On My Ten Years of Modesty

(Before you read this post, read this piece on Salon.com.) 

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There is so much more to these ladies than just plain old “modesty.” Click to visit my Pinterest board “Hijabis being hijabis.”

The alarm bells should have gone off when I saw the words “modesty experiment” in the opening sentence, but maybe I was too curious too notice. The author, Lauren Shields (who, it turns out, is making a writerly career out of her nine months of dressing modestly), spoke of how refreshing it was to let go of her “Beauty Suit”:

I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself.

It’s a wickedly delicious piece, a piece that made a hijabi like me say: “yayayyay that’s me down with objectificationz!”

And then, as though I had inhaled a slice of cake far too quickly, I started to feel a little queasy.

It’s nice to think that as a woman who covers to be modest, I’m consistently focused on “something else, something more important than what [is] trendy.” But ten years into the hijab, a soul-gripping battle with it, and evolving with and through it, here is what I say: Dressing modestly isn’t about being above it all. Also: framing it as though it is is insulting to women who do dress up, bare some skin, and do so with their self confidence intact.

I can appreciate the writer’s relief at unburdening herself from societal expectations, but there’s also the other side we need to remember: in several places, modest dress is used as a means for controlling women and dictating their worth. To these women, dressing up is the means of resistance, just like modest dress is a means of resistance for Shields.

Plus, dressing modestly can correspond heavily with looking frumpy and unkempt. Yes, there are hijabi fashionistas, but there are also hijabis who, in their religious zeal, forgot what it means to pluck one’s eyebrows, exercise regularly, or buy clothes that suit one’s body shape.

Dressing modestly is not a ticket to looking like you live in a library basement. Looking clean and groomed is part of the Islamic tradition.

I do that, and, circumstances permitting, I try and go a step further. So I can actually highly relate to the burdensome primping the writer describes in depicting her pre-modest life. Yes, I, a person who dresses modestly, also have to undergo considerable effort in looking nice. And I do so not for other’s attention: at least I hope not.

I do so because the face, the body, is a canvas. And God has bestowed us means of expressing our individuality, so many ways of showing the world what makes us us.

Let’s not paint any group of people with the same brush and try to take shots at people’s intentions for dressing the way they do. In any case, I suspect that the criminally trendy are not guilty of wanting attention nearly as much as they are guilty of lacking an imagination, lacking the depth of the spirit that outwardly manifests in a precise combination of hair, makeup, facial hair, clothes, and accessories.

A canvas, I tell you.