by Nadiah Mohajir
The recent blog post of a young religious wife, Veronica Partridge, explains that she is no longer going to wear leggings in public because they “create a stronger attraction for a man to look at a woman’s body and may cause them to think lustful thoughts.” This blog post, though initially intended for her personal circle of friends, has gone viral and her motivations are being celebrated, many applauding her for her commitment to dress modestly.
Upon first reading of this article, I approached this from the two hats I wear on a daily basis: that of a Muslim woman who deeply values modesty and takes great care to incorporate modesty in every aspect of her life, as well as an educator and activist in the field of sex education and sexual violence. As such, I find her motivations and inspirations to eliminate leggings from her wardrobe not only problematic, as well as offensive, but most importantly, further perpetuating a culture of violence against women. By committing to dressing modestly in order to “assist men with focusing on what’s important,” Ms. Partridge removes personal accountability from men to control their urges and their gaze and instead places all accountability on women.
To that point, promoting modesty as a way to protect men’s gaze encourages rape culture. As I mentioned above, by assuming responsibility of protecting men’s eyes from lustful gazes, Ms. Partridge removes accountability from men. If a man wants to objectify or sexualize another woman, he will do so regardless of what she is wearing. As explained in this critique, “the idea that women must change themselves in order to appease the male gaze is directly related to the idea that men cannot control themselves around women.” This not only leads to creating a culture that lacks accountability when violence against women happens, but it also leads to victim-blaming and shaming when such an occurrence happens. Such a narrative creates a strong environment for silencing victims of sexual assault from coming forward, for fear of being blamed or shame for the horrific crime that was committed against them.
Furthermore, dressing modestly doesn’t actually prevent violence against women. Ms. Partridge’s reasons to dress modestly are flawed given what we know about sexual violence. While it is commonly believed that assailants target scantily-dressed women, the reality proves this belief to be a myth. Men and women who commit sexual assault against another individual do not do so because of the way they are dressed, but rather because of the power they believe they have over another individual. Victims often are fully clothed at the time of attack, and there is no common theme between how one was dressed at the time of attack and likelihood of attack. Moreover, despite the fact that women are dressed overwhelmingly modestly in much of the Muslim world, sexual violence continues to remain rampant and prevalent.
Not to mention, dressing modestly to help men lower their gaze is insulting to men. Men are not animals. They can and should have the discipline to resist their urges and temptations, and should be taught in depth during their adolescence years what consent is and how to honor and respect it in every relationship. If this consent is ever violated, we should not preoccupy ourselves with questions about what the victim was wearing or whether she did something to provoke him, but rather should focus on the assailant’s gross violation of another’s physical and emotional space. Let’s honor the men and boys’ in our life and credit them with having noble qualities of respect and self-control, instead of excusing them for their involuntary “lustful thoughts.”
Finally, dressing modestly should be a personal or spiritual preference, motivated by one’s self. In the many years I have been working with youth around issues of sex, sexuality, and self-image in faith-based communities, I have learned that often times, young people (and even adults) are motivated to honor certain aspects of their religious values, but not for reasons that are spiritually founded. Rather, they often honor them because they fear being stigmatized or shamed for not honoring them, or because their parents and family members expect them to, and not because of a spiritual motivation to please God. This is faulty because it often results in a lot of resentment toward the value, paralyzing shame in the event it is not honored and in the cases of many young women, poor self-image and body image. It is essential to reclaim modesty as a tool of personal and spiritual empowerment, and not as a personal responsibility toward preventing violence against women.
We live in a day and time that violence against women is systemic and prevalent in the very fabric of our daily lives, interactions, and relationships. It’s time to challenge the faulty narratives that promote and enable a culture of violence against women – which ultimately leads to enabling perpetrators and silencing the many victims out there – and instead, create new ones.