Say ‘Islam’ and one of the first things that will spring to mind is the burqa. The connotations of the burqa are not normally positive; in the western mind it has become synonymous with extremist groups like the Taliban; a symbol of religion’s enduring contempt for all that is feminine. Worries arise as to whether this kind of association is little more than a sign of our own cultural prejudice; we are often prone to view the culturally distinct as in some way threatening. What is notable in the case of the burqa, however, is that the negative reactions have come not merely from armchair pundits but a wide range of intellectuals, many of who are otherwise in favour of cultural pluralism. A charge of ethnic prejudice against opponents of the burqa also seems ill-conceived when we consider how little attention these critics direct at other cultural exports. Dreadlocks or bindis have been fondly adopted by many westerners and not merely despite but precisely because of their ethnic flavour. Recognition of dreadlock’s and bindi’s religious origins should also go some way to showing that we in the west, secular as many of us appear to be, are not predisposed to shun religious artifacts.
The majority of westerners, whether politically left, right, or centre, remain heavily sceptical of the application of hijab (modesty of dress) in Islamic communities within the UK, and beyond. To go one further and actually picture non-Muslim girls rushing down to a busy mall to pick up the latest burqa or niqab seems to require quite some imaginative leap. Even the young who remain conveniently imperceptive to a range of moral issues seem to cotton on to something amiss with the burqa. By completely eclipsing the female form, the burqa invites immediate suspicion, becoming the ostensible expression of women’s final and absolute banishment from public life. Due to this rather dubious honour, the burqa (unlike henna tattooing, dreadlocks, or even the St Christopher) has little chance of catching on in modern, secular, parts of the world.
Daring as it may seem to say, this might be more of a shame than we are inclined to suppose, and one need not be a person of Islamic faith to think so. There are reasons available to people of a secular leaning that commend the more modest style of dress adopted by women across the Muslim Diaspora. Whilst these reasons will be presented in the course of this paper do not expect to find a knock down argument in favour of a public requirement of modesty, do not expect to find a knock down argument at all. Instead, the forthcoming consideration of modesty of dress aims at little more than providing a reassessment of present attitudes toward dress, considering some of the over-looked benefits that accompany a more sexually reserved approach to dress.
The sex orientated and appearance obsessed nature of modern western culture provides the backdrop by which our reassessment of the burqa may begin. Turning our eyes to the cultural shifts that took affect on our own society over fifty years ago we start to unveil many of the reason why the burqa can be viewed, as some of its female Muslim apologists claim it to be, as liberating in a range of ways.
In the 1940s the first hatchlings of a free-market attitude toward sex were born. Rita Hayworth’s silver screen shenanigans had sex starved wartime soldiers in a condition most un-conducive to good military protocol. Elvis, in turn, showed that women were not invulnerable to their own form of sexual idolatry. The exponential growth of media technology, coupled with irresistible market forces, focusing with new fierceness on a sex sells mentality, meant conservatives clinging to the idea of a sex-free public space never stood a chance.
Rita Hayworth and Elvis were no less revolutionary than the Bolsheviks, and like most revolutions theirs would have its share of failings. That the sexual revolution produced a range of positive changes can not be denied: whoever fails to rejoice in the steady decline of the sexual dissatisfaction and shame that plagued an earlier generation’s attitudes toward sex has succumb to the kind of masochism that all to often dresses itself up as the stern voice of morality. Be that as it may, a population of sexually harmonious and balanced individuals has not been in any way the result of this revolution.
In the wake of the revolution many women have capitalized, refusing to be left in the dust of change. Girls of younger and younger ages are dressing in ways that have their parents hesitant to let them out the house. The style of dress and make up now adorned by many we rightly call ‘sexual provocative’. In most men it arouses lust .
We are to some extent used to lust, used to the display of flesh: legs, bust, shoulders and all. So much so, that one of the few ways we can actually measure the social and sexual significance of this display is by glimpsing back at the past. What was deemed provocative or revealing in the 40’s (think Hayworth and Elvis again) seems laughable by modern standards. Now consider the alternative thought experiment: instead of judging Hayworth and co by our modern standards try judging our icons by theirs. One only has to imagine how people would react if the Goo-goo Dolls, or any number of their peroxide drenched legions, were to perform the typical pop routine back in the 1940s to get a gage on just how much things have changed.
Condemned to commended, refused then revered, the story of our attitudes towards feminine sexuality is one of a fairly simple transition. But what underlies the motivation to undress to sexually impress? It can not just be a matter of acceptance at the social level. As far as we know it would not be a social taboo to wear an Armani suit to bed, but that does not suffice as a reason that people would do so. There has to be the relevant desire that accompanies the environment of acceptance.
In the case of feminine provocative dress there is the simple matter of beauty and appreciation. The womanly form is beautiful and open for admiration by both men and women alike. We like to look, and we like being looked at. It is part of the understanding of the times before our own as ‘repressive’ that they were keeping tethered that which yearned to be free.
Although our appreciation of human beauty then goes some way in explaining the want to be revealing we are not mere pieces of art. Other social meanings attach to the decisions to dress in certain ways. These meanings concern most obviously sex, and as a corollary power. Here we come to what is meant by women ‘capitalizing’ on the social changes: Beauty and sexuality are and always have been (to varying degree however) powerful tools enabling their possessor to get what they want. The first most obvious good it secures is sex. We often like to pretend that sex is an insignificant human good, when in reality it plays a key role in shaping the contours of our lives, but even when sex is duly acknowledged as an important end of human activity, there are still a range of other human goods (or opportunities towards human goods) that await the provocative of dress. Sometimes the promise of sex, no matter how distant, secures somewhat trivial practical things, for example, drinks in a bar or free entrance to clubs. Sometimes it secures practical, but certainly not trivial, things, such as a life partner, an important social network, or a career opportunity. Other times it secures less practical but more emotional goods such as the confidence and gratification that comes with making heads turn. All this may not be power in the sense of making others do what they do not want to, but it is rather a hypnotic kind of power, the kind that allows its possessor to bend the will of others to get precisely what it wants.
I am not sure if the Spice Girls really knew what they meant by exclaiming ‘girl power’ in the repetitive and tiresome manner they did, but maybe it is an approximation to this idea. After all, the Spice Girls certainly did not seem to be saying significant things about forms of female empowerment such as the right to abortion or the rights to equal pay in the workplace. The sort of power they were talking about (that girls could possess but boys do not) might then be the sort of power increasingly possessed by their fan base of young teenage girls – feminine sexual power. As stupid as the Spice Girls were, ‘girl power’ (roughly defined as this idea of women in charge of their sexuality and calling all the shots) is still likely to find a great many sympathizers. There are, after all, reasons that we might be pleased with the growing possession of power amongst women; the foremost being that on the whole it kindles the image of the once prostrate finally finding their feet. Women have lacked power in many times and many places: in public life denied educational and vocational opportunity, in the political sphere denied representation and suffrage. Even in their ‘right and natural place’- the home, made far too often vulnerable to the whims of a patriarchal household tyrant.
If this picture is still representative of the female experience then any swing in power would be welcomed and asking women to politely disarm of what little power they possess seems paramount to asking a slave to tighten his or her chain.
Moreover, asking women to tether their outward sexuality and relent in this modest possession of power seems likely to draw objectors from an entirely different quarter. Men – it seems – would be the first to complain were there a decline in the feminine sexual animal; for men, it must be said, like the display of flesh; now they have tasted it they could not do without it.
Whilst we must inevitably find ourselves with few allies in considering the case for modesty of dress, the case should at least be heard. There is after all something presumptuous and unreflective about the notion that sexual empowerment is the crux, or finishing point, of female empowerment – as if the suffragettes would have found personal heroes in the likes of Atomic Kitten or Girls Aloud.
To mount a case in favour of modesty of dress it seems critical to emphasize how being sceptical of these changes in outward feminine sexuality does not mean being in anyway anti-female. We might start by emphasizing how things really are not as bad for modern women as the above picture leads us to believe. If modern women (unlike their long suffering ancestors) posses a similar range of opportunities as men there is little reason to think the slave and chain analogy even applies. But whilst very few modern western women can say without the pangs of dishonest self-pity that they are in the same boat as women were two hundred years ago, the problem with pursuing this line of argument is that it gives the impression that the case for modesty of dress stands or falls on the issue of women’s current social standing; as if we are arguing that the reason for women to dress modestly is because the modern women now has too much power. To suppose this is to make the case for modesty of dress into what it is not – solely a male interest issue.
To say this does not mean male interest is completely irrelevant to the discussion. In considering the ethic of female dress we should consider the interests of men, just as when considering male dress we should consult the interests of women. We should it seems give equal weight to both because man and women together form one community – a community that should seek for internal harmony.
We can then it seems say (with no shame) that some men do not like being run about by the femme fatales of our world, that men to can be objects of sexual exploitation, and that this is one reason in favour of female modesty. Nevertheless looking at modesty of dress in terms of male interest does not get to the bottom of the matter, it does not explain why women can (as they have done through various historic contexts) favour, without coercion, modesty of dress. Historically it may be seen as predominantly religious and devotional reasons that inform this modesty but the line between secular and religious reasoning and explanation can sometimes be blurred. If the great works of the enlightenment’s key thinkers achieved anything it was establishing that what appears to religious behaviour, divine in inspiration, may have a non-religious origin. It then seems that there may be more, or at least could be more, than devotion which explains female endorsement of the burqa.
What then might constitute the female interest in modesty of dress? The discussion of sexual power contains a hint. All of us are clearly aware that sexual power is not equally possessed by all women. We then find that in the interest of equality something pleasing can be said of the burqa. Sexual power as is obvious is a matter of attraction, which is in turn very much a matter of beauty. Beauty, though surely a social construct, is in most respects the product of a natural lottery. Though millions of pounds are made in an attempt for us to correct whatever deficiencies we inherit through this lottery scheme, the sad fact is most of our success is predetermined. Losers in the natural lottery, that is those not born beautiful, have found the changes that follow the sexual revolution not so liberating. Far from being a liberating force the demand to be sexually alluring adds one more constraint to an already demanding life. For every woman who has the capacity to get the range of goods that their good looks afford, there are a great many that do not. A new generation of have and have nots are subsequently produced: affecting our life chances we can now add, with new found confidence, the shapes of our noses, that fat on our torsos, or any other such factors contributing to our over all physical appearance. What we therefore find in the wake of the sexual revolution is not just a matter of a power imbalance between men and women but a power imbalance between women and women. The free ride that beautiful but intellectually devoid women get stands as mockery of the efforts that hard working, and intellectually astute women everywhere.
Attractiveness opens up so many doors, the most significant, and in no way to be understated is the choice of partner. The choice of partner in turn generates a whole avenue of possibilities and goods. This is not to say that all, if you will pardon the term, ‘aesthetically challenged’ women will fail to get what they want out of life if they eschew the shallowness that engulfs the society around them, but the shallowness is so endemic and so deep-rooted that it is hard to escape entirely.
To entirely dodge the feeling that you are judged lesser by others is no small task. This is not to say being widely desired is the backbone of a good life but it seems to be something that for better or worse appears as a deep need in our psychology, and is, at the very least, part of the ‘good life’ as defined by our Hollywood generation. Those who remain sceptical of these claims – rejecting the significance that humans place on looks and attraction should try telling some one who is truly interesting, warm hearted and ugly just how interesting, warm hearted, and ugly they are!
Some aspects of sexual empowerment, namely the ability to get what one wants through one’s sexual magnetism, have negative results for egalitarianism, producing as much inequality as it hopes to remedy. Furthermore, this power imbalance is not of the kind that though real is rarely felt, it can actually impacts severely on individual welfare too. A loser in the lottery of looks (sometimes even the winners, thanks to body dysmorphic disorder) can in some instances plummet into a nauseating form of distress, feeling dejected and scorned for their failing in a competition in which they had little choice to enter. Eating disorders, as we are all aware, have rocketed in recent years. The nervosa disorders, Bulimia and anorexia, are the natural outgrowths of a society obsessed by how it looks. The only odd thing about these disorders is their relative scarcity. The media gets the brunt of the blame for our blossoming obsession and waning confidence. It is most certainly an amplifier (taking a case of village flu and making it a global epidemic) yet there is nothing inherent in modern communication that suggests things must necessarily be this way. It is only the media coupled with a certain kind of attitude that gets us in the messy state we are today. Were we more sexually modest, were something like the burqa or hijab a more natural choice of attire, and were those adverts and entertainment products that peddle their soft porn imagery to the masses no longer meet with applause but disapprobation then the sting would be taken out of the media monster.
So far it looks as if a recommendation of modest dress would only come from the losers of the lottery. Convincing the beautiful to discard there natural gifts would, from this point of view, be only an advancement in what Nietzsche would call ‘slave morality’, shackling the gifted and virtuous with the pity of the weak. But we need not see the call to modesty as a ruse of the weak. There exists reasons why even the winners, that is the beautiful and sexually bold, might be convinced (as unlikely as it seems) to surrender their natural advantage.
For those who in their lifetime have done little more than tarry in the foothills of Mt Beauty growing old is by no means easy, but to those who ascend the heights of Mt Beauty a perilous fall awaits. An attractive and sexually provocative woman seldom takes the time to develop her mental life to its full potential. The beautiful who put all there eggs in one basket find themselves, with the encroaching years, in a position of prematurely losing their main source of value, and boy do they cling to it! For the rich, incredible lengths are gone to in order to withhold the visible signs of age. Instead of the presence of years being deemed a venerable sight, it has become something to be fought at all cost. Try as they may, time will soon get the better of them, and wont give it back. A modest approach to dress, including the adornment of veils, would by no means cure our fear of aging and the encroachment of death, but it may allow us to go more gracefully to that end.
The human interest in enduring romantic relationships indicates one final reason why it may be in the interest of the beautiful to quell their sexual fire Fidelity is something even the most secure individuals worry about at some point in their life. Our psychological depth and emotional fragility means that both men and women, despite our often conflicting sexual urges, yearn for something beyond flings and fleeting relationships. We are all flattered by the notion of lasting loyalty. This need for fidelity might be little more than insecure human vanity, but no matter how we view this desire, the desire today is increasingly unquenched. Our modern age is racked by fly by night relationships; no one could have put it better than Chesterton in comparing sex and family to gate and house:
‘The house is very much larger than the gate. There are indeed a certain number of people who like to hang about the gate and never get any further’ .
Even when we make it into the house there is no guarantee that this will be anything more than a short stay. One of the most common, though less honestly cited reasons, is straightforward sexual temptation. A great deal of infidelity is not planned, and is commonly regretted. It is a classic example of the failing of the will; in this case a caving to the pleasure of allure.
One does not need to make excuses for cheaters, they make plenty for themselves, but we do live in a tempting world: a sweetshop where the sweets seem intent on out doing each other in sweetness. Is it any wonder that the creature known for his sweet tooth cannot stick to his diet? Do you think that we would worry even half as much about our partner’s fidelity were something like the burqa to become the more natural choice of dress? It would not abolish all our inclination in this direction but it would help by removing us from the sexual meat market we walk ourselves down everyday.
Drawing things to a close, most outsiders to Islam view the burqa with heavy suspicion – as the forced garments of a slave. Even from within Islam there is huge dissent. We should expect this. There is no mention let alone explicit endorsement of the chadry style burqa within the Quran. Sure, not all Muslim women welcome the burqa, least of all in places where it is forced upon them, and many loathe it but in countries like Turkey where a greater freedom of expression with regards to dress is allowed there seems to be a swing in favour of it. Outside of Islamic countries where we would most expect the Muslim community to become self-critical of its ethical codes we still find women favouring the burqa. This was demonstrated in the Netherlands during the controversial 2006 Burqa Ban when many Muslim women actually campaigned against anti-burqa legislation.
If the appeals in favour of the burqa were made only on religious grounds then much would be lost on me, I share little sympathy for Islam, or any religion for that matter. But in my encounters with moderate Muslims I came to reassess my own attitudes precisely because the reasons offered in favour of modesty tended not to be grounded in scripture. Part of what has then been done here is to examine those reasons in a little more depth, presenting what might be said in favour of modest dress in a non- religious vernacular. The hostility by westerners against a sexless public space appears to rest on unchallenged assumptions regarding how much better off we are in the west. The conclusion I lean toward is itself modest: hoping to only demonstrate that there is fertile ground for discussion of the ethics of dress once we concede that we in the west are prone to our own subtle forms of slavery.
No thesis so contrary to the spirit of our age can go without rattling some rather big and dusty cages. Unhappily, the forgoing exploration of secular reasons for modesty of dress may be seen to share a few too many similarities to the religious case it claims to be entirely independent of. The concept of ‘temptation’ featured in the discussion of fidelity and talk of temptation brings with it a certain scent of abrahamic origin. But whilst mullahs, imams and all players in the world’s major monotheisms may use the concept of temptation (and often in a flagrant and excessive manner) there is no reason to believe that the religious have the monopoly on it. We need not believe in the detestable notion of original sin to know humans are susceptible to various forms of temptation. Temptation comes from wanting things, and their being some constraints on that wanting. When ‘temptation’ appears in the vocabulary of fundamentalists it invites blame and contempt. The Taliban for instance views the women’s face as the source of corruption. This is entirely the wrong way round; if we are to use terms like ‘corruption’ at all, then the corruption surely lies within the heart of the man, his weakness, his inability to control his wayward sexual desire. Unlike the fundamentalists I also at no point attempt to say that sexual promiscuity is wrong, or worse – evil. I merely say that in so far as we value monogamy then we are in some way complicit in the loss of what we value by collectively favouring the provocative western style of dress.
Obviously the most significant diversion is my account to that of the Taliban is in the attitude toward coercion. Forcing people to dress a certain way through threats of violence or humiliation is utterly inexcusable. All I have attempted to do is examine the often neglected pros that might stem from freely choosing to adorn the sexually reserved attire of the Muslim Diaspora, with the result of offering no more than a reassessment in current attitudes. It must be stressed just how normative my account is: the burqa carries a lot of history, a lot of baggage, and in the past it may very well be an instrument of oppression but I have been trying to move beyond this past as if we are viewing the burqa for the first time, as if secular western people detached from religion were deciding a fresh, how we might choose to publicly appear and relate to each other in the not to distant future.
No doubt, if any objection is to be heard time and time again, it will be that there is some form of double standard employed throughout. Men it might be claimed are no less creatures of sexual power than women. Some men, just like some women, use their sexuality to secure certain goods whilst other less blessed individuals flounder. Men it might also be said will carry this power as a heavy burden – becoming increasingly slaves to their looks. The conclusion to which we are drawn is then that a recommendation to modesty should not differ between the sexes, men too would see some benefits from a burqa style of dress. In the age of anti-aging cream and six pack bearing cover models I do not doubt there is something to this objection.
Nonetheless some warning should be heard against the voice that constantly cries for the sameness of men and women. Men and women, whether by nature, culture or economic situation, are not identical in all aspects, and outward sexuality is one of the most glaringly obvious areas in which they differ. Male attraction is not entirely sexless, not entirely blind to appearance, but it is still a very different and subtler phenomenon (we rarely catch or even predict the expression that a man is dressed ‘too provocatively’, and parent rarely worry if their teenage sons are dressed too sexy). Nonetheless things do change. There are increasing pressures on men that suggest some kind of merging of the genders, with all it suggest for male modesty. One underlying reason why modesty of dress might mean one thing for women and another for men resides in the tacit acknowledgment that men tend to be more prone to promiscuity and infidelity than women. The whole concept of Eve as the tempter is more telling of man’s own acknowledged weakness. If the thought that men are more prone to temptation turns out to be old fashioned, unscientific, ungrounded nonsense, and women can happily admit that analogous weakness to men, then modesty of dress should mean exactly for men as it does for women. Additionally, in order to finally put an end to the thought that what motives veiling is patriarchal domination there seems no better solution than an equal approach to male dress, if only as a token gesture.
We must end by acknowledging a strong reason why the case for modesty of dress can not be seen as conclusive. The simple matter is that whilst examining the pros may allow us to be less quick in our negative judgment of the burqa in a range of cases this does not mean they outweigh the cons. We must acknowledge that to take measures in favour of some ‘appearance based egalitarianism’ poses not only a threat to general security but also poses a threat to the simple value we place on individuality.
Beauty and appearance in this respect seems comparable to the relationship between native and global language. Unlike our social class or our physical health we do not readily acknowledge how much the languages we inherit by birth can impact on our life chances. English speaking individuals carry a weighty advantage in the global market but the strategy of equalizing – with many nationalities adopting a catch-up program – poses a threat to native dialect. A society of faceless and entirely modest individual might be just like a world where English is the only tongue. Individuals in a faceless society would still retain their mental individuality, but on the outside there seems something holistically ugly, even self hating, in this level of uniformity. It should also be noted that we as a species have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years in face to face contact. To shroud the face might therefore impact on our social interaction in unforeseen ways. The difficulty then remains in balancing on the one side the desires for equality (along with the other merits of modesty) with our inherent desires for decoration and difference. It may be that modesty as far as the ninja style chadry goes is a step too far but this certainly does not mean we who cast stones in the west have it right either.
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