A Return to Modesty: Book Review

returntomodesty.jpgAlthough my ‘intellectual activities’ have slowed down since last summer – when I had plenty of time to peruse sites like the Angry Arab, Al-Jazeera News, borrow books upon the dozens from the library, and immerse myself in trying to understand the workings of world politics (not very successfully, unfortunately) – I have, in between school, blogging, and the Madrasah, managed to squeeze in the odd book here and there.

Last month’s book was “A Return to Modesty: Discovering a Lost Virtue” by Wendy Shalit.

In short, I think it’s absolutely brilliant.

But since that isn’t enough to count as a real book review, I shall elaborate (please don’t expect any brilliant analyses, though… I suck at analyzing. This shall be more of a basic summary of the book, and towards the end I’ll probably mention what I thought of the book.)

This book is, in a way, a personal account of the author’s growing-up in the ’90s, when feminism was in full swing and sex education was taught in elementary school; her ‘discovery’ of modesty, subsequent practice of it, and the shocked reactions she recieved from all those around her who had totally bought into the current hypersexualized pop culture.

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“A Return to Modesty” is split into 3 parts, titled “The Problem,” “The Forgotten Ideal,” and “TheReturn.”

In “The Problem,” Ms. Shalit discusses the following:

– Modesty/ embarassment shown by young people (especially girls) in the form of blushes; and how people are constantly trying to make it seem a bad thing (i.e. to feel shy/ bashful/embarassed about intimate matters is silly rather than good/ being a sign of innocence). Several times she quotes the oft-repeated mantra of, “Remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle/ be embarassed about!” – this said by the sex-education teacher who came to her grade 4 class to teach them about “Human growth and development.”

– Postmodern sexual etiquette. I shan’t say much on this, except that she discusses such terms as “hang-ups,” “hook-ups,” and “check-ups.” It’s interesting, in a somewhat disturbing way – for me, anyway, because I haven’t been exposed to this stuff (al-Hamdulillaah!) and didn’t know what it meant.

– On how lack of modesty has led to higher instances of sexual harassment, stalking, rape, and other forms of extreme disrespect/ violence towards women. Simply put, without modesty women feel no safety from men who feel that there is no reason to respect women. An interesting case she cites is how in ‘the old days’ a woman could walk anywhere without fear due to the great respect men had for women; yet nowadays women feel safe only if they have their brothers, boyfriends, or husbands with them – ironic considering that this society places such emphasis in saying that women are “liberated” from “men’s domination”!

“It is odd that a woman today must always have a man around her to feel truly secure in public, whereas before she did not. Which woman was more independant?”

– New perversions.
Ms. Shalit draws an interesting relationship between lack of modesty, and eating disorders andpsychological issues (low self-esteem, etc.).
In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it’s become the new way for a girlto express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself.

Being shy not due to being seen with a man, but being shy to *not* being seen with a man (or rather, many men!) – and the scornful reactions people have to those who insist on being modest, on waiting for the right person, on not being sexually promiscuous.

Part 2: The Forgotten Ideal

– How does modesty benefit us? Emotionally and physically, modesty has MANY benefits. Describing it as “the armor of hope,” Ms. Shalit points out that sexual modesty is a way of preserving a certain innocence, protecting a vulnerability, that is found within every female. She mentions how the most sexually promiscuous women have admitted to feeling bruised and battered emotionally, and often ravaged physically – many have been infected with STD’s due to their activities. Besides which, no matter how hard women try, they often end up forming some sort of emotional attachment or bond with their ‘partner’ even if they insist that “it does’t mean anything,” “it’s just a casual fling,” etc.
Furthermore, male respect for the modest woman protects her from so much of the sexual harassment that many women have to deal with every time they step outside of their homes. This concept of modesty and it’s relationship to men’s behaviour and character is explored and expanded upon later in the book.

The Great Deception: On how people keep trying to insist that there is no difference at all between men and women… when anyone with half a brain knows otherwise. There is a world of difference between men and women: biologically, for one (you’d have to be a total idiot to deny this); and also emtionally and psychologically.
Yet people keep trying to force women to give up that which makes us women: our femininity. And having stripped us of that, what is left for us to do? Become masculine. Ms. Shalit asks bluntly who it is, then, who is more mysoginistic: those who treat women differently due to their feminity, or those who force women to give up their femininity and practically turn into men.

– Is modesty natural? Ms. Shalit poses this question to those who dismiss modest women as “not being comfortable with their bodies.” She comes to the (obvious) conclusion that yes, of course modesty is natural! That’s why, despite the immodesty to be found all around us, women still retain some remnants of this noble quality – and it’s revealed in some of the unlikeliest ways and situations, as the author shows us by pointing out some very interesting examples.
She also lists ‘proofs’ that modesty is natural (with names such as, The Howard Stern Proof, The Windy Day Proof, The “Don’t Say It That Way” Proof, The Young Girl Proof, and more).

– On modesty, being content with womanhood/ femininity, and beauty as a result of modesty. This part was one I really liked. Ms. Shalit discusses how growing up, people around her made it seem that being female was looked upon as an obstacle that needed to be overcome. Here, she talks about fighting this attitude, on being proud of our feminity, and using modesty to reclaim it. She also mentions how modesty can, in fact, increase a woman’s beauty – inner and outer.
Dressing modestly, acting modesty, gives us a sense of dignity and honour that in turn give us an ‘aura’ of beauty that can never be achieved by exposing our bodies to the the whole world.

Male character. On the relationship between lack of modesty and the decline/ demise of male chivalry.
Ms. Shalit stated a particular thesis that I found pretty thought-provoking, and the following quote pretty much sums it up:

“Ultimately, it seems that only men can teach other men how to behave around women, but those men have to be inspired by women in the first place; inspired enough to think that women are worth being courteous to. Perhaps this is the reason sexual harassment legislation has been, in large part, a failure: it essentially involves women telling men how to behave. Women can’t tell men how to behave – they either inspire, or fail to inspire.”

Part 3: The Return

Modesty and the Erotic. Erm, definitely not going into a whole lotta detail here. Basically, she elaborates on modesty increasing a woman’s beauty and allure, and how today’s culture takes away ‘feminine mystique’ and replaces it with a crudeness that is offensive to all those with decent sensibilities.
Funnily enough, she quotes the story of a young Muslim woman who decided to wear the hijaab against her parents’ wishes – but ended up taking it off not due to pressure from those telling her to take it off, but due to the reactions she got from men who found her suddenly more appealing and attractive. Creepy pervs. Actually, that reminds me of something I heard in a lecture, wherein the sheikh said that men’s heightened attraction to that which is covered rather than that which is exposed is also a sign of the fitrah… Anyway, moving on!

Pining for Interference. The author takes note of the extremely sad situation today – that in which parents, or other adults who are supposed to be in a position of authority and watchfulness over youth, turn a blind eye to their promiscuouity and sometimes even encourage it! She states the case of many young girls who wish their parents had bothered to ask what was wrong – but didn’t, and as it happened, there was a great deal that was wrong with them. May Allah protect us all from this, ameen!

Beyond Modernity. In this day and age, it seems that rebellion isn’t about going out and having sex with as many people as possible, but about not going out and having sex at all. Apparently increasing numbers of young people are returning to religion and observing religious rules, which is bewildering to their parents and the people around them.
Isn’t it weird that they consider teens going out and having sex with loads of different people ‘normal’, but then get all concerned when their kids decide to NOT engage in that kind of behaviour?
Ms. Shalit also points out the growing phenomenon of women all over the world return to modest dress – the hijaab for us Muslimahs, and concealing outfits for modest non-Muslim women.

– The future of modesty. Ms. Shalit believes that nowadays so many young women are becoming interested in modesty, and in practicing it, that a social revolution may take place.

And… that’s it!

Now, for my own two cents’ on the subject:

What I found interesting that although Ms. Shalit writes from a Judeo-Christian perspective, practically all that she says about modesty and the influence it has over gender relations is something which Islam has been saying for the last 1400+ years.

For example, when she discusses whether or not modesty is “natural,” the first thing that popped into my head was – fitrah! Hayaa’, commonly translated as modesty or bashfulness, is definitely something from the state of innate fitrah – purity, innocence – that we’re all born into. But just as our natural inclination to Tawheed can be corrupted by our parents (if you’re born into a non-Muslim family), so too is our natural hayaa’ worn down and eroded by the culture we live in.

As well, she quotes Jewish “modesty laws” which strongly echo the Islamic concepts of hijaab and the etiquettes between men and women. For example, women wearing hats; men and women forbidden to touch each other (even hugs and holding of hands are out of the question), ’till after marriage; and more besides.

The only thing I sort of disagreed with Ms. Shalit on was her conclusion, that modesty is making an increasingly huge comeback. Though there may be more individuals coming to the sensible conclusion, I really do think that the culture and the media are just too strong right now in their broadcasting of perverted messages (regarding beauty, sexuality, and oh so much more) for the masses as a whole to come to the realization that all that stuff is bad and that there’s something much better to be had.
What the people need is a break from it all, to breathe something other than the pollution that’s being pumped into their minds – or a distraction, to really force them to think about it all.

The problem, as ever, is that those ‘in control’ literally wield power over the masses: psychological power, which has (so far) succeeded in getting people to think a certain way, buy certain things, live a certain way.
Yes, of course there are exceptions to the rule – many exceptions, and I think that we Muslims are one of those exceptions – but when I walk around in the city I’m so overwhelmed by how the minority is so… minor. For all our strong words, it seems as though we haven’t even made a dent in society, on a great many levels and on a great many issues.

However, I suppose that all we can do is the little that we can do. We may not be able to switch off all the TVs and radios and cover up all the practically pornographic images that are all in our face wherever we turn, but we CAN do our own little bit by wearing the hijaab, behaving with hayaa’, and basically being the best example we can be. It may not change society immediately, but bi ithnillaah we may somehow, directly or indirectly, be the cause of someone stopping to think about it all and making decisions based on their own reasoning, rather than what the media is telling them.

17 / View Comments

17 responses to “A Return to Modesty: Book Review”

  1. Nazia says:

    Assalaamu’alaikum Wa Rahmatullah,

    SubhanAllah, this was a great post! And weirdly enough, it really coincides with my own personal readings. Right now, I’m in the middle of a book called “Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil” by Katherine Bullock. She is a woman who reverted to Islam during her PhD studies, and instead of doing a thesis on political science, she switched it to this topic. Her main purpose and goal in the book is to refute current, Orientalist views on “hijaab” and show a more positive image of hijaab instead. She accomplishes this through numerous techniques (some of which I haven’t finished reading yet), but she brings up NUMEROUS arguments and refutations against the veil by past and present feminists. SubhanAllah, they make hijaab sound like the most foreign and oppresive piece of cloth, and the woman who voluntarily wear it are either ignorant or they are as equally guilty as the men who force it upon us.

    It is so refreshing to hear an opinion and argument that is more in line with the fitrah and natural human decencies.

    wAllahu A’lam.

  2. AnonyMouse says:

    Forgot to add – I think that this book would be great for da’wah! I mean, we have lots of people asking about the hijaab and sometimes telling them our side of the story isn’t always convincing – and so I think that giving them this book to read would be cool in that they’d realize that even other non-Muslims agree with the basic principles of hijaab!

  3. Asalaamu alaikum. I’ve been meaning for months to write about “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy, which touches on similar themes to “Return to Modesty.” Levy writes about the “raunch culture” and the concept of women trying to achieve “equality” (or a semblance thereof) by making sexual objects of themselves. It’s an interesting book and I really do plan one day to write about it…

  4. SrAnonymous says:

    Just today I saw a woman in black outfit and stilettos wearing a bright yellow jacket, wow I initially thought, this woman must be really confident for daring to dress in such bold colours.
    Then I thought wait what about me? I dare to look different everyday in my khimar and abayah. No matter how westernised my abayah could appear, my khimar (headscsarf) will not let me blend in.
    So move over yellow jacket, I got greater guts than you! Quite a modesty paradox!

  5. mcpagal says:

    sounds good – i’ll have to remember to read this after exams iA!

    interestingly, people seem to appreciate girls that cover – my sister once had a lady come up to her and say how much she respected her for the way she dressed (she was wearing a long skirt, a top and a headscarf). So on some level it’s still in people’s nature.

  6. nice, i was waiting for your review thing on this book, alhamdulilah… I was planning on doing a talk on the concept of hayaa` in Islam, and I think this book may actually be of some help, jazaakillah khaiyran.

  7. molly says:

    Hi, Mouse, I was the one who recommended that book to you! :)

  8. AnonyMouse says:

    Indeed you did! :D
    BTW, I just found out that Ms. Shalit wrote another book, too… “Girls Gone Mild.” It’s next on my list of books-to-borrow!

  9. II says:

    Sounds good! Thanks for the review =)

  10. aarij says:

    Excellent post (even though its quite old).

    While I was reading the post, this is exactly what I was thinking:

    “I think that this book would be great for da’wah! I mean, we have lots of people asking about the hijaab and sometimes telling them our side of the story isn’t always convincing – and so I think that giving them this book to read would be cool in that they’d realize that even other non-Muslims agree with the basic principles of hijaab!”

    But how does one go about giving out books of this sort? I mean, the goal of the dawah is to convey the message of Islam in totality without altering it, but I think giving someone this type of book might hinder the dawah efforts.

    Reminds me of Sh. Yasir who (in his Male Bias lecture) was mentioning the story of the person who he used to carpool with. He exhausted his efforts into showing that hijab = good, but that didn’t lead the person to Islam, it just made him realize that hijab = good!

    I think, as far as dawah goes, this is something that we can perhaps selectively quote in dialogues and even in presentations to non-Muslims if and when the topic of hijab comes up.

    Excellent post nonetheless, Jazakillah khair.

  11. Musafir says:

    Assalamu alaikum,

    MASHALLAH

    Few things can compare to the joys of reading. I believe it is of tantamount importance that the Muslims (especially the youth)
    spend time reading literature of a variety of genres.

    I recently read about three fourths of this book at my local library. Needless to say, it was definitely an interesting read.

    I have to disagree with the author in one respect, and that is with regards to the trend of women overtly expressing their
    natural inclination towards modesty. I believe, I this is something that is on the rise particularly in the West where Muslim women
    seem to be inclining more and more toward this beautiful and complete deen.

    Yes it the numbers might be minimal when compared to the masses that aren’t, however it is a trend in the positive and there numbers
    are only growing.

    Anyway, Im in a rush so I apologies for the many grammatical and clarity errors.

    Baraq Al Feeq

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