The Complicated Concept of Modesty And How I Define it

The normal expected answer for such question in a place where there is a presumable freedom of choice would be because I choose to, as simple as that, a personal choice, a life style. For some reason this is not the case, most of the time Muslim women are expected to justify their dress code, as a visible sign of modesty, they are asked to explain themselves, and their mental abilities are questioned, because what woman in her right mind would want to look like that!

Since I have moved to a western context to finish my postgraduate studies, I have attended a number of events, talks and lectures concerned with the issue of Muslim women and veiling. The thought that keeps reoccurring to me has to do with the superficiality of such discussion, in terms of centralizing Muslims women’s identity around the veil as being a tool of oppression and a sign of male domination. I always make the argument that if I would walk into a room with my head scarf rapped around my nick like just “A” scarf no one would notice, but simply because it is repositioned in a “marked” ”labeled” manner I am immediately classified, judged, and devalued.

I remember once being in a context where an academic discussion was taking place and I made the mistake of suggesting that we should give women the choice whether or not they would like to commit to veiling amongst other things. I was attacked, because apparently women do not have the right to choose against “common human values of freedom”. Now, I might be mistaken but I do not recall the definition of freedom in any dictionary referring to unveiling as part of the state of being free. At the time I thought this was just an over enthusiastic expression of solidarity with women, but the more I encounter such reactions, the more I find that women are being forced into either abandoning or upholding certain choices out of pressure, fear of judgment and prejudice.

I am not writing this personal experience to argue on behalf of or against headscarf. Modesty in my view had more to it than appearances. Modesty I believe is what Islam advocates, we can keep arguing about what is an “Islamic” dress code, is it simply about wearing modest clothes? Not too flashy and attentions seeking, not sexy or provocative? Is it about covering a woman’s body except face and hands? Is it about covering a woman’s body completely? For those who do not live in Muslim circles, these discussions are still taking place amongst Muslim populations and scholars to this day. Women are being perceived based on the “level” of their “hijab” and are also classified, judged a devalued in many contexts. Sometimes there is discrimination against covering women, sometimes it benefits them, but rest assure it is as much a “Muslim” issue as it is a non-Muslim issue.

Yet, modesty as a Muslim way of life have been emptied completely from its all-encompassing nature and reproduced to simply refer to “Hijab” regardless of the form of such practice. Modesty, in my understanding and readings of Islamic philosophy, has to do with your approach to life, the way you interact with your fellow humans, the way you use natures resources, the way you perceive yourself as a human and a Muslim. Amazingly, you would find Muslim women wearing some sort of hijab walking around judging other women’s choices just because they believe they are doing it better! What part of modestly does such attitude fulfill? Same goes to men, although they are often excluded form a discussion on modesty, it is a universal value, a human value, not preserved for women alone.

As a Muslim, no actually as a human,  when I look around and see the amount of sexualization affecting the images of women and men, sometimes even children; I grow more attached to my modesty, my idea of hijab is not a way of covering up my femininity, it is a way of  highlighting my humanity. To me modesty is about what we choose not to look like, more than what we chose to look like. We live in a time consumed by the idea of attraction; we seek attention all the time in a predominantly visual and pretentious world. Our concepts of beauty have been altered to refer to sexuality, bodily image, seduction, and defying our natural processes of aging. We have deformed beauty; it has become a haunting desire redirecting our lives in the wrong direction. So, when I think about hijab, I do not think about it in isolation from all the different aspects of modesty. If you cover your hair but you spend thousands of dollars on cosmetics, clothes, and shoes I find it really hard to see the modest aspect of your life. If you cover your face but you spend your afternoons shaming other women and attacking them on social media because they do not cover like you, I find it even harder. Modesty is a complicated multilayered concept that we fail to comprehend and understand persistently.

My intention is to bring into light a different discussion, a discussion that keeps in mind the bigger picture, the cohesive system. And instead of going through the same conversations with Muslims and not Muslims about hijab as an appearance, we need to have conversations about modesty as a life choice.