Modesty culture is a tool of oppression

Illustration by Michele Hicks.

Sara Matthews, Contributing Writer 

“Girls shouldn’t have scars on their knees,” my dad said when I came home from playing soccer. 

I hadn’t even noticed the gash until he pointed it out. That sentence confused me when I was 12 years old and continues to confuse me today. 

Nobody cared about how vigorously the boys around me played. They could run and slip and fall until their knees were bloody and their clothes were torn. They never had to worry about what their bodies looked like in the aftermath. 

The bliss that comes with being carefree about your appearance is one of the greatest things about childhood. As children, time should be spent playing and having fun, not worrying about what you look like. So why are there so many young girls who spend extensive amounts of time worrying about their bodies and appearances? 

The answer comes from a culture in which the female body is seen as inherently sexual. A culture in which a woman’s body isn’t truly her own. This culture is frequently referred to as purity or modesty culture. 

It has created a world where girls are forced to be aware of their bodies much earlier than boys are. 

Girls and women are told they must cover up and dress modestly for their safety and the preservation of their self-respect. But does covering up really save them from being viewed sexually? 

Studies have shown that women who cover up are in fact equally as prone to sexual violence and assault. 

Egypt, for instance, is a country where the vast majority of women dress very modestly. “As many as 90 percent of women” wear the hijab, or Islamic head covering, according to the New York Times. The percentage of women in Egypt who report experiencing some form of sexual harassment is at 90%, according to a report from The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

The excuse of protection is a blatant lie. It is clear that women are sexualized by men no matter what they wear. 

When women are told that whether they are assaulted or not is dependent on what they choose to wear, it puts everything on their shoulders and absolves men of all the blame. This victim-blaming mentality has always been used as a way to silence women and erase their suffering. 

There is nothing wrong with a woman who chooses to dress modestly, but there is something wrong with a society that tells women they must be punished for not doing so.

Historically, women’s bodies have not only been seen as possessions of men but also possessions of the cultures and societies they come from.

Women have carried the brunt of men’s violence for centuries. During times of war, it has primarily been women who were captured. Even today, it is women who are the primary victims of sex trafficking and sex crimes in general. Ninety-six percent of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation were female, according to a 2017 study by the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons.

Women are conditioned to believe that their worth comes from their purity and desirability, but why isn’t the same effort put into telling women that their bodies should be treated with respect? 

Modesty culture fails because it has never been and will never be in favor of women. It has no scientific or moral basis, existing only to encourage the belief that there is something shameful to be found in the natural body of a woman and forever absolving men of blame. 

True progress will not occur until women and girls are freed of the burden of having their bodies constantly scrutinized and violated. 

Apologists of modesty culture often justify misogynistic values and practices under the excuse that women and men are “fundamentally different.” They claim that modesty culture is the natural result of biological differences. 

In a patriarchal system where men have nothing to lose, of course, this is the conclusion that many men come to. But no amount of differences can justify the amount of suffering and blame that women endure. No biological variance could ever be an excuse for human oppression. A trait that all humans share is empathy, and it only takes a little bit of it to see where this mentality is wrong. 

Women and girls don’t inherently owe men anything. We don’t owe anyone a desirable body, much less our shame and virtue. Little girls especially must be liberated from the oppressive ideals of modesty culture which begin affecting them at such a young age. Unscarred knees will never be more valuable than a happy childhood.

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