The Modesty Elephant – Values for a Secular Culture.

As “Islamist” issues of every kind rumble on, I have often found myself pointing out that an elephant in the room is “modesty”. It makes me priggish to even mention it. Of course, when cultural taboos are enforced by patriarchal tradition, women come off worst in the more extreme interpretations of how much exposed flesh is considered inappropriate. But it’s not just women and it’s not just concerned with the distraction of sexual attraction. It’s all of us and it’s about bodily functions and personal body care generally.

Whatever the current level of cultural tolerance of exposed flesh, and whatever the state of evolution of cultural norms, it’s always going to be non-zero and it’s always going to be context dependent.

Setting precisely objective enforceable and quantifiable norms as laws and bans is also never going to be the solution to differences, except as temporary and pragmatic political statements. Appropriateness is about values; values shared culturally.

In the case of the Burka / Burkini total cover-up extremes, and the lesser variations on veils and head-scarves, and beyond the specifically Islamic cultural variations, there are:

  • Modesty per se.
  • Patriarchal domination of women’s freedoms.
  • Non-secular signalling – wearing and display of overtly religious symbols in secular contexts generally.
  • As well as the myriad of contextual variations; from lard-arsed chavs and gentlemen of a certain age wearing leggings and cycling shorts in public to olympic competitors in all manner of skimpy and skin-tight costumes. Too much information, about covers it. Conversely, this can’t be the first time I’ve admitted that I find the eyes-only forms of veil can be very alluring – a little information can carry a lot of meaning.

However, too far from “the norm” implies either a specific context or a specific statement being made, even if the statement is only one of careless ignorance. Freedom of expression is not absolute. Freedom of choice is never entirely free of cultural expectations.

The recent French burkini ban enforcement on the beach in Nice shows how easily the law is made an ass by inappropriate bans. Interesting that the meme erupting from that outrage involves many surfing nuns, Victorian bathing costumes and other historical fascist skirt-length-measurers.

Between repression and gay abandon, there is a wide spectrum of freedom and respect. Norms evolve with culture, and culture is not simply religious. In fact many religious taboos and norms are themselves appropriated conservatively from their pre-existing cultural surreoundings. For those lifestyles involving outdoor toil in hot and/or dusty conditions, near-total cover-up is common for both sexes. For women in particular covering up to avoid leathery tanned skin is a fashion motive first, driven by sexual attraction, and class aspirations. Fashions and what makes people attractive change with time and culture, but skin cancer has become a more permanent concern. What was a traditional veil in one culture has evolved into “slip, slap, slop” marketing in another. Most traditions arise from practicalities before dogmatic and extreme adoptions.

I guess this is really just a conversation starter. But the inescapable element for me is that the focus must be on the balance between the cultural acceptance of shared values and the tolerance of difference from the norm. Jurisdictions need boundaries, not for enforcment of formal bans and laws, but for governance of evolving cultural norms. Interventions across borders – between jurisdictions and their cultures – can be driven by basic human rights, but not by a wishful single level-playing field in terms of cultural norms. Even suggesting that some things are “normal” can be a red-rag to the PC-bulls out there. One of the most unsettling displays of “abnormality” I experienced was a pair of Hassidic Jews on a plane – overtly fashioned as such to start with – going through elaborate prayer rituals taking up aisle and exit space, complete with various props. Am I allowed to mention they were overweight, sweaty and smelly too? All I could think was, is it really necessary guys, that you subject us all to this. Does that make me an anti-semite?

For the burkini ban fiasco, the underlying “modesty” and “freedom” motives are massively coloured by the secular political messaging on all sides. Values for a secular culture.

The reason it’s an elephant in the room is not so much because Islamic culture – and secular extremist reaction to it – has got it wrong, but because secular culture hasn’t necessarily got the modesty-freedom balance right anyway. The politically polarised extremes ignore the elephant.


[Post Note: Modelling with modesty? and June 2017 – Modest fashions.

Post Note : piece from Elizabeth Oldfield on “extreme secularism”.]

[Post Note : Ten year old story in general terms, religious headgear for police officers, but in recent days, Canadian and Scottish forces adopting Hijab option for female officers. Understandable “community policing” incentive, but blurring official secularity of state, and attracting “Sharia police” jibes. See also the later more extreme Niqab / Burka example below!]

[Post Note – and Maajid Nawaz clear as usual on the middle-ground in his piece for The Daily Beast. Recognising the spectrum across the middle-ground means we can stop ignoring the reality of the underlying issues. When we drain the swamp we notice the elephants.]

[Post Note – and Anne-Marie raises one I’ve raised before on this modesty issue, in her case to make a political point against London’s Muslim mayor, but the underlying issue is clear here:

It’s about balance, Anne-Marie.]

[Post Note – and as I said …

…. it’s not all about sexual distraction either.]

[And Matt …

… nails it.]

[And man! I’d forgotten this one:

Gross “sexualisation” of sporting attire.]

[And on the other “accomodating” side of the argument:

As Gina Khan says, who on earth thought that was a good idea?]

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