Hijab and Trying to Define Modesty

February 2, 2011

Late last spring—two days before graduation, in fact—my four beloved roommates and I went to brunch to celebrate the end of our era.

This far north, there’s an abundance of charming little breakfast diners, and that day we hit a particularly endearing one. The food tasted great, the atmosphere was pleasant, etc.

As we were leaving, the cheerful older woman settling our checks complimented me on my headscarf, as sometimes happens. I thanked her and took my change as she whammed me unassumingly with The Question.

“Uh,” I distinctly remember saying, being caught off guard; unprepared, I mumbled off something about modesty.

“Modesty?” she said, surprisingly sassily. “Hon, that’s great and all, but believe me, you don’t have ANYTHING to be modest about.”

I grinned—she’d clearly meant for it to be a compliment—and thanked her again. She didn’t quite phrase it right, but I think she was trying to say I shouldn’t be hiding my looks (though the harder I think about even that, the funnier a remark it seems). She was very nice. We all walked out snickering.

Clearly, I’m having trouble finding an adequate answer to the question, even beyond the repertoire of stock responses to keep ready for more casual exchanges.

“Modesty” is such an interesting concept. In this case, the idea is that a woman’s hair contributes directly to her beauty, and so veiling it represents a deliberate concealment of that allure. There are several problematic implications of the fact that, though hijab as a concept still exists for Muslim men, it is carried out differently and (obviously) less conspicuously for the other gender. But those subjects (the blatant, heteronormative distinction between men and women; and the respective value placements in that system) are a discussion for another day.

What’s so funny about modesty is that by choosing to cover something up—to not be extravagant about your income, or to be humble about your achievements—you are at the same time admitting that you’re kind of awesome. I mean, the hijab can be straight-up presumptuous, in a sense, because wearing it for reasons of modesty implies the idea that the world can’t handle your stunning loveliness unfiltered.

It’s hardly the main reason, of course, that I or anybody else truly takes up hijab—nobody is that narcissistic. So I think it’s worth exploring other ways to define modesty that don’t assume that a woman’s beauty is simply a treasure so worth guarding.

The definition of modesty that I like better has more to do with discreetness. Most women don’t sail around topless, for example, not because their chests are so innately gorgeous, but because we’ve all decided that the female breast is more sexual than the male one. So, gem sweaters and other tops for women exist in part to avoid indecency and distraction. (The notion that sexual = indecent and distracting is also maybe for another day.)

Following that logic: woven into the practice of hijab is the assumption that female hair is inherently sexual. While the headscarf itself may be distracting for people forming first impressions—it definitely is sometimes—the point is that the distraction isn’t sexual by nature.

Up for debate: whether body parts, male or female, can be “inherently” sexual, or if it’s all a process of cultural socialization.

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