The obsession with female 'modesty' and what it tells us

The obsession with female 'modesty' and what it tells us
Comment: To help women change the currency of their relationships to men, we must teach them who they can be, without framing it in relation to men, writes Amal Awad.
5 min read
18 Oct, 2017
'Discussions around women's dress and behaviour are a universal currency' writes Awad [Getty]
When US actress Mayim Bialik took to The New York Times to discuss how her modesty has kept her safe from sexual predators, I was disappointed but not surprised.

Bialik is famously conservative, proudly extolling her feminist credentials and Zionism as a practicing Jew. In the piece, she expressed sentiments not dissimilar to those of conservative Muslims when it comes to women and how they dress and behave in the presence of men, or in public in general.

The biggest issue, in my mind at least, is that Bialik wraps up her sentiments in feminism (the headline literally reads "Being a feminist in Harvey Weinstein's world"). Yet, she has been on the receiving end of stinging backlash for insinuating that being less attractive, seductive and having modesty boundaries in place have kept her safe from abuse.

Let's be clear: Sexual abuse in any form directed at women is about power, and the only criteria necessary to be on the end of it is being female. From racism to sexism, as the expansive #metoo hashtag takes off, it's clear that women - no matter their shape, perceived attractiveness or position - are never free of potential harassment by men.

Discussions around women's dress and behaviour are a universal currency, even if the tenor of these varies according to situation and location. We are obsessed with females, their power in the face of lusty males, and how, conversely, they must be protected from said lusty males.

In the West, online platforms heave with opinion pieces on women; their rights, place in society and how they are perceived. But this enjoys a sort of normalised central feminism (ie white), and often, these discussions are focussed on championing the rights of white women in the interests of the greater whole.

The shame women experience for having the desire to get to know a man outside of marriage runs deep

That is to say, it's not often that women from ethnic minorities have the same opportunities, or are even on the same trajectory as white women. Yet, we are also discussed by others as being among the most oppressed of women, no matter our location.

And in the Arab world and its diaspora communities, there is certainly a pronounced focus on how women dress. For a deeply conservative society, Arab culture champions modesty, a drawdown from its religious influences. 

Laila Hzaineh takes on Waseem Shehade's
criticism of women who laugh in the
street and wear short skirts [YouTube]

Bialik, and many religious conservatives like her, endorse the female ideal when they talk about women behaving and dressing modestly. She's the pliable, obedient woman who doesn't seek attention.

This conservative viewpoint pushes the idea that women are inherently soft and require protection from men (though I don't hear religious conservatives urging men to look at their own behaviour). 

I referred to this in my last column; the idea that women must be protected, and that this is why certain safeguards – like the hijab for Muslims – are in place.

In all of the exasperating arguments about how women dress, most frustrating is how we overlook the influence of deep-seated beliefs about a woman's allure, and how this impacts the way she is treated.

Read more: Sexual abuse in the workplace: Address the problem, not the symptoms

These notions are deeply embedded into our psyche. When religious individuals tell you that you are punished for refusing your husband sex, (yet the same does not occur for him); when you tell your daughter that she can do something "when you're married"; and when you lament that "this is just the way things are", nothing changes.

A while back, I watched in awe as teenager Laila Hzaineh, a Palestinian-Jordanian woman, addressed a video by an Arab man in which he preaches on the failures of women who do things such as laugh in the street. "How nice for you," he tells us smugly.

"No, how nice for you!" responds Hzaineh. "What does it matter to you?"

Such a simple question, but with it comes deep meaning.

NYT Editor Bari Weiss (left) interviews actor and
neuroscientist Mayim Bialik on the controversy caused
by her recent column. [Facebook]

The sad part is that I have known guys like the one scolding women in the video. Most women I know have met and dealt with guys like him. But worse still, is that we probably tried, once upon a time, to accept his patriarchal, dense attitude as correct.

Cue the good "Muslima" - the sweet, softly-spoken Muslim girl every guy wants to marry (after he's done flirting or dating other women). The strange pride men afford such women for being good and vulnerable and obedient.

This is a reality, not a conjured idea Arab women raise in defence of ourselves. The shame women experience for having the desire to get to know a man outside of marriage runs deep. But men can do this and are not subjected to shame.

In researching my book on Arab women, many I spoke to shared their stories on this. They saw how deeply entrenched this mentality was, they shared how it had created bottomless and long-term shame, and issues that even affected their married sex life. 

And look no further than some of the vapid discussion around Muslim women's dress. When we're not "pearls" to be protected, we're "lollipops" that need to be wrapped in plastic to avoid infestation. Years ago, a Sydney sheikh was called out by an Australian newspaper for referring to women who don't wear hijab as "uncovered meat".

And that's where we are – not people in our own right; not women with agency or passion or a desire for self-determination. We are there to be taken care of, even as the insecurities of men show that their greatest fear is themselves.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.