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In his recent New York Times article, Lechery, Modesty and the Talmud, op-ed contributor Dov Linzer tackles the question of modesty in religion and looks specifically at the concept of modesty in Judaism. His article is in response to the December 2011 taunting of eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a Jew, who was spat upon and insulted by a group of ultra-orthodox Jewish males for not being dressed modestly enough as she made her way through her Israeli neighbourhood to her elementary school.
Margolese's case was reported on December 27 in a New York Times article, Israeli Girl, 8, At Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism. Although Linzer addresses specifically the modesty problem in the Jewish church, this problem is in no way unique to Judaism, as Linzer himself also points out. The question of modesty in dress as it relates to women has been a source of contention in many religions throughout the world from time immemorial—including Islam, Hinduism and even Christianity. But what is modesty and who gets to define it? And is the demand for modesty by religious groups and their various denominations, as Linzer suggests, a means to control women?
The word "modesty" has several meanings, but the one with which I am concerned here is the following, as explicated in the Oxford English Dictionary: "not showing off the body; decent." For emphasis, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, "propriety in dress, speech or conduct," thefreedictionary.com defines it as, "reserve, propriety in speech, dress or behaviour and dictionary.reference.com defines it as regard for decency of behaviour, speech, dress, etc." A close analysis of each definition suggests that modesty, in essence, is moderation; it is "not too much;" it is "just enough" or appropriate. In terms of dress, then, modesty suggests reasonability, respectability and adequacy. One Christian song summarises the question of modesty in dress in the following way: there is a way that some women dress that is just "nasty" as opposed to "sexy", or the "sexy" way in which other (respectable) women dress.
For instance and therefore, if one is going to wear short pants, there is no need for one's butt cheeks to be exposed. If one is going to wear a plunging neckline, there is no need for it to plunge all the way down to one's vagina as Jennifer Lopez's green Versace dress that she wore at the 2000 Grammys. If one is going to wear a form-fitting outfit, there is no need for it to be so tight, that others looking at you fear that you will soon take your last breath. At the same time, each woman's body is different, and what may look lewd on one, may not necessarily look lewd on another (the Versace dress will always look lewd). Yet, modesty is often misunderstood, or perverted by many religions and religious denominations throughout the world. Recently, for example, a certain Reverend of the Shouter Baptist faith here, has made the erroneous and foolish assertion that women ought not to wear pants because it is clothing reserved for men and because they make "…you feel sexy all the time." Quite frankly, some pants and pantsuits are a lot more modest than some skirts, skirt suits and dresses. And there is nothing, simply put, immodest about a pair of pants. Furthermore, the religion of Islam demands that women wear burquas (or burkha, burka, burqua, bourka according to middleeastabout.com; burqua is the "full-body covering with a small opening for the eyes…worn by Muslim women over their clothing" again, according to middleeast.about.com), niqabs (a "piece of cloth which covers the face" according to bbc.co.uk) and hijabs (material that "covers everything except the hands and face" according to bbc.co.uk).
Don't those women feel hot under all that clothing? Such dress is impractical, particularly in the tropical climates. Women have breasts, some have shape. Sometimes no matter how modestly dressed a woman is, her breasts and physique will always be evident. An attempt to cover up everything about the female body as in Islam to prevent the arousal of men is foolish! Men get aroused even when women are not around. Moreover, "it's a sign of enslavement," as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has noted.
The Hindu sari serves a similar purpose. Phalash R Ghosh writes in Western Women Should Not Wear The Indian Sari that "while not as extreme as the Islamic burqa, the sari was designed to "hide" a woman's figure and curves in order to prevent the unwanted attentions of men (and, by extension, a sexual assault)." My remarks are somewhat similar to those made for the Islamic dress code.
And the Christian religion? It really aggravates me to see how dowdy, plain some women look when they come to church. Alright, so 1 Timothy 2:9 does urge women to be modest in appearance, but how one translates that verse is critical so that women are not brainwashed into thinking that they have to look like nuns when attending church and even otherwise. The best translation of that verse can be found in the International Standard 2012 version of the Christian Bible, "Women, for their part, should display their beauty by dressing modestly and decently in appropriate clothes, not with elaborate hairstyles or by wearing gold, pearls, or expensive clothes." Interesting, isn't it? A woman is allowed to display her beauty according to the Bible. And, furthermore, according to one Christian pastor, God bless his heart, the woman's body is designed in such a way as to attract the man. Some Christian churches demand that women do not wear pants for the same reason as explained by reverend, but they really need to stop. I have addressed this pants issue above; but I will add that Christian women should dress as they feel comfortable.
"Is it" then, "possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women's bodies? It would certainly seem that it is not," as Linzer rightly notes in his article. While his comments are unique to Judaism, it is, nonetheless, useful here as I have noted before. If modesty is merely "enough" and appropriate as suggested in the definitions above, then what other reason do religious groups have for demanding that women dress in very restrictive ways?
And even if women were to bear some of the responsibility for men's desires, because, after all, depending on how revealing a woman is dressed, she will more likely turn a man on, did God not, in the Garden of Eden, hold Adam, Eve and the snake accountable for what happened. So how dare men put all the blame on women? Linzer writes that "…by saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man's sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin…at heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality." Thus, any religious edict that places restrictive modesty rules on women objectifies them. Perhaps this is why it was so easy to rape and kill that 23-year-old female student in India, because women are seen as objects, as problems. Imagine a Khap Panchyat member, Sube Singh, in response to a spate of rape cases in Haryana, India, as reported on CNN-IBN, stated that the marriage age for girls be reduced to 16 to avoid the rapes. In other words, the women are to blame for themselves getting raped; this, albeit the fact that child marriages were outlawed in India in 1929 according to thehindu.com.
Women have breasts, they have hair; they have vaginas and clitorises. They have sexual desires. Get over it! No god has given any commandment that any woman should be dressed in the way described above (any god to give such a commandment is questionable and one that I do not want to serve). Those are man-made laws, I am convinced, designed to oppress women and in doing so, fault them for the indiscretions of men.
Author's note: Behind the religious demand for modesty is also the belief that in order to be holy, a woman must dress a certain way. But, according to one preacher, while the cup may look clean on the outside, when one looks at the inside, one may find that it is very filthy. And this would apply to men as well. In addition, with regards to the sari, the sari has now become fashionable. I suppose if one chooses to wear it for fashion, that is fine, but to compel a woman to wear it is another issue.
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