Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is It Hiding?

The thing about modest dress is that it starts with modesty. Merriam Webster defines modesty as 1: freedom of conceit or vanity and 2: propriety in dress, speech, or conduct. It's interesting to note that what defines propriety, appropriateness or decency, is not universal. What is appropriate for one culture or group can be totally indecent to another. It would be impossible and counterproductive to my purpose to explore every possible aspect of what is modest in the scope of this blog, especially given my background in anthropology, so I'm going to give it my own definition. I'm going to say modesty is that factor of humbleness, of not drawing attention to oneself and, in the context of clothing, it is dressing in an unexposed, unassuming, and simple manner. That actually covers quite a lot (no pun intended, but I'm not going to revise it!), and at the end of writing this, I may completely disagree with my own definition. Peachy!

I want to include plain in my own definition, but that's not always the case in modest dress. I've seen some women in hijabs that were truly beautiful patterns. I remember a stunning one that was black with large bright roses, and one woman wearing a loose pant style in a lovely shade of lavender. That's not plain to me. Plain dress and modest dress do sometimes go together, but not always. I might touch on plain as well, though, where it's relevant.

I would begin by asking you to think of any and every culture, to include a religious community as a culture, that comes to mind that involves some form of modest dress. Islam is probably the first, or Amish, Mennonite, maybe Quaker, Judaism has some, and some other denominations of Christianity as well (of which Amish, Mennonite, and Quaker are).

Some of them, like the Amish - a denomination of Mennonites, have such precise rules on the matter that it not only serves to set standards for modesty but also identifies them as part of a distinct group. Interestingly, these rules, part of the Ordnung that also dictates all aspects of Amish life, vary from community to community. So one group might wear all black and one might allow colors or patterns in their dress. Mennonite communities also follow an Ordnung that could include rules for plain dress or allow their members to be as indistinguishable from any Joe Public they meet on the street. Plain dress among Quakers seems to be like this as well. Among the Christian groups, it seems pretty common that the rules of modest dress are individual to specific communities. I never felt that the Catholic faith I was raised in had any kind of strict requirement on how I dress, but my aunt and uncle are both modest dressers and I've seen them sometimes get stopped on the street by a random person asking if they were missionaries.

Christian guidelines for modest dress mostly come from 1 Timothy 2:9 "And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes." (New Living Translation) This is pretty liberal in the requirements, though guidelines for what is considered appropriate are found in other areas of the Bible.

The basis of tzniut in Jewish traditions is to dress in a way that does not attract attention. Halakha includes some other more specific rules about things, like how much skin should be exposed, from the Bible, Talmud, and rabbinic law sources. Halakha has largely been open to interpretation, so you can easily find Jewish groups who never expose ankles or collarbones and groups who do. Tzniut specifically states that a married woman must cover her hair. Snoods and tichels, a favorite among pagans, are common for this - some rabbis will even allow wigs for this purpose. The practice of veiling for married Jewish women is mostly observed in synagogue, with some covering whenever out side the home as well. Interestingly enough, the practice of wearing a kippah for men seems to be extremely common, relatively speaking. I can't say how many Jewish people I run into on a day to day, but I have certainly seen more men in kippahs than I have seen women in tichels.

The Qur'an includes rules on modest dress for both men and women. The word hijab is used as a name for the veil that covers the hair and neck as well as the practice of wearing such a veil, though the Qur'an does not use that term in that way. The Qur'an states, "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed." (in one translation) Even this is open to interpretation among Muslim communities. Some leaders will say that exposing the face and hands is appropriate where others may say it is not. Some follow guidelines relative to the society they are in, for example seeing a woman in a full burqa in the United States is fairly uncommon. It would draw more attention to them and the entire purpose of modest dress is to not draw attention. It's kind of a catch 22 in the Western world, though, because veiling in general is so misunderstood.

Part of the misunderstanding, and thus the controversy, is that the majority of women who wear a hijab outside of places where it is required by law (like Iran and Saudi Arabia where the hijab is mandatory) do so because they choose it. Every single woman I spoke to when I started this research confirmed this. In contrast to the places where hijab is required, there are some where it is banned altogether. Muslims in those areas who choose to wear a hijab have been fighting for their right to do so. I remember a story fairly recently of a young girl who was fighting for her right to wear a hijab in France where it is banned in public schools. (It should be noted that it is not specifically a hijab that is banned in public schools in France, but any conspicuous religious symbol. This would include Christian veils and things like large cross jewelry as well.)

But now I think my train of thought is wandering a bit. The politics of allowing veils or not is not what I want to talk about, at least not at this time.

The main point here is that these "rules" for modest dress are open to interpretation across the board, and what rules a member must adhere to depends on the decisions of the leaders of the community they are in. They are not simply a means of female oppression, though how they are interpreted can lead to that. The basis of most of these rules is to set followers, both men and women, apart from those who do not believe that way. The stricter rules for women almost always state that it is for their protection; that men are uncontrollable creatures and the best way to protect women from their unwanted advances is to remove themselves from the gaze of men.

Yes, an argument can be made here that these rules are interpreted by leaders who are men and are written by men in patriarchal societies where women are more often than not treated as property. But if you really look into those societies, those origins, that may be true but being a woman was not without its privileges. Muhammad's wives were well revered among early Muslims, a lot of the laws pertaining to women's dress in the Qur'an apply only to them. The larger Islamic community following those laws is thus emulating the wives of the prophet; it is not unlike considering Catholic nuns to be brides of Jesus. The word hijab in the Qur'an originally meant a veil between men and Muhammad's wives when speaking to them, and it was the responsibility of the man to have that veil in place. Also, the laws usually allow a woman to be uncovered for her husband and male relatives. It could be further argued that the laws are in place to protect women of a certain group from outsiders - men who don't have the same restrictions on behavior because they are not part of the group who might be tempted to act improperly if they see too much of a woman. The rules are not, then, put in place to control women, but to spare them dealing with uncontrollable men.

What Does This Mean For Me?

The thing about modest dress is that it doesn't apply to pagans at all, at least not in these terms. A pagan does not need to be modest because women are shameful or because men are sinful. Pagan women, and men, are taught that bodies are beautiful and sacred, they should be honored and respected. In this article, the writer talks about modesty as an issue of self-respect. She states that she wants her daughter to know that she does not have "to show it off to attract the attention of a boy." In one of the comments, a gentleman states, "there's a big difference in clothing that reflects a healthy, innocent, casual, Pagan comfort with one's body and clothing that sexualizes the wearer." That's exactly it; a low-cut top might be considered immodest to some, but perfectly acceptable to a woman confident and comfortable with her body.

This blogger makes a distinction between being modest and being self-aware and responsible. Modesty among pagans is really about personal comfort and personal choice. The Charge of the Goddess indicates, "and ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are truly free, ye shall be naked in your rites." I'm not a 'naked in my rites' kind of pagan. Many are, some are not. That's just not where my comfort lies. Part of being pagan means we have taken our spiritual journey into our own hands, and there are no hard and fast, across-the-board rules.

This article (it warns NSFW, though I didn't think it was so bad) goes so far as to say that pagan modesty is treating one's own body with respect and a lack of self-consciousness. She spoke of two well known priestesses in pagan circles as being modest not because of their long, flowy dresses but because "they own their bodies, they use their bodies, they respect them and they carry themselves with confidence and grace." "They own their bodies." I love this. Modesty, then is not about hiding from others, but about being in control of yourself.

I mentioned yesterday that I have been wearing long skirts as part of my work wardrobe for over a year. A couple months ago, I was stopped by a coworker in the hallway, I think it was on an 'ok to wear shorts' day but I was still in my regular skirt, who asked, "why do you wear those skirts all the time? They really hide your figure." Maybe that's the point, creep! And by the point, I don't mean I'm hiding my body because it is shameful or disgusting and shouldn't be seen by man or beast, but I am shielding myself from unwanted attention - especially in my work environment where even the comment about my figure is inappropriate. The way I dress means I am in control of who sees what parts of my body and when. There is no patriarchal head of my household standing over me saying I must do this because some obscure text says that flesh is obscene. I choose to present myself a certain way so I'm not judged on the curve of my hips or the shapeliness of my calves. What's wrong with that?

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