Thoughts on modesty: a woman’s perspective
‘Every religion has its characteristic, and the characteristic of Islam is modesty.’ This statement made some 1400 years ago by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is just as relevant today as it was then.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) lived in turbulent times, when slavery, debauchery, drunkenness and sexual abuse was rife; when poor women could be maltreated without redress and wealthy women could live totally without morals if they wished, without much criticism. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) was a teenage boy he was one of the founder members of a society of Knights of Justice created by his uncle, determined to bring protection and fair dealing to the weak and insecure. He, and those of like mind, were loved and admired for their nobility, years before the revelation of Islam. The revelations, when they came, encouraged and exhorted them to show others that compassion, generosity, courage, modesty and patient faith were the right way to live.
Modesty is such a ‘quiet’ characteristic, that perhaps nobody thinks about it very much. What are modest people like? They are self-effacing, and humble; they do not wish to draw too much attention to themselves. They feel embarrassed when they are given praise, and genuinely do not really feel they have done all that much to deserve it, for everything they do is their no more than their duty and their delight, in serving God. They would hate to be picked out for praise above their fellows, or pushed forward into the limelight, shown off, or made to perform ‘party pieces’ for the applause of others.
Modesty also implies a personal and physical shyness and reticence, as opposed to a wish to flaunt themselves for their physical charms. In this day and age, when it seems to be taken for granted that young women wish to walk down the streets of town wearing garments that cover little more than their underwear does, and when everything seems geared up to a lifestyle that encourages females to make themselves as sexually attractive as possible, and to feel failures if they are not turning heads, women who are not like that, and do not wish to be, are regarded by some as being rather odd.
It is an unfortunate sort of discrimination, for in actual fact very large numbers of girls and women are naturally modest, and do not wish to flaunt themselves at all, and feel no sense of distress or loss if they are not arousing male desires or interested glances.
Wearing hijab, or becoming a ‘covered lady’, is one of the odd problems facing girls and women who convert to Islam and who then decide to alter their style of clothing, and/or wear a head-veil. Ironically, genuinely shy and modest women can feel really uneasy and ‘forced into the arena of public scrutiny’ when they change old habits; putting on hijab can cause people who know you to stare, or wonder why you suddenly think yourself to be ‘better’ or ‘more holy’ than them, or to bring out remarks about how well they know what you are really like; or to wonder why you are seeking to ‘dress up in fancy dress’, or pretending to be an Arab or a Pakistani or whatever. Muslim women who take the further step of covering their faces often face a similar reaction from Muslim women who don’t.
This is not something that male Muslims know very much about. There is no equivalent requirement for a man as regards his clothing, or head-covering, or face-covering. I suppose something similar would be for a convert man to feel it was a good thing required by Allah to turn up at the office or go to the garage or factory in an Arab long white dress, and put a bag over his head.
Yet there are rules in Islam for male modesty. I have winced in horror on a plane coming home from Damascus in which all the male passengers were Muslims except a couple of western tourists who wore shirts open to the waist (sweat, chest-hair and all), and shorts, and were quite oblivious to (or not bothered by) the reaction of distaste from those all around them. In fact, male Muslims are also expected to dress modestly, in clean clothing that covers them and does not emphasize their sexuality. Needless to say, it is not only modest clothing that is required, but also modest behaviour – not the Dickensian Uriah-Heepish sort of crawling humility, but the genuine desire to do good for no reason other than to please Allah, seeking no reward, or thanks, or public notice.
The cover-up clothing of Muslim women is not intended as a punishment or an endurance test, but as a wish to appear graceful and feminine without encouraging any sexual advances. ‘Covered ladies’ are not necessarily innocent youngsters, virgins about to be sacrificed in marriage, but may be mothers of half a dozen children, perhaps married several times. There is no false modesty intended. But they are giving certain specific messages: firstly, that their faith is Islam and they have chosen to submit to the will of God in every aspect of their lives; and secondly, that they wish to be appreciated for their characters and good deeds, and not for whether or not they happen to be pretty or slim or sexy.
Modesty also implies simplicity, and lack of desire for ostentation. A woman could be completely covered, but in some gaudy material, shrieking colour, and also dripping with jewellery, gold and pearls. That’s one sort of ostentation. Or she might be the only woman in her community who chooses to be head to toe in black – that might well be genuine piety, but it could also be a form of ostentation too. Allah will judge the lady not on her clothes at all, but on her motives, her niyyah, and the quality of her life and what she does with it.
Of course, the covered clothing can be quite a sacrifice – notably when the temperature soars and one must find garments in pure cotton, and not wear short sleeves, and if wearing the veil one must remember that a large amount of body-heat escapes through the head, and one can end up feeling quite faint and uncomfortable.
There is always a lot of controversy about the extent of a woman’s hijab in Islam. Some women cover absolutely everything, others interpret it to mean ‘modest dress according to the society in which one lives’ and even dispense with the head-veil. Hijab certainly means that a woman should not be showing her cleavage, or wearing a garment that is transparent and reveals her underwear, or one that is tight and clinging. My husband, coming from Pakistan, was horrified to note that old ladies in the UK brazenly went round showing their legs to all and sundry – to him, any skirt above the ankle was a mini-skirt.
The compulsory aspect of hijab to a Muslim woman is modesty – how this is interpreted in clothing styles is not compulsory at all, and is left to the piety and taste of the individual.
Modesty and simplicity, and trust in Allah go hand in hand. I had a friend in Jordan a few years ago, a straightforward Muslim man who had asked me to bring him the present of a pair of denim jeans from the UK. When I also gave him a shirt to go with it, he was almost offended. What did I bring him a shirt for? He already had two. He promptly gave one shirt away to someone less fortunate than himself. I will never forget the lesson of his attitude. It was one of my key experiences in bringing me into Islam.
I learned another lesson from him, too. A button came off, and I volunteered to sew it on for him. This earned a small rebuke, for it would deprive of employment the poor man down the street who earned his living by such things as sewing on buttons.
One cannot help but compare the practice of Islam on that very simple and modest level to the fanaticism and squabbles and outright corruption that has marred the beauty of Islam in more comfortable and affluent surroundings.
Modesty goes hand in hand with value. When men and women are modest, they are in fact valuable people, and without any thought of self-aggrandisement, realise their value. The values of modesty and genuine humility are God-given, and those who possess those characteristics are blessed indeed. Moreover, they are lights shining in the darkness, giving an example of hope and goodness to others. A truly modest person makes the raucous pomposity and arrogance of others show up; a truly simple-living person makes nonsense of the ephemeral wealth-and-status-seeking ambitions of those who do not realise there is more to life than just this level of existence. A truly pure person reveals the tawdriness of lust and lasciviousness and the selfish dangers of unbridled sexuality.
May God bless us, and fill our hearts with love and compassion, and direct our lives along a path that will enable us to bring help, hope, serenity, shelter and peace to others, and a means of rescue and healing to those already hurt and damaged by callousness, cruelty and abuse. Amin.
(With acknowledgements to Reflect, the magazine of the Muslim Educational Trust).