The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries. Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely. Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men. The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt: “Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”
Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following: “Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty. It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold. Firstly, to be modest before God. Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external. This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does. The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house. Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place. Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.
While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry. Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty. Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all. A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel. There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue. In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.
Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God. As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”