How Does Modesty Relate to Dress? Part 2

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

To continue to answering your questions: 4. “And is the article saying that men (and inevitably women) are so sexually charged that they cannot control themselves […] ? Is everyone so preoccupied with sex that it is all we think, see, and are?” 

No, not everyone is so charged that they can’t control themselves. No, sex is not all we think, see, and are, but for many it is a large part of their lives. 

I have to admit that I also get a bit impatient with articles that tell women to wear hijab in a way that makes it sound like men can’t control themselves at all. 

The Quran tells us to dress this way so that we may be recognized as believers, not only so that we may not be harassed.

It also tells men to lower their gaze and to control themselves. They have just as much responsibility in the social dynamic as women do.

I am reminded of a Mormon woman I met some years ago who told me that they, too, have a dress code, though it is not as rigid as the Muslim one. “But on a hot day in summer, you can tell who is a believer and who isn’t,” she said. 

5. Your final remark was, “I do see the point that it is very nice to be noticed for who one is, and what one does rather than 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 think you raised two points here. I’ll address the second one first, that “it certainly relays to onlookers […] one’s gender.” There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, Muslims are forbidden to dress like the opposite sex.

Most people do wear clothing (or at least a hair style) that identifies their gender, and I doubt if many employers would be happy if an employee (especially a man) showed up dressed as the opposite sex.

So, there is no reason why a woman should be uneasy because people can see that she’s a woman. Remember that the Quran also tells men and women (in that order) to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. 

You are correct, of course, in saying that a woman dressed in hijab may have her clothing noticed before she is. By that I understand that you mean she may be the object of prejudice as a result. 

My own experience of wearing hijab in the United States (before September 11, 2001) was a positive one. I wore hijab for over 10 years there, and I can count on one hand the number of nasty remarks I got as a result.

Most people recognized it as some sort of religious “garb”—they weren’t always sure what religion—but I often was treated with extra respect by people because of my dress. 

Yes, sadly, the events of 9/11 and following have changed that for many Muslim women. Yet few of us remove hijab because we insist that it is our right to practice our religion and dress according to it.

So, we now find ourselves the victims of prejudice, as other groups do.

The difference is that while they cannot change their skin color, we could change the way we dress—yet most of us don’t. Our hijab is so much a part of us that we could never remove it, and we are proud to wear it.

Muslims must now do what those others who were victims of prejudice did to gain their rights: educate people about who and what we are; become active members of our communities; take our cases to courts; lobby for our rights, etc.

It may be a long battle, but we take comfort in knowing that we are obeying the Creator and that He will reward us for our efforts. 

And a woman does have some flexibility in the style of hijab she wears, so she need not look too “foreign” while still following the Islamic dress code. 

I hope these remarks have clarified things for you. I hope you will continue to learn more about Islam. If you have any more questions, please send them to us. 

Thank you and salam

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