Modesty is something that's valued in my religious tradition, and also something that's difficult for me personally as well as being politically fraught. Recently a friend was kind of vehement about modesty, specifically women's modest dress, and as it happens we didn't have time to have a proper conversation. So I've been turning the question over in my mind in anticipation of having the conversation, and I think it's enough thinky stuff for a blog post, so:
Jewishly, the idea of modesty comes from Micah 6:8: It has been told to you, human, what is good and what the Eternal requires from you, namely doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. So the word for modesty might be better translated as humility, depending on context. It seems clear that in a theistic system everybody should be humble in relation to God, but rabbinic tradition has tended to extend this to the moral idea that people should be humble and modest in general behaviour as well.
So modesty is primarily about not demanding attention, not taking up other people's space, perhaps not boasting about how virtuous you are. This seems like a good moral value, and one that I'm quite bad at personally because I tend to be quite arrogant and noisy and liable to blunder around not noticing other people's needs. So it's something I put effort into as part of my general moral aims.
The problem is that although this idea of modesty isn't inherently gendered, it plays out in a sexist society. hatam_soferet had a brilliant insight some years ago, which has really stayed with me: a lot of Jewish law is based on the assumption that the target audience are people with a relatively secure position in society. So Torah says that "you" should protect widows, orphans and strangers, but has little to say about how you should behave if you yourself are in one of those subaltern groups. People who are already assumed to be the default, the sort of people society is built around, need lots of religious strictures to tell them to be more kind and more charitable and more modest (humble). But people who are already marginalized, who are always expected to serve others ahead of their own needs, generally don't need religion telling them to make even further sacrifices. Indeed, people who are in positions of power may end up using religion to consolidate their power, using it to control others and tell them that it's their duty to serve the powerful people.
Of course, in contemporary Anglo society, men are more likely to be in the category of assuming the world exists for their benefit, and women are more likely to be in the category of being heavily pushed towards sacrificing themselves to please and support others. I didn't notice this at all because in spite of being assigned and raised female, I have also spent most of my life in an environment where being female isn't really a disadvantage. I am definitely the sort of person who needs reminders to be more compassionate and modest, and part of that is that until hatam_soferet pointed it out, I hadn't really noticed that telling women to be even more modest and even less confident of their value is a way of controlling people who often already defer to others more than they should.
A relevant example I came across recently was legionseagle's rant on ill-advised admonitions in meta and connected discussion. The post referenced basically takes the tone of, thou shalt not write insensitively about rape! Be more considerate! Remember that there might be rape survivors consuming your stories! I think this is a microcosm of a lot of debate that's being going on at least since Racefail. People are setting up moral laws with an implicitly assumed audience of, well, default or we might even say privileged people. And they're good moral laws ('thou shalt not write racist dreck' is kind of a no-brainer), but the way they're being socially enforced is hurting a lot of people who have history of being controlled by being told they're selfish and morally bad people if they have any desires and needs of their own. To some extent that's many women within a sexist society, and as legionseagle very lucidly illustrates, on a different level it's survivors of certain kinds of emotional abuse.
This connects to the specific case of modesty which is about dressing in a way that's not perceived as sexual (which I'm pretty sure is what my friend was objecting to, not to the whole concept of having a modest demeanour in general). I am to some extent in favour of being considerate about how much you push your sexuality on other people, but also very conscious that treating sex as dirty and damaging is often used to control women. No matter how much in theory rules about modest dress apply to all genders, the discussion nearly always ends up being very much centred on how women should or shouldn't dress. I've read a lot of analysis suggesting that a lot of slut-shaming isn't really about sexual behaviour at all, it's about respectability; women with low social status are perceived as being "over-sexual", and therefore not deserving of protection from male violence.
I get very impatient with the kind of feminism that insists on a very narrow "right" amount of skin to show, because if your body is on display or you are read as sexy, you must be dressing like that for male sexual gratification, and if you cover up too much, you're being controlled by patriarchal ideas of modesty. It's just respectability politics under a different name, essentially the message is that the only way to be taken seriously is to dress like a fairly high status professional or business woman from an Anglo culture. That said, I do take seriously feminist critiques of using modesty requirements to control women, as long as they're not swinging in the other direction and forcing women to display their hair or breasts or legs in public when they may not feel comfortable with that, for any reason.
So I am not entirely happy about modest dress as part of my religious tradition. I've thought about it quite a lot, because my approach to religion is not about cherry-picking the stuff that's spiritually meaningful to me, it's about engaging thoughtfully with all the requirements and trying to apply them in a way that fits with me as a person and my ethical values. I also studied modest dress quite intensively (but only for a month) at Drisha back in 2006, with a bunch of passionate feminist women who were nearly all to the right of me religiously, and nearly all more modestly dressed. The upshot is that I am willing to dress more "modestly" than comes most naturally to me, partly because I don't want to make other people uncomfortable, I feel like I'm more prone to being self-centred than self-sacrificing so it's worth making an effort to correct that. And partly because it's something that my people do and (like many other things that I'm not personally passionate about, such as keeping kosher), I want to assert my identity as an observant Jew.
But I don't think it's really modest to cover yourself way beyond the social norm. That's the opposite of modest, that's wearing clothes that draw attention to you and how religious you are. Also restrictions being applied way more strictly to women than to men is sexist, and therefore not in keeping with my Reform values. So I generally try to cover collarbones to elbows to knees (not, say, throat to wrists to ankles), and I keep my hair tied back but I don't cover it. That last one is a bit complicated because my husband isn't Jewish, therefore I don't count as married in Jewish law, so it's unclear whether I even should be covering my hair anyway. I don't bother with wearing only dull and dark colours, I just like purples and reds too much for that, and also I think in a modern context, coloured dyes aren't showing off how rich you are, they're just as cheap as plain colours. And I do try to adapt my dress for circumstances; for example in Leipzig where the local norm was elaborate goths, many of whom were half-naked or in fetish gear, it was appropriate for me to display a lot more cleavage than I normally would in the street. Or if I go to a black tie party, it's appropriate to dress in a more sexy and revealing way than if I'm at work or synagogue. I have no issues with wearing a swimming costume at the beach or a park for sunbathing, but equally I'm happy to cover my hair and arms if I'm visiting a mosque, church or other shrine where that is expected. Again, the point is to be modest, to fit in and not try to make myself look better than others.
I'm also trying to dress a bit more revealingly around my friend who objects to modesty rules. Because the underlying value is consideration for other people, and if my relatively covering, conservative clothes are making her uncomfortable, that's the opposite of the point. But it's surprisingly hard; some of my clothing choices are just habits I've formed and not really expressions of the value of modesty. For example, I generally feel more comfortable in calf-length or longer skirts, so knee-length skirts are in principle fine but I'm not used to them. And shorter skirts than that are fine too, in a situation where in general that's appropriate and not outside social norms. At the weekend I wore a top that exposed part of my tummy, because I was at a summer barbecue where that sort of thing is well within the range of normal, and because I wanted to respect my friend's views. And I felt a little strange, not that I think it's wrong and most certainly not that I would judge anyone else for a bare midriff, but just that I'm not used to wearing that little.
I think my modesty is partly reflecting my moral and religious values, but also partly it's a protective habit. I was fat and ugly as a teenager; now I'm still fat but tolerably pretty, at least to people who don't expect that you have to follow fashion rules closely to count as pretty. But at some level I have the experience that if I dress sexily, I will get grief for daring to imagine that I'm the sort of person that others would want to look at in a sexual way. Unlike many women, I don't personally have the experience that if I dress sexily, I will be harassed and groped and molested (which I know isn't really about clothing choices, it's about bullies exerting power over women), but I do basically expect to be mocked. Not consciously, not if I actually stop and think about it, but I have a kind of visceral memory of it. Especially if what I'm showing off is my legs and bottom, which is one reason why when I am in an appropriate context to dress more revealingly, I default to low cut tops rather than short or tight skirts.
My personal experiences of feeling uncomfortable about uncovering more than I'm used to are therefore comparatively mild. But enough to give me empathy for women who, for religious or personal reasons, do prefer to cover up a lot more than the default for women in the societies they're part of. Muslim women who wear headscarves or veils or abayat, for example, but also women who for purely personal reasons feel uncomfortable wearing the amount of clothes expected for women of the culture they happen to live in.
Basically I'm one of those "choice" feminists, I do expect that people should make their own decisions about what they want to wear. And yes, I am aware that those choices carry messages which affect others, and take place in a social context, there are factors other than purely personal expression which determine how people dress. I believe that consideration for other people should in fact be one of the factors that go into clothing choice; for me that's the main point of modesty. Equally people don't have a right to ogle my body, much less to have access to it, and people do have a responsibility to control their own behaviours and behave in a civilized way if they happen to find me sexually attractive, it's not up to me to hide myself from view in case some hypothetical stranger finds me sexy and is offended by that.
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