Modest fashion

This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

How could there be anything wrong with being modest? It’s the truly universal virtue. As prized in the courtyards of Asian temples as it is in the pews of American churches, modesty is so woven into human society that every culture has its silent codes encouraging women to dress and behave respectably. We admire the actress who graces the fashion pages without breaking the cardinal rule of boobs or legs. The wardrobe of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, proves that high necklines and low hemlines are how we know a lady has class.

But last summer’s debate over a temporary ban on the burkini swimming costume in the French resort city of Nice left some wondering how they feel about modesty after all. Especially when it’s taken to what feels like its logical limit by women adopting the hijab, niqab or burqa. French authorities eventually recognised that it’s wrong to force women to strip off in public for the sake of political values, and overturned the ban. Liberal feminists like myself find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. What are we defending when we assert the right of a woman to cover up?

Modesty is enjoying a popularity it hasn’t had since Victorian times. Indeed, it is big business. Bespoke boutiques cater to the growing demand for all-covering clothes and attractive hijabs. Muslim fashion bloggers boasting millions of followers offer tutorials on how to tie headscarves and dress demurely without sacrificing style. In summer 2015, the global high street store Uniqlo unveiled a fashion line with UK-born designer Hana Tajima, featuring long flowing skirts and hijabs. In spring 2016, Dolce & Gabbana followed with its own line of designer hijabs and abayas (loose, all-covering long dresses). Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta and DKNY have all released Ramadan lines targeted at Muslim women.

Then, in October, Noor Tagouri became the first hijabi woman to appear in Playboy. At the same time, YouTuber Amena Khan appeared in television advertisements for L’Oréal, selling foundation. The general manager of L’Oréal Paris UK, Adrien Koskas, told Digiday UK in September, “In the future, we’ll look back and say I can’t believe it took until 2016 for us to see someone with a hijab.” On the surface, the ethnic diversity of women in the media – including those in hijabs – is refreshing. It feels like a victory. Finally, we’re seeing more colour and variation in the historically lily-white western fashion and advertising industry.

But for others the suddenness with which mainstream culture has embraced the veil is a worrying watershed moment: one in which being a faithful Muslim woman now means covering one’s hair. In the Washington Post, Muslim journalists Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa have warned against treating the hijab as synonymous with Islam, arguing that its spread only reflects the global growth of a strict political ideology. It is rising Islamism, they say, not Islam, that has prompted so many young women all over the world to cover their hair and faces. Colluding with this restrictive doctrine only damages women’s rights.

The growth of fundamentalism in other religions, too, has seen the trend for modesty transcend Islam. “How Orthodox Jewish Style Became an Unlikely Inspiration for Fall 2015’s Sexiest Trend,” proclaimed a headline on the Vogue website, gushing about an all-covering slip dress that managed to meet both the strict Jewish standard of tzniut, which requires women to cover their hair, elbows and knees, while also being provocative enough to catch the attention of fashionistas. The “modest is hottest” tagline has similarly swept through some evangelical Christian groups in the US.

Nowadays it seems as though nothing unites religiously conservative women of different faiths quite so much as their closets. According to an article in Haaretz in July 2016, American shoppers caused the website of Israeli “Modest Fashion Marketplace” ModLi to crash, after a Mormon church-owned publication released a piece about it. The story was shared more than 17,000 times on social media. Within a few weeks, ModLi had its first order from a Muslim in Dubai. Now it receives regular orders from Saudi Arabia as well.

But then, who can argue with a woman who wants to be more modest? While carrying out research for my latest book, I explored some explanations for why women throughout history have been expected to cover up more than men have. Female modesty has ancient roots. Some anthropologists believe its origins lie in male sexual jealousy and mate-guarding, which are seen in other species including some great apes. In humans, mate-guarding seems to have been exaggerated to extraordinary lengths. Patriarchy and religion have elaborate ways of restraining female sexual freedom and keeping women under control. Modesty is the response. By behaving modestly, a woman appears to comply with the demands on her to be virginal or faithful.

As the late historian Gerda Lerner pointed out in her landmark 1986 book The Creation of Patriarchy, the veil wasn’t a recent invention. It certainly wasn’t an Islamic one. Through her careful studies of evidence from ancient Mesopotamia, Lerner drew connections between head covering and the need for families to ensure the virginity of their unmarried daughters. Women were a “financial asset for the family”, she explained. Husbands wanted to be assured that their wives were completely faithful, and this loyalty had to be demonstrated to others. From at least 1250 BC, she wrote, married women and widows in Assyria, one of Mesopotamia’s greatest empires, were expected to cover their heads in public.
This standard wasn’t imposed on all women equally. Prostitutes and slave girls were in fact not allowed to wear veils at all. If they did, they would be incorrectly distinguishing themselves as domestic, “respectable” women. The repercussions for breaking this dress code were severe. According to Lerner, the law prescribed that “he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest her… they shall flog her fifty (times).” For a slave girl, the punishment for wearing a veil was to “have her clothes taken away and have her ears cut off.”

Lerner’s historical investigations showed that the veil undeniably has its origins in the control of female sexuality. Classifying women as respectable or disreputable, and having such an obvious and harshly enforced symbol of that distinction, meant that the moral standard could be upheld.

By covering their heads, Assyrian women were showing the world they were chaste and faithful. And the same applies to modesty today. Underneath it all – from the hijab to tzniut, and beyond – covering a woman’s hair is a display of male control over her body. Even if the choice is hers, it was engineered for him.

Now in the 21st century, when some women choose to wear the veil and others don’t, it creates the same problem as it has done in the past. If covering her hair marks out a woman as more respectable, where does it leave the woman who doesn’t? Without a societal norm or laws to enforce veiling, those who choose not to dress so modestly are cast as immoral by default, much like the Assyrian harlot. We with the free hair are the disreputable.

This is what makes the veil in particular such a potent symbol. Covering our bodies is something we all do, sometimes more, sometimes less. Many non-religious women wear headscarves, of course. But a hijab is not just a headscarf. The religiously mandated veil – the daily, unwavering cloak over the hair, a barrier not to be removed in the presence of men other than one’s husband or family – has a dangerous history. There can be no doubt, despite the ways in which religions may claim it as a mark of godly devotion, that it has been a means of classifying and policing women.

Despite these roots, there are countless reasons why modern women wear veils. The resurgence of modesty isn’t just about religion or fashion. Some claim the hijab as a political symbol, even as empowering. Young veiled women have complained about the cruel abuse they experience when they step outside, turning their personal choice into a public sacrifice. For them, this is a visible assertion of their religion in a world that seems to be turning against Islam. Many feminists argue, too, that if women’s rights are to mean anything, they have to include the freedom to dress modestly if that’s what a woman wants.

But this is a choice that affects others. The veil is more than a piece of clothing. It’s a religious marker of respectability, designed to distinguish a woman not just for her faith, but also her morality. The more Muslim women who wear the veil, the more this intensifies the pressure on other women to wear a veil so they are seen as equally respectable and devout. For the rest of us who aren’t religious, it simply sets us apart.

More worrying is the way in which vocal support for the veil is drowning out resistance to it. In 1979, when Iran decided to impose a law requiring women to wear headscarves in public, there were enormous public protests. Similar protests continue in Iran today. But these are voices we rarely hear in the West. Voices of dissent – those who argue that the veil is repressive, who have worn it and then abandoned it, or those who deliberately choose not to wear it at all – are often drowned out by the voices of those who want to wear it.

Last July I attended the launch of Feminist Dissent, a new academic journal born out of the frustration of female researchers that their concerns over women’s rights are being whitewashed by western liberal fears of calling out fundamentalism for what it is. In the heart of east London where the launch was held, in a room full of women – most of them south Asian and some Muslim – not a single one I saw wore a hijab.

Karima Bennoune, law professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, has documented the thoughts and experiences of women who have resisted the hijab. In her interviews with Muslims in France, when the government banned religious symbols in public schools in 2004, those who supported the law were particularly concerned about the damage that conceding ground to fundamentalists – who wholeheartedly support veiling – might do to the human rights of girls in the future.

The consensus among feminists and liberals seems to be that edicts and bans, to wear or not to wear, are both damaging to women’s freedom. The problem this leaves for those who are wary of the veil, however, is that its popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. Women everywhere are enthusiastically embracing the trend for more modesty.

And it’s a trend supported by larger parts of the fashion world, business and the media. A Thomson Reuters report on the state of the global Islamic economy has estimated that by 2020 the Islamic fashion market will be worth something in the order of $300 billion. There’s a lot of money to be made out of modesty. It’s just a bonus that nothing guarantees a social media response quite like a beautiful woman in a veil.

For an industry defined by the bottom line, there’s no difficulty in reconciling profits with values because all markets are being served. While flogging hijabs and abayas to wealthy Muslim women, top designers don’t stop selling bikinis and miniskirts at the same time – keeping every customer happy just makes good business sense. The women who want to flash more flesh aren’t losing that option. And religious women who dress more modestly rejoice that their choices are also being endorsed. If DKNY sells veils, what more approval do they need?

But this approval, like a woman’s choice to wear a veil, has repercussions. A few years ago, I saw a young girl arguing with her father outside her primary school in central London after he told her she must wear her hijab. She was pulling at the cloth, desperately wanting to take it off, tears swelling in her eyes.

A culture in which a schoolgirl can be ordered by her father to wear a headscarf, and in which images in the media reinforce that this is how a Muslim woman looks – an idea championed by the more hardline Islamists – needs to think more carefully.

The expectation that women should be seen as more chaste and modest than men doesn’t run through religion alone, but is ingrained in all of us, as it has been for millennia. In the fight for sexual equality, this ages-old universal double standard represents perhaps the hardest battle of all. It demands that we question one of our most cherished virtues. Female modesty is a dangerous thing when it defines how free a woman is to be herself.