Greatest Hits: A Modest Proposal

Originally posted on May 1, 2007.

Quit obsessing over what women wear.

If we don’t cover up enough, we’re slutty temptresses who cause you to “stumble.” If we’re too covered up, we’re symbols of fundamentalism, and our bodies are just one step on the path to destroying churches and instituting Sharia law.

Women’s bodies are politicized enough as it is. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s awfully sick of women’s clothing choices being used as a bat to beat other women over the head with.

First, “modesty.” It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I find the modesty movement deeply troubling in the way that it assumes the female body to be shameful, and puts the onus on women to prevent men from regressing to their supposed “baser instincts” — as if men are animals who will go around sexually assaulting women if they catch a glimpse of a knee or a collar bone. This week, Kyso points us to yet another modesty gem from The Rebelution (yes, them) which encompasses pretty much everything that’s wrong with the organized “modesty movement” — primarily that it allows men to own and control women’s bodies. Let’s delve in:

Girls are in a tough spot when it comes to modesty. They are called by God to dress modestly, but because they aren’t born with the same “visual nature” in their sexuality as guys are, it is difficult for women to spot where modesty begins and ends. Where are the boundaries? What trips a guy’s trigger, and what doesn’t?

Women don’t have the same “visual nature” in their sexuality as men? Right. What turns chicks on is a soft caress, “I love you,” and a bouquet of $100 bills. Or something.

As guys, we complicate it further by carelessly sinking to our own lowest levels sexually. Our visual nature first forces God to call women to modesty, depriving them of their freedom to define their own style of dress.

At least he’s honest that they’re depriving women of freedom.

While that is frustrating in its own way, their real frustration comes when we only pay attention to the girls in our youth groups that dress hot, while ignoring the ones who dress modestly and chase after God. We expect the women to protect us from our own visual nature by dressing modestly, while doing little to rise above that nature ourselves, allowing them to be penalized twice over for our nature

This is the point where I expect him to say, “So, young Christian males, get it together and quit making women bear the burden of your guilt-ridden sexuality.” And then…

Who can blame the girl who throws up her hands and snaps, I’m through worrying about this modesty thing! Their eyes are their problem, not mine! I certainly can’t blame them as long as we are being so lazy about it ourselves. We must take care of our own responsibilities first by disciplining our eyes and our minds to line up with scripture if we expect our women to line up in modesty. We are men. We must lead in all this.

“[I]f we expect our women to line up in modesty.” In other words, we’re the fuck-ups, but because we’re powerful fuck-ups, we’re going to force women (who are by nature our property) to behave in a certain way in order to please us. That behavior will not, in fact, decrease the number of nights we cry ourselves to sleep after being naughty, naughty boys who google “hot girls in action” and then touch ourselves in the bad place, but it will allow us to blame those temping girls for forcing us to sin. Everybody wins, right?

Now, let it be clear that when I say these guys are “fuck-ups,” I don’t mean that I think they’re fucked up for being physically attracted to women. In my world, sex and sexual feelings are pretty normal, so if straight 15-year-old dudes are attracted to 15-year-old girls, ain’t no problem in my book. I’m characterizing their view of themselves as somehow deviant for having perfectly normal sexual desires and urges — a view that I find pretty sad, but wouldn’t care about if they weren’t trying to project it onto everyone else. If you think your hard-on is a sign of Satan, repent away — but don’t blame me (or the girls in your youth group) for your shit. I feel a little sinful when I watch that scene where Brad Pitt first appears in Thelma & Louise — but I realize that Brad is not personally responsible for what goes on in my pants.

But before I get distracted, let’s continue:

And that is what I love about the Modesty Survey. It allows guys to take some responsibility and leadership. We can honestly help train our sisters in Christ about where those boundaries lie and, hopefully, as we think through the issue ourselves, we can begin to stand up as men by joining the Rebelution against low expectations. Expect more of yourself sexually. Begin by honoring those girls around you who are dressing modestly and who are focusing as much on their inner beauty as their outer apparel.

In case you didn’t catch it the first time, allow me to reiterate: We can honestly help train our sisters in Christ. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I tried to train was my dog (and he’s still really bad, so that didn’t even work). You don’t train people unless you think of them as slightly sub-human. Which, at this point, should be pretty self-explanatory.

But it gets better: Kyso braves the comments elsewhere on the website and finds this:

A young lady, regardless of your relation to her, can be a stumbling block/temptation to a young man. Sort of a disgusting thought, but men, if not walking in the Spirit everday, can be wolves.

My younger sister, 14, is just recently becoming more of a young lady. It was not too long ago that I (for the first time) had to bring up her dress to her. It’s not a question of incest. It’s a question of instinct. I could probably think for a moment and realize that it’s my sister, but why be put in that position in the beginning?

A girl is a girl. My sisters look like girls, and therefore they are potentially a temptation. Just because I have a relationship with them does not mean that their womanliness physically can not stir up wrong thoughts.

Even my Mom can attract my attention if she isn’t careful.

Um.

I have no problem with perverts. Perversions can be great things. Perverts make the world go ’round. Most of us, I would guess, are a little pervy. But I think incest is a fair place to draw the line (along with animals, poop, and dead bodies, but that’s another post). If you’re checking out your mom and your 14-year-old sister, you have more things to worry about than what the girls are wearing to youth group meetings. And if a dude you go to church with is turned on when his mom wears anything more revealing than a frilly blouse under a floor-length denim dress, the fact that he’s staring at your tits probably has very little to do with your choice in clothing. As Kyso points out, “THERE IS NOTHING, NOT ONE SINGLE THING, THAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP A GUY WHO OPENLY ADMITS THAT EVEN HIS MOM CAN DO IT FOR HIM.”

Yes.

On the opposite side of the same coin are the people who are offended because women are too covered up — primarily because they’re covered for the wrong reasons. And “the wrong reasons” usually come down to (surprise, surprise) being Muslim.

As I was getting ready to head home from my Sunday swim, I heard a loud voice from a man stating that he needed to speak to the manager about dress code. I picked up on it, but didn’t really give it too much thought, until I heard him yelling about “that woman over there” who was wearing the “burkini”, the gist of what he was saying seemingly being that it was inappropriate. What the hell is that? The burkini? I could feel a rising indignation at the man’s audacity in singling me out in this way. Who had died and declared him the pool police? There were several lifeguards on duty who had seen me swimming there over the previous six months, and none had objected to the swimsuit. It’s been nearly a year since I moved to Oxford, and frankly, I had had enough of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in British political life. Now that I was in the middle of it, I refused to stand on the sidelines.

Read the whole article — the author does a pretty good job of dispelling the notion that Muslim women who wear the hijab are passive and oppressed. She’s pretty badass, and definitely aggressive, which I can certainly appreciate. And the article makes it clear that the problem with her bathing suit wasn’t that it was dangerous — the problem is that it marked her as “other” in Oxford. And that it specifically marked her as Muslim. And that Muslims are relatively acceptable punching bags these days, especially at the hands of conservatives whose objectionss to Islam are more about racism, xenophobia, hegemony and religious dominance than actual offense at headscarves or wetsuit-like swimsuits.

But here’s my favorite part of her piece:

Looking back, what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women’s issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women’s constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone’s imagination. The part of my life where I had the opportunity of meeting leading women from Queen Rania of Jordan to Hillary Clinton was erased.

When I chose to wear the headscarf nearly 15 years ago, I promised myself it would never hold me back from my two passions: travel and sport. Neither my mother nor my sister had worn the headscarf, and my family raised us with the gift of freedom of choice. To this day my sister and I enjoy the outdoors, each never giving a second thought to our choice of dress – her bikini or my “burkini”. It strongly disturbs me that I was disregarded as an individual, and demeaned to a one-dimensional stereotype. For many of those involved in the debate, the fact that I covered my head and my body seemed to make them forget that I had a brain.

And that’s what differentiates her from the “Rebelution” crowd — she makes her clothing choices for complex, personal and religious reasons, but feels no need to shame or judge women who don’t take the same path. She also doesn’t see her clothing choices as somehow defining who she is intellectually or personally.

That isn’t to say that what we wear has no political implications. It does, and I don’t have a problem with discussing the various issues with modesty, the veil, bikinis or miniskirts. What I do have a problem with is men exploiting women’s bodies as tools to promote political and religious ideologies, and using women’s clothing as a barometer of personal morality.

Let’s quit using fashion as an excuse for misogyny, and perhaps instead turn our focus to the misogyny of those who think they have a right to tell women what to wear.


Similar Posts (automatically generated):

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Blogging, Feminism, Gender and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Greatest Hits: A Modest Proposal

  1. Nakanja says:

    Girls are in a tough spot when it comes to modesty. They are called by God to dress modestly, but because they aren’t born with the same “visual nature” in their sexuality as guys are, it is difficult for women to spot where modesty begins and ends. Where are the boundaries? What trips a guy’s trigger, and what doesn’t?

    Okay, so God tells women to dress modestly…

    As guys, we complicate it further by carelessly sinking to our own lowest levels sexually. Our visual nature first forces God to call women to modesty, depriving them of their freedom to define their own style of dress.

    …and this is because men *force* God to do so. So the hierarchy they believe in seems to be Man > God > Woman.

  2. Vanessa says:

    the author does a pretty good job of dispelling the notion that Muslim women who wear the hijab are passive and oppressed. She’s pretty badass, and definitely aggressive, which I can certainly appreciate.

    I believe I mentioned this when you posted this the first time (or on some other similar post) but I’ve literally never met a Muslima who fit the meek stereotype. All the Muslim women I’ve met (and granted, I’ve only met Muslimas living in the US, so maybe that’s a difference) have been kind of sparkplug pepperpots. I don’t know where the stereotype comes from.

  3. Hector B. says:

    but I’ve literally never met a Muslima who fit the meek stereotype

    Similarly, I would — just once — like to meet a submissive Asian woman. Every one I’ve known has been beyond assertive.

  4. Christina says:

    It’s very nice and neat: If you don’t dress modestly, you are a brainless slut who doesn’t know what you are “asking for”. If you do dress modestly, you are a brainless victim who doesn’t know that you are a walking billboard for oppression and what is Wrong With Those People.

    Either way, you are brainless. Nice.

  5. Hot Tramp says:

    So the hierarchy they believe in seems to be Man > God > Woman.

    Pretty terrifying, isn’t it?

    Like God is sitting around going, “Well, I guess I could give men a modicum of self-control … but instead, I’ll force the women to cover up the stuff I made so luscious and irresistible.”

    … Riiiiight.

  6. Janis says:

    AFAIC, if men can’t control their eyeballs, then put the fabric where it belongs — around their eyes. Blindfold `em. Like Golda Meir said, if they’re the problem, then constrain THEM.

    If they can behave themselves, then fine. They get to SEE. If they can’t, and if they admit to not being able to control themselves, blindfold time. I wonder how many men who “can’t help it” would suddenly be ABLE to help it if they would be nonviolently blinded otherwise.

  7. Pingback: Activist Mommy

  8. StarStorm says:

    Exactly Janis.

    Men do have self-control. If they’re not willing to use it, that’s THEIR problem.

    That said, I like your solution.

  9. “# Hector B. Says:
    August 11th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    but I’ve literally never met a Muslima who fit the meek stereotype

    Similarly, I would — just once — like to meet a submissive Asian woman. Every one I’ve known has been beyond assertive.”

    Yeah, Hector, I bet you would.

  10. Janis says:

    Men do have self-control. If they’re not willing to use it, that’s THEIR problem.

    Yup. Use of self-control for men has just got to be incentivized.

    Control yourself, or be blinded. Nonviolently, with no damage to yourself. I mean, we’re not vicious, here. We wouldn’t do anything like … oh … BINDING YOUR FACE to prevent your eyes from developing or ever working correctly again. I mean, that’s CRAZY TALK! Who’d do something like that?

  11. Farhat says:

    Yea, Muslim women are oh-so-assertive and well respected. Why there’s only a couple of thousand documented honor killings these days and just 40 or so countries where honor killings are recognized as okay by law.

  12. Aman says:

    Yes, Farhat, it’s women’s fault that they’re oppressed and killed by men on the pretense of preserving their honor and purity, men with motivations nothing like the ones criticized in the post. Why do these crazy feminists criticize our right-thinking Christian brothers when they could be blaming murder victims and demonstrating how it is a shared character flaw of all Muslim women that is at fault for the violence that has been done to them. No one could argue with your crack statistics.

  13. Vanessa says:

    Yea, Muslim women are oh-so-assertive and well respected.

    Well, they certainly are in the community where I was raised as a Muslim (now atheist).

    Why there’s only a couple of thousand documented honor killings these days and just 40 or so countries where honor killings are recognized as okay by law.

    I’m willing to be the counties you’re talking about are theocratic totalitarian regimes. I live in a city with a large Muslim population and there have never been any ‘honor killings.’ There are, in fact, many Muslima professionals – doctors, lawyers, businesswomen – , some who wear hijab and some who don’t. So, maybe the problem is not with Muslim women but with theocratic totalitarian regimes?

    Just a thought.

    Related anecdote: I know a woman who is a dentist. She is Pakistani, Muslim, married with a child. She complained to me once that whenever people hear she’s a dentist, they always ask the same 3 questions.

    You’re a dental assistant?

    No, I’m a dentist with my own practice.

    Oh. So you came to America to learn to be a dentist?

    No, I went to school in Pakistan.

    Really? In Pakistan?

    *sigh*

  14. Caroline says:

    i seriously dont get y any1 would dress modestly unless they were fat or flatchested or something. i mean like, i dont think everyone should run around topless and in a thong, but if you have stuff 2 show, y not show it? i do, and im not raped everytime i go outside, im not “truly unhappy on the inside”, im not addicted 2 anythinhg, im pretty popular, i have a hot boyfriend, and i bet im alot happier than the loser that dresses in a floorlenght skirt and a turtle neck.

Comments are closed.