Modern Modesty

Even before I was Muslim, I considered myself to be a ‘modest’ person– at least in terms of how everyone else around me dressed. I didn’t wear low-cut shirts, short shorts or skirts, and I hated to be in public in my bathing suit. And it had nothing to do with body image or low self-esteem; I just didn’t like to draw attention to myself and wasn’t comfortable with people looking at my body.

As a Christian, I had learned the importance of dressing modestly; after all, your body is your ‘temple.’ But I have realized since then that the Christian view of modesty that I grew up with was set against modern times. For example, I remember listening to a youth group leader talking to some of us girls about dressing modestly. Tips included not letting your undergarments show and not wearing a spaghetti-strap shirt if you were well-endowed. (Coincidentally, one of the main purposes we were told of dressing modestly was so that we wouldn’t lead our Christian brothers into temptation and sin —  which sounds very similar to why Muslims dress modestly.)

I have come to the realization lately that the idea of modesty is always changing and evolving, especially in recent times. What some consider as “modest” today would have been scandalous a hundred years ago. And although I’m not a history major and can’t testify to the fact, it seems that for most of human history, most societies have dressed in manners that were much more modest than today. It seems only in the past hundred years or so that we have begun wearing less and less clothing, and bearing more skin has become increasingly acceptable.

In the last few months I’ve been contemplating this issue a lot. Since the weather started warming up, of course you begin to see more and more immodest clothing. Why is it that our culture today believes that when it’s hot outside, you have to wear very little clothing? This was not how people used to feel. I get frustrated sometimes when, as dressing modestly, people ask me, “Aren’t you hot?” It seems such a silly question. Of course I’m hot– but so are you! It’s 100 degrees outside– it doesn’t matter what you wear, you will be hot. I’ve actually realized that as long as I’m wearing breathable, natural fabrics, I’m actually not any worse off than I used to be in the heat. If anything, I feel that it’s better, because the sun isn’t directly hitting and burning my skin.

swimsuit 1855

Sketch of Swimsuit from 1855

It’s interesting to compare today’s modesty with the modesty of former times, and the bathing suit is an easy way to look at it. In their page Swim Wear History, vintagefashionguild.org discusses the changes over time. It seems that, although there were occasional lapses, for most of history, clothing (including the bathing suit) was very modest, covering most of the body. Things started to change around the early 1900s, with bathing suits and dress revealing more and more.

The thing most concerning to me, however, is not the trend towards immodesty, but the trend toward despising modesty. Those who choose to dress modestly — from very conservative Christians to practicing Muslims– are often looked upon with ridicule, and often times shunned. Here are some examples:

  • A few weeks ago I saw a story on Yahoo News, singling out the Duggar family from the reality show 19 Kids and Counting for wearing “Unusual Outfits While Snorkling.”
  • I was shocked to recently learn that France outlawed not only the burqa, but also the burkini (the name for the modest bathing suit for Muslim women). While most reports on the burkini law claim the reasons given for its ban are because it is “unhygienic,” others state that it is because it is considered the same as a burqa. One report I read (which I can’t find again) had a French official quoted as saying it was against France’s values for women to be thus clothed while swimming (huh???).
  • As Turkey has been in the news a lot lately, I thought it fitting to give an example from that country (and it’s not that unrelated to what the protests are actually about): officially on the law books, hijabs are banned in Turkey inside government buildings, including public universities. However, the current administration does not enforce this ban and has tried– unsuccessfully– to strike out the ban.

So, my question after all of this: when did it become a social wrong — and even at time illegal — to do something that you believed was morally right? And why is a modestly dressed woman, who would have been considered decently covered by the standards of past eras, something that is now unacceptable?

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About Meditating Muslimah

Sharing my experiences as a new Muslimah, thoughts on religion, things that inspire me, foods I love to make and eat, Islamic fashion, travel, and life in general!
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8 Responses to Modern Modesty

  1. naimavanswol says:

    I think the idea that a woman’s worth is somehow related to her sexuality is an antiquated idea and it’s falling out of fashion with smart modern women. Modesty isn’t a value in a secular society because the premise is rooted in sexism. The idea that women led men to sin, with their wonton sexuality is patriarchal and probably offensive to most women, living in developed secular societies. So, ya. That’s just a few of the reasons people are offended by modesty.

  2. Bismillah Ar Rahman Ar Raheem
    Assalaamu alaikum wa rahmathullah wa barakatuhu

    Jazakhallah khair for a very interesting blog with a extremely perceptive analysis of what ‘modesty’ means nowadays. So many non-Muslims are fooled by the demands to be ‘trendy’ and the fashion industry knows that selling garments with less cloth in them for higher prices is the best way to expand profits.
    As for the matter of discomfort when wearing respectable clothing, I live somewhere where the temperature can be 40C yet I survive through our long summer without problems even though I am dressed in accordance with the commands of the Noble Quran.
    Again thanks you for a stimulating posting.
    Aliyah

  3. putnic4 says:

    Great article 🙂

    I don’t live in a country that has a ban on wearing any type of clothing, however, it is slightly strange that it is completely morally, socially and legally acceptable for a woman to walk around almost half naked, whereas hijabis will, in most parts of Bosnia, get stares on the streets for wearing a hijab, even in towns with 100% Muslim population. I just can’t understand that.

    It is true that Turkey has prohibited wearing hijab in government buildings, that’s why a lot of Turkish students come to Bosnia to Universities. This law was adopted at the end of the 1st WW and was never struck out. We had the exact same law in Bosnia, when we were part of Yugoslavia, where women were prohibited from wearing hijab, niqab and burqa, which they wore up until the 1940s. Of course, this isn’t the case anymore which makes it only more surprising that people in Bosnia, even Muslims, feel a hostility toward this type of clothing.

    Salams from Bosnia 🙂
    Adisa

  4. That is an excellent point you raise there!
    I, like you, should have the choice to wear I want, whether that is a bikini or burqa. If you have the choice to wear as little clothing as you want, I should have the choice to wear as much as clothing as I want. Simple and logical, but only on the surface sadly!

  5. Pingback: Reblog again | Densleonis

  6. Pingback: Being modest? | Librarian for Life and Style

  7. American women live in a state of constant objectification, and in our case we just don’t know it. I think, if the reasons are right, dressing modestly and with self-respect can be empowering. Instead of dressing to please our male friends, coworkers, bossess, etc.. to please ourselves. I don’t like that a woman’s dress is used to condone rape culture. It exists independent of a woman’s dress. Women ought to have the right to choose the dress that best fits them, and if that is more modest (which I am learning toward, like you), then that’s what it should be.

    I would love to feature you on my blog at Patheos, by the way. I enjoy learning why others convert to a different faith. 🙂

  8. I manufacture modest swimwear (MarSea Modest Swim & Casualwear) for use at the pool, beach or even the gym. We sell to women of all faiths and offer choice of what they want to cover. I found in the beginning (4 years ago) I got stares at hotel pools or from people – but now its more common to see modest swimwear at the water – and the lifeguards are more acceptable of full or partial coverage if it is actual swimwear fabric. I think its horrible where countries dictate what women can wear at the pool – their fears are unwarrented – and there are many – from safety issues to outright religious- phobia (anti-semitic/muslim/jewish/other) sentiments. Some countries have banned some of our long-standing bilbilca based ritual practices such as Brit Mila (circumcision) and Shechita (kosher slaughtering of animals for food) and Kipa (headcovering) for boys/men.
    If anyone is interested in our line of modest swimwear or casualwear it http://www.MarSeaModest.com

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