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The ‘I-did-this-charmingly-quirky-but-enlightening-thing-for-a-bit-and-this-is-what-happened’ memoir has become a fully blown sub-genre in female literature. Continuing the example set by books such as Eat Pray Love and Julie and Julia, is the soon to be published The Modesty Experiment which chronicles American blogger Lauren Shields’s foray into bucking Western beauty culture for nine months.
“In America”, Shield’s blog banner gravely announces, “we see Islamic women all covered up and think, ‘That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!’ But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement... or freedom? I want to find out.”
Shields spent nine months conducting her “experiment”, during which she “covered all of my hair, wore nothing that was so fitted that I felt like I had to sit or stand funny to look good, and never exposed my knees or my shoulders, except at home. With rare exceptions, I wore no makeup or nail polish.”
Lauren Shields, who wrote about her 'Modesty Experiment'. Photo: Lauren Shields, via Facebook
It’s not surprising that Shields found the experience both “kind of brutal” and yet “really liberating.” After all, covering yourself in clothing from head to foot in the midst of summer is bound to feel stifling. But, freeing yourself from the demands and expectations of the dominant culture you are exposed to is also, by definition, liberating.
Shields is railing against the Western beauty ideal that expects women to spend excessive amounts of time and money to dress in what amounts to “a Grown-Up suit.” In that I couldn’t agree with her more. However, Shields, who can only witness Muslim culture through her own Western lens, falls into the trap of romanticising the “modesty” of Muslim women for whom covering themselves is itself a religious requirement.
In doing so she strips Muslim modesty of its own cultural context and conflates not the option to dress modestly, but “modesty” itself with “liberation.” Yes, it is true, as Shields argues, that Muslim women often choose to cover their bodies and hair. However, it is a choice made in a very specific set of cultural conditions and with expectations of its own, none of which apply to her.
Where Western women face pressure to flaunt their sexuality, Muslim women are expected to conceal it. I don’t deny that many Muslim women find the hijab liberating, just as some western women find stripping empowering. That, however, does nothing to dispel the fact that both modesty and sexualisation can be equally objectifying.
Shields, like so many white westerners before her seems genuinely disillusioned with the limitations of her culture, leading her to look at the exotic “other”, as a means of soul-searching. Last year blonde, white New York blogger, Michelle Joni Lapidos, caused a stir when she documented herself wearing an Afro wig and hanging out with black people in various settings as a way of bringing, in her own words, “flayvah” to her life.
Similarly, Miley Cyrus, bored with her Disney image, specifically requested her record company give her a single that “sounds black.” In the accompanying video, Cyrus wears a grill on her teeth and dances in the “ass popping” style associated with black women.
But as bell hooks explains in “Eating The Other”, there is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Using their own white bodies as a canvas these women paint themselves only with those aspects of non-white culture they find appealing. In the process of giving themselves a splash of colour they then strip those very same cultural markers of all context and meaning.
So what we end up with is white women seeking their own liberation in the oppression of others. Cyrus glamourises the grill favoured by black rappers, without being encumbered by the fact that one in three African-American men can expect to go to jail at some stage in their lives. She can pop her ass to her heart’s content blithely oblivious to the history of the hyper-sexualisation of black women that leaves them at greater risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Michelle Lapidos chronicles her life “Before and Afro” without ever exposing herself to the hatred black people were and still are subjected to because of their hair; without acknowledging that the Afro itself is a symbol of resistance against a dominant culture that marginalises black bodies.
And Shields can idealise modesty without ever having to make the devastating choices facing actual Muslim women. Her inability to grasp what Muslim modesty entails is summed up in this quote on her blog: “Islamic culture allowed adherents of both sexes to dress modestly for spiritual reasons.”
Firstly, Muslim culture does not “allow” for female modesty. It demands it. Whether or not a woman acquiesces to this demand is a different matter. A Muslim woman who does not dress modestly is considered to be acting outside the rules of her religion. Unlike Shields, who can slip in and out of her modest dress at will, a Muslim woman, when deciding whether or not to conform to the expectations of her culture has to consider such possible consequences as being shunned by her community, rejected by her family, condemned by her religion.
Secondly, the modesty rules for men are far less restrictive and barely policed at that. Just as Western society is rife with double standards, the young Muslim woman is saddled with these “choices” in an environment where her brothers are permitted to stay out all night, fool around, have non-Muslim girlfriends. While such behaviour is not encouraged in men, it is tolerated; a tolerance not extended to women except in the most liberal of Muslim families. (Of course, many enterprising Muslim women find a way around this, as the rising practice of hymen restoration indicates ).
It's also important to recognise that in the West modesty has an added dimension. For some Muslim women the hijab is less an expression of spirituality than an act of political dissent. It is a response to a dominant culture that simultaneously objectifies them as women and marginalises them as Muslim. For these women, modesty is an affirmation of identity, a gesture of belonging.
If Lauren Shields wants to “find out” if modesty is liberating, she would do better to speak to rather than about Muslim women. Instead of playing fancy dress with their culture, she could ask those Muslim women –myself included- who have had to sacrifice their own families in order to free themselves of the shackles of “modesty”.
No behaviour or mode of dress is inherently liberating or oppressive. Wherever there is an ideal standard there is a corresponding expectation to conform. To romanticise Muslim culture because it appears to reject Western ideals of beauty is to strip it of its own history and deny the pressure faced by Muslim women to perpetuate an ideal they may not agree with.