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By Mohadesa Najumi
When I think about what modesty means in today’s political, cultural and religious environment, I am inclined to believe that the concept itself does not involve choice, or any dimension of freedom or independent thought. Rather, modesty constitutes a dictatorial concept forced upon women whether they agree with it or not. For me, modesty is patriarchy.
When I speak about modesty in this context, I speaking specifically about it in relation to clothing, mannerisms and behaviour. Throughout history, women have been judged on how “modest” they are or not. And this has determined how much of a “lady” they presumably are or not. In a patriarchal society, to be modest is to dress and speak ”appropriately,” and to maintain a “ladylike” image. If you fail to do this, you are not only not modest, but God forbid you choose to wear a low-cut top, then you are simply a whore!
In this way, modesty, to me, means subservience. It means acquiesce. How you dress suddenly becomes someone else’s business, and how “ladylike” you are is determined by a standard you never gave your consent to in the first place. Let’s face it, men are not subject to these kinds of standards. I mean, have you ever heard someone describe a man as “immodest”? The dictate and quest for modesty is reserved almost exclusively for women. And if modesty is simply about avoidance of dressing in a “revealing” manner, why is it predominantly directed at women? Why is a woman’s dress choice suddenly everybody’s business, and why is a woman’s choice to reveal what is her’s, considered “indecent” and “immoral”?
Also, how about this idea that the level of “respect” you should receive is inextricably linked with how “modest” you are. Shouldn’t “respect” be linked with intellect, intelligence, ability to hold an intriguing conversation? What does respect have to do with the tightness of your dress or the shortness of your skirt? Too often, we measure respect for women on the basis of how well they fit our standard of “modesty” and “decency.” This is oppressive. How about this? A woman doesn’t leave her house everyday desperate to receive your stamp of approval and rating of modesty? Maybe it’s just her choice to wear what she wants and act the way she desires. It’s a ludicrous idea I know, but just consider it for a moment.
I’ve heard countless men and women use words like “impure” and “unclean” as synonyms for “immodesty.” Modesty is a way to oppress women and to pressure them into giving into a system of patriarchy that dictates what they wear, how much skin they reveal, and how “sexual” they are.
As a way to attack, marginalize, and oppress women, it is effective. There is nothing innocent about throwing around the term modesty and there are no excuses for the ignorance about what it really implies. I for one have no interest in being “modest.” Why? Because who I am and whether or not I deserve respect, should have nothing to do with how I dress, how I express myself, or my gender. And nobody should be able to dictate this for me–or you. I refuse to vilify women who do not fit into an illusionary, irrelevant, inaccurate and un-useful standard of “modesty.” It is a concept that truly disgusts me, and not merely because of its essential meaning, but because of the importance we have given to it.
Mohadesa Najumi is a History and Politics Undergraduate and a passionate feminist. Originally from Kabul, Afghanistan Mohadesa lives and studies in London, England. Her interests range from global politics, history, writing, gender, development, political economies, democracy, Venezuela, US and MENA. You can follow her on @mohadesareverie.