high and mighty about this.

Alright, now on to my rant.

What is modesty for Muslims? Who defines it? Why is it valued so much?

All Muslim women know how MASSIVE an emphasis is placed on Muslim women’s clothing within Muslim communities. There have been khutbahs (delivered by men) about it, books written (by men) about it, pamphlets distributed (by men) on the topic, lectures delivered (by men…and parents) to women on how important it is for a Muslim woman to cover herself, hide her feminine curves. Nay, how it is her ISLAMIC DUTY to cover her body.

And it’s not only to cover our bodies, but lower our voices, diminish our perfumes, wear soundless (or quiet) jewellery, etc. In other words, we must do anything we can to make sure men do not notice us and are not turned on by us. Because, you know, men get erections at the site of a woman’s stray hair, from a whiff of a woman’s perfume, or from the clanking of a woman’s bangles. Must be hard to live like that…..poor things (sorry for the blunt words but that’s basically what we’re talking about, no?).

But who decided THIS was modesty? There is no doubt that modesty is an important aspect of Islam. But as Muslims we are supposed to be modest in all aspects of our lives, not just our clothes. We are not supposed to show off our money, our knowledge, our abilities, etc. We are always supposed to be humble and treat everyone equally. That is why we value modesty, in general – it is meant to create egalitarianism. It is meant to ensure that we are not making others feel inferior to us in any way.

Yet, the general modesty discourse in Muslim communities is almost exclusively in reference to women’s bodies and clothing. It is almost always about how much skin a woman shows and about enticing/distracting men. After all, when was the last time Muslim community leaders policed men wearing Movado watches, Gucci shoes, or Armani suits? When was the last time Muslim men were told not to show off their wealth by driving to Eid prayer in their BMWs and Mercedes? Or when was the last time an Uncle at the mosque went around telling all the doctors not to congregate together with their noses up in the air, or all the engineers to not talk down to the mechanics and restaurant servers? Those are surely very immodest acts,  acts that are sure to fuel inequality and make others feel inferior (unlike women showing some skin), yet men are NEVER policed for them.

We know that men have defined the modern incarnation of modesty. Men, interpreting Islamic texts, have defined everything for us, including what it means to be modest. Men who live in a patriarchal society have a vested interest in controlling and oppressing women. An agenda, if you will. The men who have interpreted the Islamic texts have all done so from a patriarchal perch. Their agenda (to make sure their power over women is not diminished) must be taken into account when we critically examine how they defined modesty for us.

And critically examine it we must because it is harmful to women.

The modern discourse of modesty means a woman covered from head to toe. It is rigidly defined and it is tied intimately to sexuality. A “moral” Muslim woman, we are told, will cover herself in a particular way. A “good” Muslim woman will not show her curves or her skin (most of it at least). Because an uncovered Muslim woman is too sexually enticing to men. (What about the menz???) At best she will distract him from his duties. At worst she will “make” him rape her. Therefore, those who are not covered (in very rigid ways) are to be reminded of their unIslamic behaviour (I’ve gotten a few of those lectures myself). They are to be enlightened of their Islamic duty (we’re told it’s to God, but I think it’s to men) to cover and how they are causing erections in men all over the place (sorry, again, but how else can I say it?). And if they continue to remain uncovered then they are choosing to be sexually immoral and purposely going against Islam. Therefore, they are not to be respected.

A few years ago when Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, posed nude-ish for Indian FHM magazine, many Pakistanis online were outraged (not all, just many). And not because she appeared to be catering to the objectifying (and exoticizing) male gaze (a criticism I can get behind). They blamed her (as many do with other Pakistani models and actresses who show some skin) for the moral downfall of Pakistan. Not the mass corruption in the government and judiciary, not the killing of Ahmadi Muslims, not the celebration of murderers, not the high levels of violence against women. No, women showing skin is the moral downfall of the country. It appeared that Veena Malik deserved less respect than the men who are literally destroying the country.

Veena-Malik

Veena Malik

We all know what happens when a woman is seen as unworthy of respect (which is pretty much the norm in any patriarchal society). She is seen as an object, dehumanized. The vast majority of women have experienced the resulting sexual harassment/abuse. Catcalling, whistling, lewd comments, touching on the subway, sexual harassment at work, etc. The list is very long. (I encourage readers to check out #firstharassed on Twitter. Countless stories of girls and women being sexually harassed and assaulted, but I give a trigger warning.) Regardless of modesty discourses, women’s bodies are seen as public property (because we’re things, not people) to which men are entitled – entitled to comment on, entitled to touch, entitled to violate. Patriarchy teaches us that. Add to that a religious modesty discourse and the stakes are raised higher. Women’s bodies now become a moral playground for men. A woman’s body is not only read as public property to which men are entitled, but also a religious statement for which men can criticize and judge her. They can justify their entitlement through self-righteous religious judgement.

“Hey, she’s not dressed “modestly”, which means she’s not religious, which means she’ll sleep with me, which means she’s slutty, which means I can make comments on her body and she’ll like it.”

What I’m saying is that the most common modesty discourse we see flowing through Muslim communities all around the world, allows men to religiously justify their policing and sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Even without religion patriarchy allows men this control. We don’t need men’s misogynistic interpretations of Islam entrenching that oppression further. Instead of using religion strengthen an oppressive discourse, we should use religion to fight it, resist the objectification of women, and eliminate men’s sense of entitlement to our bodies.

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