How Does Modesty Relate to Dress? Part 1

01 February, 2017
Q I am interested and intrigued in learning more about Islam and have just read your article online about women and modesty. However, it has left me confused and with a couple of questions I am hoping you can address for me. I understand modesty as a behavior—being humble, unpretentious, being noticed for the kind things one does as opposed to one’s appearance, and being truly altruistic—but what I don’t understand is how this relates to dress. The article seems to imply that women who do not wear oversized clothing, perhaps a head scarf/veil, and who expose legs and arms are doing so explicitly to lure sexual advances or seem sexy. And I am not really sure how that conclusion is drawn. Is it not true that regardless of what one wears—whether modest, culturally conscious, or exposed—it is a form of self-expression? Perhaps it’s just my belief that we are all responsible for our own behavior, and if someone thinks my sleeveless shirt—that I have worn because I like it, or it’s hot out, or it makes me feel good, or was clean, whatever the reason—is sexy, then it is that response that is inappropriate, not necessarily the article of clothing. And is the article saying that men (and inevitably women) are so sexually charged that they cannot control themselves or judge a situation and respond appropriately? Is everyone so preoccupied with sex that it is all we think, see, and are? I do see the point that it is very nice to be noticed for who one is, and what one does rather then what one looks like, but this form of “modest dress” can frequently be noticed before the person inside is (specifically where it is unpopular and/or in Western areas). And it certainly relays to onlookers (no matter where) one’s gender, inevitably making that woman, “shy” or otherwise, uneasy. I genuinely would appreciate hearing any thoughts in response

Answer

Salam (Peace) MS, 

Thanks for your questions and for contacting Ask About Islam.

Please find part one of the answer to your question below. Find the second and final part at the link here.

I don’t know exactly what article you read, but I have read much on the subject, so I can guess the kind of content. 

I must say that I do agree with you in some things here. But I want to make it clear from the start that the Islamic dress code, hijabis obligatory for Muslim women and men, although the hijab for men is different since we have different bodies.

Some have argued that it is enough for Muslim women to dress “modestly” by the standards of the society they live in and that they need not cover their hair, for example.

But that argument is not supported by the Quran, the Sunnah (practice of the Prophet—peace and blessings be upon him), and the consensus of Muslim scholars through the ages. 

1. Let me start by commenting on your remark “I understand modesty as a behavior … but what I don’t understand is how this relates to dress.” 

I find this odd because I see one’s dress as a very basic behavior, from one’s choice of clothes they buy to one’s decision of what to wear at every occasion, even in the house.

Back when I was in Catholic high school, we girls all had to wear the same uniform of a skirt, blouse, and blazer; and whether the school rules or our mothers dictated, the skirts were all about the same length, reaching just to the knee.

But there were certain girls who would roll their skirts up at the waist as soon as they got out of the house so that they would expose more of their legs. Their intention was to attract boys. Their immodesty was directly related to how they dressed. 

Go to any shopping mall, office, or other public place and you’ll see a range of dress on women and men. (Let’s not forget that men also have a responsibility to dress modestly.)

Can you honestly tell me that you don’t prejudge people, even a little bit, based on how they dress? I’m not necessarily talking about “modesty” here.

Would you trust a lawyer who met you for the first time in his/her office dressed in shorts and a tee shirt? Would you trust a physician who came to work in a mechanic’s coveralls?

Would you be happy with your husband having a private secretary who wears miniskirts and tight, low-cut tops? 

The fact is that people do usually behave differently when they are dressed differently, and consciously or not, we do tend to judge people—men and women—by how they dress. 

Some of the most famous psychological experiments involved students behaving in depraved manners toward one another after being asked to dress in either prison guard and inmate costumes.

What someone wears is a behavior. What we wear impacts our actions. And it impacts how people view us, whether we like it or not.

2. You also wrote “is it not true that regardless of what one wears—whether modest, culturally conscious, or exposed—it is a form of self-expression?” 

I totally agree with you on that. 

In some Muslim societies where tradition dictates that a woman wear a certain type of outer garment—such as a chador or burqa—there is less opportunity for self-expression.

But even there, a woman might possibly wear an item that is embroidered to be distinguished, and what she wears underneath will be exposed when she visits other females is a form of self-expression. 

In societies where women have a bigger range of choice—such as here in Egypt or in Western countries— clothing is definitely a form of self-expression. Many of us here choose to wear loose, long garments, and head-coverings of one style or another.

But we have a great range of colors and choice in how decorated the clothes are. And all of those choices say something about us—including to some extent our degree of commitment to Islam—though perhaps to an outsider the message is not so clear. 

3. You also say that you believe that “we are all responsible for our own behavior, and if someone thinks my sleeveless shirt—that I have worn … [for] whatever the reason—is sexy, then it is that response that is inappropriate, not necessarily the article of clothing.” 

Yes, we are all responsible for our own behavior. But part of our behavior is how we dress. A truly modest woman probably would wear her sleeveless blouse only in the house or with a jacket over it, and she’d be sure that she did have something else clean to wear outside. 

I don’t think it is fair, in the example you gave, to say that if someone thinks your sleeveless blouse is sexy, it is his responsibility for an inappropriate response. We do know that certain kinds of clothes are likely to draw certain responses, and if we don’t want those responses then we shouldn’t wear those clothes. 

I am not sure a male finding a female, wearing less covering clothing sexy is inappropriate. It would be any action that comes out of that that would be inappropriate. But isn’t it nature for men to find women’s bodies attractive?

Please continue reading part two at the link here.

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

That’s How I Fell In Love With Hijab!

Why US Muslim Women Wear Hijab: Project Finds Out

Why Do Muslim Women Wear Hijab?

On World Hijab Day: Fears Haunt Muslim Women