A Call to Womanhood: Behind the Veil

Over the next year I will write a series of essays under the title of, A Call to Womanhood. Ruminations on the simple and complex. Thoughts about modesty, sex, gender roles, learning to drive in high heels and making our voices heard. Read the first post here.

I hope you join the discussion. I hope this becomes a place of further enlightenment. You all have so much to teach me. Today we continue our dialogue on modesty.

For better or worse, Facebook is an extremely efficient cultural barometer. You can take the pulse of the people by the stories they decide to share. My friends tab is filled with individuals from most backgrounds, political convictions and creeds. The only belief systems that seem to be absent from the makeup of my social media contacts are those begun and maintained by hate. Consequently, I get a feel for what is important to a cross section of society simply by monitoring the statements and articles that pop up on my news feed.

I am not going to lie, there are more than a few days when the screen fills with angry comments absent of constructive insight or the triviality and tragedy of honey boo boo gifs. But the things that matter generally appear again and again, peeking through the rubbish. Quietly (or not so quietly) trying to make a statement on the behalf of the person on the other side of a computer screen,  a door, a town, a country away. The issues have been varied but many of them deal directly with the state of women. Career mothers, homemakers, birth policies, contraception, maternity leave, women in the military and abortion all make regular appearances. And modesty. My goodness, modesty. That seemingly humble word with the power to build up and tear down. Others' thoughts on modesty have become my constant companions.

Many of them have been enlightening. Some have judged or assumed judgment of others. They have been written by men that love women and men that hate women through a fog of paternalistic know-better. They have been written by women that love women and women that hate women that are not like them. They have yelled and screamed and whispered and kicked down doors that were already opened. They have been less than they should be and, at other times, just exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. Nearly all have ended with the same pronouncement, even when the conclusion was less than conclusive,

This. This is how it is.

And every time I reach that end, I sit back unsatisfied. It happens even with the articles that sang a bit with truth, shouted a lot with insight. When I get to the inevitable, This. This is how it is. I think, maybe for you, but not for me.

What little do I know about modesty?

There is nothing inherently or extrinsically evil about a woman’s body. It is, in fact, beautiful. Women are not temptresses setting out to pollute a pure man’s mind. By stepping out the door, women are “setting out” to do anything, except to, you know, live their lives. Men, can I share something with you? Should they occur, there is nothing wrong with sexual thoughts. They are a symptom of mortality. It is what you do with them (or don’t do with them) that matters. Sometimes they should be entertained, sometimes they should not. Men should not feel alone in this exercise in restraint. Women are sexual creatures, too. And that is alright. It is actually pretty freaking fantastic. Restraint here is not a bad word. It is the ability, the blessing, the joy of discarding the good for the better.

Women should not dress as a reaction to men. We are worth more than that. We are more complete than that. We do not have to define ourselves in reactions. Women, however, do not live in a vacuum. The way we dress will impact the way we are perceived. A low cut dress will mean that those that wish to look down low cut dresses will be able to do so. We need to stop pretending that somehow cause and effect stops happening in the small spaces around our breasts and bottoms. Acknowledge that and then move on.

The fact is that a large segment of men will make sexual objects of women no matter how they cover themselves. Sometimes the more layers, the more extreme the sexualization. That increased sexualization leads to acceptance and expectation of sexual violence. Do the layers actually lead to more crime? Of course not. Rather societies where extreme modesty is used as a social control are often beset with hostility towards women. Those misogynistic sentiments are most coarsely and commonly expressed with assault. Women who are not as outwardly modest as their fellow sisters are often the ones targeted. However, the tragedy of the child bride and condoned rapes occur regularly. Whether naked in the street or covered head to toe, women are never asking for it and they are never to blame.

Men are not exempt from the demands or privileges of modesty. Their lack of breast tissue does not mean that they can never be immodest.

Women are far harder on our gender than the majority of men. We are each other’s judge and jury. The first to cast stones, the first to leave behind, the first to betray. Women are the ones that snicker about the length of a girl’s skirt or mock the woman in a baggy t-shirt. Too modest, not modest enough. It doesn’t really matter, as long as we can feel superior.  Most men are too busy being men to truly care. Women, on the other hand, make the time to tear down other women. We love standing atop mountains of trivial details and hasty judgments, looking down on the sisters we should run to with open arms.

Sisters, dear sisters, can I now please make a request? Can we begin to comprehend that women do not need to be understood through YOUR concept of modesty? All that matters is that she is. That you are.  We all have the same eternal value. Short skirts and covered shoulders, be damned.

There is no line that makes you modest. It varies from culture to culture, age to age and moment to moment.  Modesty is not a matter of inches, it is a matter of intent. As a woman I have found both empowerment in covering myself and empowerment in revealing myself. It has been the context and my control of the situation that mattered. I will not pretend that complexity does not exist merely for the ease of making a point.

The concept of modesty is not something I have ever been able to grasp squarely in my hand, it has never been something I could hold up while shouting, This! This is how it is!

It is too labyrinthine, too changeful, too incomplete.

So why then am I, according to my personal definition, modest?

Because I believe that it is a thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts. For me, modesty is an imperfect symbol of a perfect thing. It is our flawed mortal attempt to convey perfect immortal worth. In Solomon’s Temple, a veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle. The Israelites understood that the veil separated them from the very presence of God. Only the high priest could pass through that veil and even then only on the Day of Atonement. It was on that day that he offered the blood of sacrifice. The veil had nothing to do with shame. It also had very little to do with protection, why would God need to be protected from men? It had everything to do with sacredness and the eternal value of the knowledge and experience represented by what lay behind it. Hugh Nibley said, "the veil of the temple (was) the barrier between ourselves and both the hidden mysteries of the temple and the boundless expanses of cosmic space beyond.”

Women have worn veils in one society or another since antiquity. In most cultures the veils developed meanings associated with class and property. There are historians that argue face veiling did not begin as a patriarchal construct. Rather, as Shirley S. Ricks wrote, it was a physical way to represent “her holiness … and purity. What is holiest among us—the most sacred precincts of the tabernacle or temple, and women—is protected with veils.” The theory is that veil usage became perverted from its original purpose over time. As it was restricted and required, it lost its ability to empower.

Lest you think I am advocating a wholesale return to veiling (which I most wholeheartedly am not) let us to turn to a man (What? A man!) who put the concept in slightly more modern terms. Manis Freidman said, “It's like the old question, ‘Do you lock your house to keep people out, or to protect what's inside?’ Should a person act modestly and dress modestly in order to prevent intrusion from the outside, undesirable things from happening, or to preserve and maintain what is inside: the delicate and sensitive ability to have and maintain an intimate relationship.”

I think it is important to note that Friedman understands that modesty is an action more than it is a sartorial choice. Modesty in dress is merely the smaller, symbolic part of the equation.

I am modest because as a daughter of God, I am of infinite worth.  For me, it is a declaration that what lies within me is sacred. There is one man allowed behind the veil of modesty. He is greeted by hidden mysteries and the boundless expanses of cosmic space beyond. And I am not just talking about sex, although there is that. I am talking about the refined intimacy that comes from restraint and choice and the willingness to sacrifice for one another. I am talking about a communion of souls.

I am modest because I want my daughters to acknowledge that while they have nothing to hide, they also have nothing they must give away.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am modest because I think I deserve to be.

I guess modesty isn't really that modest, after all.