07.04.12 Sexuality

My Problem with Modesty

My Problem with Modesty

BY Becca Rose

I was speaking with a friend of mine who was raised in the Middle East recently about modesty doctrine and the rules women are expected to follow in his home country. He told me that the problem with the enforced wearing of the burka in certain places is that it doesn’t prevent men from lusting after women. The fact that a woman is entirely covered up, except for her eyes, does nothing to deter unwanted advances from men. My friend said that it doesn’t matter how much the woman is covered up, she is still a sexual object.

I don’t criticize those who wear the burka or hijab out of religious devotion or personal choice, just as I don’t wish to criticize women in conservative Christian communities who choose to dress according to their personal modesty code. I am not trying to speak poorly of anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, who dresses themselves in the way that they feel most comfortable, regardless of where that stands on the sliding scale of what others view as modest or immodest.

What I do take issue with is the idea that women’s bodies are the problem.

Women’s bodies are not the cause of sexual abuse, of rape, of catcalls on the street. We aren’t at fault when a man seems to be conversing with our chests instead of our eyes. The body of a woman is never a valid reason for harassment or shaming or any kind of unwanted attention.

And men aren’t at fault either.

It’s the individual’s choice, every single time.

What I mean by that is this: women, as a gender, are never the problem in these situations. And I do think we can err when we assign blame to the entire male gender as well. I think we’d do better to focus on the individual in each circumstance.

In the past month, I’ve been whistled at, yelled at, honked at, at least twice a day as I walked to and from my work. I’ve held conversations with men who couldn’t be bothered to make eye contact with me, even though I was dressed in a fairly conservative manner. I’ve endured the stares of strangers while I’m standing in line at my local Starbucks, my face burning with embarrassment as I’m expected to remain oblivious of the ogling of my body.

My body wasn’t the problem. Men in general weren’t the problem. Each individual who decided to make me feel uncomfortable in this past month? It was their fault. It doesn’t matter what my build is, what clothes I was wearing.

This is my problem with modesty doctrines being enforced on women by religious institutions. By declaring the woman’s body to be the problem, we take the responsibility away from the individual perpetrators each time and place the responsibility on the woman. Men are able to control themselves every day. There are many wonderful men in my life who I admire, who I never have to worry about this with. They are the individuals who make their choice to respect women, regardless of what women are or aren’t wearing. I think instead of dictating to women what we should and shouldn’t wear, we’d do a better service to humanity by telling men to consider their actions, each and every day.

Featured image via Cornell University Library on Flickr

Becca Rose is currently studying English with a writing specialization and has high hopes for all her student loan debt. She writes about grappling with faith and feminism at bookwormbeauty.com and tweets far too much @bookwormbeaut.


  • Karenroberts7511

    My thoughts exactly – what is wrong with some men that they cannot control their base impulses – most do, there is a bunch that chose not to, they are mentally unbalanced.

  • Leeann_madison_99

    Looking and physically DOING something are two different things. I look at bodies all of the time….exactly WHAT is there to be embarrassed about by being looked AT???? In my mind, if a person is embarrassed by being looked at, it is their problem. Their reaction to it is an issue they need to deal with. I am not bothered by being looked at. Does the Venus de Milo get embarrassed by being looked at and appreciated for it’s beauty?

    Seriously, I get the anger over any woman being blamed for her dress or looks being the reason for her being attacked or raped. That line of thinking is complete bull.

    But to take that same anger and now say that it’s similar in anyway to some dunce with no tact or skill at looking without making themself obvious…….that’s just ridiculous.

    On the flip side……would anyone take seriously a man complaining that women were checking out his hiney in a nice fitting pair of trousers? Or women admiring a nice fit man’s torso?

    Come on ladies, don’t complicate matters by perpetuating a double standard.

    • KatR

      Men and women are going to check each other out. That’s a given. But there is a difference between a glance and a stare.

    • Becca Rose

      Exactly. There is a difference between “checking out” a person and what I’ve detailed above. Street harassment is not a compliment, and it’s not someone’s clumsy attempt to compliment you. It’s disrespectful and sometimes threatening.
      Interestingly enough, I just experienced another case of this last night. Walking from a movie theater to my car, a group of men in a truck whistled at my friends and I & yelled a few slurs. We ignored them and walked on. They circled their truck back around and continued, and when we continued to ignore them they revved their engine and almost collided with us. they then followed us to our cars. As they drove away they told us we didn’t know how to take a compliment.

      So my point is this: an appreciative glance is one thing. Catcalling or obvious blatant staring is another. Not only can they lead to more dangerous situations, such as the rape and abuse Leann mentions, but the threat of that is made inherent in the action. Even when violence isn’t at hand, the lack of respect for women as fellow human beings is what happens when we’re treated as sex objects in our every day lives.

  • love this discussion….

  • bea

    wow this is completely true i recently visited Iran which is where i was born and by law was required to wear a hijab. The clothing was not like a burka and we were allowed to show minimal amounts of skin, but other than that we were practacally all covered up. I was absolutely shocked at how many men made crude comments at me and my cousin. It was unbelievable. Every time i stepped outside all men of all ages and i mean ALL ages had a comment and of course men in America also make crude comments but not nearly as much as the men in Iran. I just honestly feel that forcing women to cover up against their will makes it worse.

  • Becca, this is spot on! One time, I was leered at by this old guy in NYC and he was like, “ooh” while looking at my boobs and cutout jeans. Honestly, I didn’t INTEND this to happen; I never asked for any man’s attention regardless of how I dress. Even if I wear conservative clothing, does it make a difference? No. Although the modesty doctrine tries to make society better, the biggest irony is that it is detrimental to men’s and women’s self-esteem (me included). Hence, I think that men are afraid of women’s sexuality.

  • Chelsea M.

    Unfortunately, there is much misconception about being a “Christian.” And there are a lot of bad examples giving a bad name to Christianity. Mainly due to the lack of understanding because of bad/false teachings. God has been given a bad rap. As an adult I now understand much more about my faith because context has everything to do with it. Quoting scriptures or man made rules are often taken out of scriptural context of that paragraph or time in history. But the main point I want to make is that lust is a heart issue. A man can lust after a woman fully clothed in sweat pants and, you’re right, it’s not her fault. Many men struggle with lust daily, and for those who are struggling (due to personal/childhood etc type of issues) us “women” need to take that into consideration when we dress. It’s not about wearing a burka, but do we really need to wear thongs sticking out of pants, see thru tops and no bra, or boobs hanging out? Dress with intention. There are many women that are considered sexy but are never seen dressed “slutty” or inappropriately. Ivanka Trump, Princess Kate, Adele, are a few of those celebrity women.

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