A Counterculture of Modesty

From The Guardian, a book review titled The first sexual revolution: lust and liberty in the 18th century, begins with an unqualified assumption:

We believe in sexual freedom. We take it for granted that consenting men and women have the right to do what they like with their bodies. Sex is everywhere in our culture. We love to think and talk about it; we devour news about celebrities’ affairs; we produce and consume pornography on an unprecedented scale. We think it wrong that in other cultures its discussion is censured, people suffer for their sexual orientation, women are treated as second-class citizens, or adulterers are put to death.
Yet a few centuries ago, our own society was like this too ….

As one might expect from that beginning, the article (which I plan to read, very critically, via Instapaper when opportunity allows) continues as one might expect from a popular lament of, say, the Salem Witch Trials. (You didn’t really need that link, did you? “Witch Trials” remains one of a relative handful of historic myths that shape a culture largely ignorant of history.)

Thursday’s Der Spiegel, in contrast, brings this opening to an article:

It wasn’t the usual images — those of long shapely legs and deep cleavage — that outraged Ibrahim Burak Birer, 31. Rather, it was pictures of penises and of fake, strap-on breasts which convinced him that things were getting out of hand. Birer had happened upon a series of photos on the subject of trans-sexuality printed in a major international fashion magazine.
The photos demonstrated conclusively to him that taboos hardly exist anymore — and that it was time to come up with something to combat the “diktat of nudity.” He knew that he and his team were on the right track.
Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, Marie Claire, it’s all about sex and naked skin,” says the devout Muslim. “The motto is that sex sells. But we, and millions of women around the world, believe that fashion can also be different.”
Çamlica is a quiet residential neighborhood on the Asian side of the megacity Istanbul. Birer and his friend Mehmet Volkan Atay, 32, two stout men in jeans and designer jackets, are sitting at their desks on the second floor of a white house.
Soft jazz music is playing on a laptop. The two managing directors of Alâ are in excellent spirits, as are the two women who are sitting across from them: Eyma Yol Kara, 28, the editor-in-chief of Alâ, “the magazine for a beautiful lifestyle,” and Esra Sezi, 24, the head fashion editor. Both women are young, attractive and wearing headscarves.

They’re producing what has been dubbed “The Vogue of the veiled.”

Islamic Fashion Magazine Alâ

Rather too tame for our pornogaified culture, it’s “fundamentally un-Islamic” to Islamic hardliners:

The people behind Alâ have not understood the concept of “tesettür,” one theologian grumbled. A woman’s desire to present herself is fundamentally un-Islamic, he claimed — be it in a bikini or in a headscarf. Muslim women, the theologian continued, should remain submissively in the background.

I’ll avoid the simple “both extremes are ticked off, so they must be right” thing. But I do think they’re basically right.

I find it difficult to believe that any woman would freely choose the burqa, but I find it easy to believe that that a lot of American women have embraced Islam, and a degree of modesty roughly in alignment Alâ, to escape mandatory sluttiness and the hookup culture.

I wish those young, American, formerly-Christian-in-some-sense women knew about Churches that value modesty and chastity. They’ll find only equivocal support in America’s commercialized and sexualized “Evangelical” Churches. In contrast, I can smile inside when, at my mostly-convert Orthodox Christian Church, I see many women of all ages, and even young girls, with long skirts and, if only for worship, covered heads. On average,  Orthodox modesty is high, and we’re not completely alone.

I don’t want to make headscarves and long skirts mandatory (outside monasteries – not that I have any say in monastic policies). Each starts his or her journey in a unique place, and there’s something wholesome about a Christian inquirer, or a “backslider” coming back, avoiding affectation of modesty (or any other virtue) just to fit in.

Moreover, I’ve been in a relatively legalistic Christian tradition, and have lived the “well, we stopped at ‘third base’ so it’s okay” version of Chastity Lite. When it’s all about rules, it becomes all about walking as close to the rule’s edge as possible. When it’s about “chastity,” it involves actions and inward attitudes.

Christians of greatly differing traditions manage to cooperate on issues like pregnancy resource centers for women (yay!) and the Culture Wars generally (eh, whatever). Can we find some way to cooperate with moderate, modest Muslims in shifting the culture on modesty and chastity, or at least to produce defiantly modest counterculture?

Can we at least set aside the myth of a single, hegemonic, pandemic Islamofascism long enough to recognize somewhat kindred spirits?

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One thought on “A Counterculture of Modesty

  1. I have made a habit of closely observing the practice of women wearing the hijab when I have traveled in Turkey. They are much less common in Istanbul than in the hinterland–but then, Istanbul is not really representative of the rest of the country (much like New York City to the U.S.) I noticed more of them back in 2003-2005 when the AKP was establishing itself than I have in recent years now that the party is all-powerful. I asked a friend there if it was something of a political statement, and he replied “exactly.” I have one picture that I like to show to illustrate this point–a shot of Istikllal Caddesi literally crammed with people, and a not a hijab in sight. Of course, when you get out into the interior of the country, things are more conservative, though even there, outside of the remote far east, the practice is hardly uniform. The only place in Turkey I have ever seen full black burkhas with the face completely covered was, ironically enough, in the Phanar–now a poor district for Muslims of a fundamentalist bent arriving from the remote countryside.

    One thing I did notice–which parallels the magazine story–is how very elegant they could be. The Turkish hijab is no drab gray or black thing, but more often than not, a beautiful multi-colored scarf. Many young Turkish women also wear jeans and long, thinning white jackets. As I recall, the real money in the wardrobe was saved for the footwear–with high-heeled boots being a favorite. The overall look was one of beauty, elegance and modesty.

    Yes, we should be able to make common cause with this approach to our contemporary world.

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