Monday, July 01, 2013

Modesty in the Middle East

Soooooooooo much has been written on the topic of "modesty" - that awful word that means different things to different people - and the best of what has been written is more interesting and lucid than anything I could add to the conversation. Therefore, I'm going to try to keep this post to my particular context of being a Westerner and a Mormon living in a very conservative part of the Middle East. For the more interesting and lucid posts I mentioned above, take a look at:

THAT WORD [Bloggity Blog]
Undoing Shoulder and Knee Obsession in Mormon Kids [Feminist Mormon Housewives]
BYU's Honor Code and Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment [By Common Consent]
Men, Sex, and Modesty [By Common Consent]

Recently, something brought this post from two years ago (Too Much Skin) to mind and I wondered if, at this point, I disagree with myself. Or at least the "myself" of two years ago. To sum up in case you don't feel like re-reading, two years ago I wrote about women wearing fantastically inappropriate swimwear to the Atlantis waterpark in Dubai. I briefly resented them for reminding my husband of what key areas of some women's bodies still look like that his own wife's do not, but that wasn't the point. My point was that I fundamentally did not understand the mindset of these women, dressing the way they did in a country like this, where, in Sharjah at least, swimsuits for women are forbidden and shoulders and knees must be covered, by law.

It was - and is - easy for me to get preachy on this topic, in this specific context, because regardless of any law on Sharjah's books, I already dress that way. I already keep my shoulders and knees covered. So it requires more of an effort for me to understand where others are coming from. I have years of experience being hard-core ogled and verbally/sexually harassed in the Middle East, and I have also been groped - once. Those experiences were (and are, to the extent that they still happen) so humiliating and made me feel so powerless that for me, covering up more rather than less has been my best - and sometimes only - recourse.

As I wrote here, however, sometimes, harassers gonna harass.

Once, walking home from the grocery store in Cairo, a man sidled up next to me and said simply - not even bothering to whisper - "Sex?" 
At the time, I was walking briskly with a sense of purpose, avoiding eye contact, and I was dressed in loose jeans and a butt-covering, non-form-fitting shirt with long sleeves. I was doing everything right to avoid being harassed. And it was meaningless. I was powerless. I can never unhear what he said and I can never unfeel the gross insult to my integrity.

So why does it even matter how we dress, if we can do everything right and still be subjected to treatment like what happened to me in Cairo? I don't know. But it does make it easier to err on the side of saying "one-piece swimsuits [or knee-length shorts, or shirts with sleeves, or whatever] for all!" and feel good about it. But I don't, anymore. For me, dressing conservatively (is that a better word than "modest"?) will probably always be what I do, because of religious commitments I've made and because of my own life experiences. However, here are some other reasons I dress the way I do:

- because my Muslim friends and neighbors and professors and co-workers respect me more when I do
- because I don't want to stand in front of my students feeling like they're paying more attention to my body than my message
- because this is an extremely conservative country and it's just the respectful thing to do
- because to some extent, it cuts down on casual, passer-by sexual harassment
- because it's the law
- because it can be refreshing to break the stereotype that all Western women dress a certain way
- because I have ugly knees anyway
- because I wouldn't look good in a bikini anyway

Some of those reasons are personal. Some of them are meant to shape what others think of me. Some I probably shouldn't care about. Some are more defensible than others. Some are completely ridiculous. But that's the paradigm I'm operating in. And it's my own. I can't presume to thrust it upon others the same way I can't presume that everyone has had the same life experiences as I have.

OK, so do I disagree with myself from two years ago, or not? Actually, not really. I absolutely believe that ideas of modesty are cultural constructs and can differ, and that there is nothing inherently evil in knees and shoulders, and that those who are not Muslim (or not Mormon) have no obligation to adhere to any dress code that approaches the level of a serious religious commitment, and that yes, in theory, a woman should be able to walk into a room in a see-through dress and be taken seriously for her thoughts and ideas rather than have them ignored in favor of looking at her body. BUT. In conservative societies such as the one in which I currently live, I believe in being respectful of the host culture. In other words, I believe it's more about respect than about values or skin or repression or submission or religion.

Also, for better or worse, dressing modestly in the Middle East is something that has been deeply ingrained in me. A few months ago at a park in Dubai on a beautiful, warm, winter day, a Western friend of mine asked me why I was wearing jeans instead of shorts. I was caught off guard and said something about my ugly knees, mentioned above. But the truth is, I wouldn't dream of wearing shorts out and about in the UAE. That's just me. If I had worn shorts or even a tame sleeveless top (for whatever reason) when we lived in Damascus, people would have thought I was a prostitute. And maybe some women would be fine walking around, all confident in their personal knowledge that they are not, in fact, prostitutes, and genuinely not caring that everyone around them believed they were. But I am not one of those women. Heck, even as modestly as I did dress in Damascus, people still sometimes took me for a prostitute, just because I was Western and that's the reputation we have (which may be related to the way Westerners dress, which creates a vicious circle that breaks my brain if I think too much about it). So I don't wear shorts around town here because I didn't wear them in Egypt and I didn't wear them in Jordan and I didn't wear them in Syria. Because that's just the way I roll. And that doesn't necessarily mean that I think that's the way YOU should roll if you live here. But if you do, maybe you're doing it out of respect for the host culture, in which case, SOLIDARITY.

Two peripheral topics to this post that I'd like to bring up sometime: Muslim issues with modesty, and Muslim attitudes toward the modesty of children. Both very interesting things. Both for another time.

11 comments:

  1. I was just reading your links about the bikini video from Friday's outsourced so I was happy to see this post from you. Really interesting topic.

    When I watched the bikini video, my first response was something along the lines: in Muslim countries, what you are wearing is quite immodest (showing her arms and shoulders, her legs and hair.) So, yeah, I think a lot of modesty is cultural.

    A few years ago I read a book about my county,and a man admitted the guys used to hover around the train station because when women got off, they would raise their skirts and *they could see glimpses of ankles*!

    So, yeah, people will find eyes and ankles and shoulders and knees lovely if they want. But I love the idea presented in the articles (from Friday's posts) that we aren't responsible for men's thoughts and actions. I also love that you are respectful of other cultures. I find myself covering more when I'm around certain people, and in Syria I chose longer, looser things (thanks for the tips, by the way).

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  2. Oh, wanted to add that I think the two peripheral topics to this post sound really interesting!

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  3. So... if you lived in Iran, would you wear the hijab?

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    1. I would have to. It's the law. But in my heart, I would maintain the distinction between wearing the hijab as a piece (or pieces) of fabric that were required by the law, and wearing the hijab as a serious religious commitment. Since I am not a Muslim, I could not seriously do the latter without converting.

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    2. I think that's an interesting distinction, especially as it relates to Mormonism. Sometimes I feel like we're enforcing modesty as a "legal" requirement of our culture, rather than it being a religious/inner commitment.

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  4. The one time I was groped in Jordan I had a loose long sleeve tunic on and long pants. I am dark. I was pregnant, and Jason was standing right in front of me, but I think the shop keeper took advantage because even though the evidence in front of him proved me to be a respectable family woman he knew I was a foreigner from talking with us. I too feel the need to dress "overly covered" by Western standards when in Muslim countries because I would rather not stand out (sort of my mantra for my whole life) but I think that it has been the experience of being in the middle east that has most had me call into question Mormon feelings about modesty, especially the sort of prevalent feeling whether we realize it or not that "Mormon standards of modesty" = "more righteous". After living in a Muslim country you realize that the constructs of what you were raised to believe was "modest" really just aren't that covered and that if you can expose you ankles and elbows, hair and neck and be "modest" and righteous than probably people exposing their shoulders and thighs can be as well :) It's just like when it hit me that people can drink and smoke and still be good people (ok so smoking is horrible for you health so quit all you smokers) but contrary to sort of the feelings I had as a child there is nothing inherently evil about smokers, drinkers, or coffee and tea drinkers. Is it crazy that I had to come to that realization or did other Mormon kids have to as well? Anyway I think about modesty a lot because I've been in Young Womans for the last year and it is something that is constantly coming up. I've also noticed an increase it in focus in primary, especially the shoulder debate. The shoulder debate drives me crazy. You saw my family pictures. I think little girls in summer dresses are adorable and I don't like people trying to shame me into covering them up or shame them because they are wearing something lose and comfortable when it is 100 degrees outside. I obviously have a lot of feelings about this, too many for a comment, I need to write a post but it just has been something on my mind.

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    1. I wasn't trying to infer that you made me feel this way about the summer dresses...it's ladies from church!

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  5. My first summer as a BYU employee, there was a poster that showed, in a group of people, a little girl in a sleeveless dress, and they reprinted ALL of the posters with sleeves photoshopped in. So expensive! So silly! The next Sunday after the recalling of the posters, I walked into church, and my friend who is President Hinckley's granddaughter walked into church with her many little girls, all in sleeveless summer dresses. And I knew that the prophet just loved those sweet little girls, and that he would NOT call into question their shoulders! I think he would have been HORRIFIED at the waste of MONEY to reprint the posters; that would have appalled him; not the shoulders of the child in the picture.

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  6. This fall I'll start work at an Islamic/Saudi private school here in the DC area. It seems that in addition to my usual standards of modesty as an endowed LDS woman, all my sleeves must go to the elbow. Time to stock up on cardigans!

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    1. So this is how I can find out what is going on in your life, Amanda! :o) Congrats on the new job. That is awesome!

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    2. Thanks! I'll send you an email with more details shortly!

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I had to disallow anonymous comments because of all the spam I was getting. Sorry!

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