Several months ago I happened upon a book title that caught my eye as I browsed online: A Return to Modesty - Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. A non-Muslim young woman writing a whole book promoting modesty? I was curious what she had to say. So, I added it to my Paperbackswap.com wish list and received a copy just recently.
Shalit, writing this book nearly a decade ago now, referencing historical philosophical works, poetry and romance novels, personal experience, Jewish law, and countless stories comprising anecdotal evidence, dramatically presents a case that the sexual liberation of women (read: societal permission and encouragement for women and men to dress and behave promiscuously), rather than creating equality between the sexes, actually serves to victimize women by removing a system of modesty and honor that could protect them from wolfish men. She argues that the “independent” modern woman is really a woman who has been abandoned by her culture and family, especially her father, and left without guidance and protection in a dangerous world.
I, a Muslim woman of the West, am prepared to agree with her on many points and express a little gratitude for someone willing to make the case for modesty, but there are so many problems in her presentation that they seriously detract from her argument. The book is rife with unsupported and unfounded generalizations and conclusions. For example, a basic premise throughout the entire work is that the modesty of women and honor of men existed throughout history across time and space universally basically until the 1960’s sexual liberation movement. She operationally uses overly dramatic and generalized definitions of feminism and conservatism. Further, she fails to provide any evidence to support very strong claims that sex education in schools leads to sexual violence against girls, and that eating disorders and self-mutilation behavior of young women today is caused by girls’ inability to say “no” to boys about sex when they really want to, because they desire to please, and because their parents, rather than discouraging or prohibiting premarital sex, instead take them to Planned Parenthood to get birth control and let them go to hotels after prom with their boyfriends. Whether one wants to agree with her or not, she utterly fails to support her views.
Another major flaw of this work is that Shalit never defines modesty. It remains some vague, nebulous romantic novel ideal, but she neglects to address what actually constitutes modest dress and modest behavior. For a few pages, she brushes over the topic of different religious and cultural interpretations of modesty, such as how certain indigenous tribes that wear very little clothing still have manifestations of modesty, but she didn’t do her research well enough at least in the case of Islam, as she presents the impression that female modesty in Islam means covering the face and annihilating the physical identity of women, negating the female body. So a book supposedly all about the virtue of modesty never identifies what is modest and what isn’t. Rather, it seems the book is misnamed and isn’t so much about modesty as about sexual abstinence and innocence before marriage as the proposed solution to many of society’s ills, with “modesty” and “honor” as means to attain that goal.
The final problem with this work I want to address is that for a book about modesty, one that proposes that blushing embarrassment is a natural biological sexual morality warning signal that women (and men, too, to a lesser extent) ought not to ignore nor be encouraged to overcome, it is at times very explicit and unabashed in its language and anecdotal detail - enough to make one, well, ... blush. Whether that is truly necessary to properly support the thesis or not I’ll leave for others to decide, but it does create a dilemma. The people who are presumably the primary intended recipients of the message of Shalit’s book, the unmarried youth of teens and early adulthood, maybe should not be reading it. That means that her message is left to parents to pass to their children, if even they can get through it, or to the “already experienced” to reform themselves with, or simply that she contradicts her views that sex education promotes immorality by writing a book that does analogously the same thing - promotes modesty but is itself rather immodest. She begs the question if the only way to preserve innocence in youth is to first rob children of innocence through “education” doubly so: in her views and in writing the book itself.
Yet, the book is certainly not all bad. Much of her project is admirable and appealing, from a Muslim viewpoint. She successfully, at least in my opinion, demonstrates that men and women are indeed different and that ingraining in Western children from earliest ages that there are no differences between genders has had two disastrous effects: 1. the destruction of femininity, and 2. the cheapening of male-female relationships.
It seems every American girl these days is raised to believe that she can be anything - a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, a wrestler, a boxer - anything, that is, as long as she is willing to behave and be treated just like a man. The movement to deny any special respect or dignity to the feminine is so extreme that even “ladies nights” at oil-changing stations that provided special discounts for women were deemed sexist and illegal. Many men fear to hold a door open for a woman because they might be chastised. And, over time, penalties for crimes against women have become increasingly less harsh as the idea of a special feminine right to sexual honor, dignity and privacy has eroded. Rape just doesn’t seem to be such an unthinkable crime as it perhaps once was, because there is a message that women are supposed to view sex in exactly the same ways as men living by their animalistic nature (as opposed to those men who live as true human beings), being able to avoid any special emotional attachment with partners and not viewing intimacy as something sacred and special. While many women at their cores have only one desire in this arena: a single, loving, devoted lifetime mate - they are often taught that such hopes are unliberated and unrealistic. Aside from pregnancy, then, is there nothing left to woman as uniquely hers? Is a woman supposed to be nothing but a man who can give birth? Is it really so wonderful for modern woman to be expected to do everything men do, or is it instead archaic and wrong if a woman still survives today who would rather not have to deal with the construction workers or fixing the car?
And what if a man (or even woman, for that matter) would rather not be bombarded with TV commercials about feminine products? These days, the erosion of anything sacred or mysterious about women, the ideal that men and women are “equal” being interpreted to mean they are the “same”, has also taken much of the anticipation and pleasure out of male-female relationships. Some colleges are so “coed” that men and women share the same bathrooms. To many people, there is nothing sexual about boys and girls wrestling against each other as a sanctioned school sport. Teenage boys and girls going camping together, sleeping in the same tents is mundane, as is cohabitating. Seeing, knowing, and touching the opposite sex is not special, it is normal, and as a result, we become desensitized. Sadly, this means the pleasure of marriage is diminished, and we - both men and women - are robbed of something wonderful. Numerous studies have repeatedly shown that people having the greatest pleasure are those who married young and stayed married to one person only, not those who have had serial relationships or hookups, yet those same people are often looked at as out of touch.
Shalit proposes a return to modest dress, to the idea of something mysterious and honored about femininity, and to true manliness as being protecting, supporting, honoring, and loving the feminine. In that, much of what she says is entirely in line with Islamic teachings, and the teachings of her Jewish roots. She gives women the suggestion that it is okay and even natural to hold out for a man who will really respect her and commit to her, and that this feminine restraint can promote commitment and honor in men.
This is apparently a radical idea, as are modesty and restraint in general, given the hostility she has received from some in response to this message, and the hostility that women who try to live modestly are regularly subjected to. Indeed, for a hijabi or any woman who chooses to conceal something of herself, she faces outrage from some, shaming from others, and a constant affront against her right to do so - hijab bans in France, Germany, Turkey, and Tunisia, restrictions or attempts at restrictions on hijab in sports in Canada, public schools in Oregon, courts in Georgia, etc. These affronts are not just attacks on Islam or Muslims, they are attacks on the female right to control access to her body and to control her interactions with men. A woman who wants modesty is belittled as unliberated, abused, unintelligent or confused. But I’m with Wendy. I think it is the other way around.