Modesty Under Persecution

By July 14, 20109 Comments

I never thought I would see the day when modesty, of all things, was the target of religious persecution. Well that day has come. In case you haven’t been following this story, France is in the process of passing a law that would forbid Muslim women from wearing a burqa, which covers the face. The ban was just approved by the lower house of parliament by a HUGE majority (335 to 1). According to an article on CNN, the penalty for violating this law could be a fine of 150 euros, although forcing a women to wear a veil could be punishable by a year in prison or 15,000 euros (the equivalent of about $19,000).

Why such a harsh punishment? According to the French government, the wearing of Muslim veils is “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil,” adding, “this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place.”

And the government is clearly a reflection of the people. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the French people support the ban by a margin of more than four to one, with around 82% in favor and only 17% opposed.

Let me be clear. I do NOT support the forcing of women to cover their faces, hair, wrists, etc. as a form of oppression or coerced modesty. I fully and totally oppose such a practice. But having said that, I do not support this ban. In fact I whole-heartedly oppose it, and let me tell you why. This law is nothing other than the symptom of a Western culture for whom the concept of modesty has become completely incomprehensible.

Several years ago I spent some time in Indonesia helping to rebuild after the tsunami, and during that time I got to know a number of teenage girls there. Indonesia is a Muslim country and the area in which I was working was particularly conservative, so the women wore veils over their hair at all times. In such extreme heat, I asked the girls if they ever wished they could remove the veil. It would certainly be much cooler without it! In response to my question they looked at me with shocked faces and said, “Oh no! To wear the veil is much more beautiful!”

To these women, the idea of saving their most prized features for their husband was a beautiful act. It was something they chose to do. And for many Muslim women today, that is also the case. Before meeting these young ladies, I used to see women wearing burqas and feel sad for them, thinking how oppressed they must be. And for some Muslim women, that is the case. But not all. Some delight to wear it. Though we cannot visibly discern the difference between those doing it for legalistic reasons and those doing it out of a sincere desire to be modest, the difference is certainly there. And the French just steamrolled right over it.

In fighting religious oppression, France has become the oppressor. Yet as I mentioned above, France reflects a larger cultural tide in which modesty is a totally foreign concept. It is now considered a form of empowerment to show as much of your body as possible, which means that anyone who chooses not to expose themselves must be oppressed, either overtly or because of some weird religious hang-ups. Our culture no longer treasures modesty as a kind of beauty unto itself.

What does that mean for us here in the States? Well it means that as much as I disagree with France’s ban, the cultural shift also presents us with an opportunity. Modesty is truly becoming a means to set ourselves apart. The Bible reminds us that we are not the first culture to have this opportunity–Paul urged women to cover their heads in Corinth as a means for setting themselves apart from the culture then. Today we have a similar occasion, and it is one we should seize with zeal.

So often we think of modesty in terms of rules and “what can I get away with,” but the law in France reminds us that modesty is about a clash in worldviews. We are strangers in a foreign land that has completely different priorities from us. The world does not understand sexual purity or saving yourself for marriage, nor does it understand treating your body as a temple or reflecting God’s holiness with your life. Modesty may invite persecution, but hopefully it will also invite conversation. The question is, do you dress in a way that differentiates you from the world? That is a question I am very much challenged by.


  • Central Asian Friend says:

    I’m a bit ambivalent about France’s actions here. On the one hand, this seems pretty ineffective. Are they really hoping to end the oppression that Islam places on women? This certainly isn’t the way to do it.

    One the other hand, the covering of the face is a burden of “modesty” that even Islam does not require. Yes, many women choose to cover their faces, but I have never met one who treasured this. There seems to be a fundamental difference between covering your head and covering your face–the one protects modesty; the other eliminates personality.

  • Sharon says:

    Yeah, I mean I certainly think covering your face is a little extreme, but does that mean it should be outlawed? I don’t think so.

    And you’re right–France is attacking the wrong thing. In an attempt to protect women from oppression, they are eliminating one more area of their right to choose, while doing nothing to make their marriages better and safer.

  • Have you read any of Wendy Shalit’s books on modesty? They are excellent. She also has a blog:

  • Ann Washburn says:

    This was an excellent post! Thank you for writing this! I am a Christian woman who wears a Muslim style head scarf because it provides more coverage than any Christian style head scarf. I dress modestly as well. Unfortunately, in today’s society, it is mostly the Muslims who admire my showing of modesty than Christians or others. A sad commentary on today’s morals, that!

  • Celia says:

    I’m a French Christian and I really like your blog. I’d just like to say I don’t think that banning the burqa can be classified as “persecuting modesty”, because I’m not sure it counts as “modesty”, at least not in a Christian sense.
    The burqa is a covering that hides not only your hair and your figure, but also your face and your eyes. It is something that hides your personality, your expressions, your smiles, and isolates you from the world around you. It limits the interaction you can have with people. That is not what the Bible intends to promote. The Bible does not aim to cut off women from the rest of society, in the name of saving them for their husbands.
    Modesty is about not being sexually provocative, and not attracting attention to yourself, but in France, as in most of the world, that kind of outfit does attract attention.

  • Sharon says:

    Celia, thanks for your thoughts! It’s wonderful to hear a perspective from someone “in the thick of it.”

    I think you’re absolutely right that the burqa does not count as modesty in the Christian sense. It certainly does hide your personality and the God-given beauty that is part of womanhood. What concerns me, however, is that this is a matter of religious conscience. As a Christian I do NOT believe that women need to cover themselves so entirely, but I am hesitant to allow the law to come between a woman and her personal convictions about modesty. Of course there are always limits to how far a person can take their personal convictions, especially when they are dangerous or oppressive, but in this case the French government seems to be going way too far.

    I would be interested to hear more of your thoughts, or the thoughts of your fellow Christians in France!

  • Celia says:

    Sorry, the next installment:)!
    I have been told that the original command in the Koran is for women to cover their bosoms, ie not sport a cleavage, which seems fairly sensible. I think the fact that people have taken that command and converted it to having women living in tents is a testimony to human legalism. If it is good to cover some parts of the body, then the more you cover the more modest you are. It’s a kind of religious exploit, and those who perform it are particularly admired, even when they are not imitated.
    I would argue that that kind of attitude actually puts outsiders off modesty, and so Christians should steer clear of this. The average non-believer can spot modesty when they see it, trust me! And in France, people do have the concept of modesty. It may not be well-known to outsiders, but one of the key concepts in the French way of dressing is restraint. If you come to France with a flashy wardrobe or micro-skirts, they will sniff at you behing your back, and possibly to your face.
    Having said this, the issue of whether the Government should legislate against particular outfits is a difficult one. We have laws against appearing naked in public, which I think are reasonable. I don’t think (and this is a culturally French point of view) that the Government should keep out of legislating on issues simply because they are religious. So for instance, I think that when a Baptist missionary’s lobbying led to the banning of the religious practice of suttee _ widow suicide _ in India, this was an appropriate humanitarian measure taken by the British, not an unjustifiable infringement of the women and their communities’s religious freedom. I think it is secular governments’ God-given responsibility to ensure that common-sense prevails. I think the burqa does harm the women that wear it and their communities, but obviously not nearly so drastically, and therefore a law is less urgent.
    I think the main downside to this law is that it gives the impression that Muslims are being stigmatized. And given that so few women in France currently wear a burqa, I think the feelings of Muslims are probably more important than action on the burqa. The truth is, this law has been touted more as a way of reassuring nationalist voters that the President still looks out for their issues, rather than to help women. And last time it was being discussed, the expectation was that the Constitutional Court would strike it down as being an infringement on religious freedom. This may yet happen.
    That being said, I have heard some male Muslim colleagues at work mutter about the law, because they feel picked on. I haven’t heard a squeak about it from the women, and I reckon if someone tried to make them wear a burqa, they would scream blue murder.
    I don’t think banning the burqa is modesty under persecution. It may not be right to legislate against religious pride, ethnic practices, or extreme life-choices. Christians may have a case for opposing this law on grounds of individual freedom, but not because they feel that one of their own values is being threatened. We should distance ourselves from that view of modesty, because that is not what we mean by it. This is just the kind of thing that puts non-Christian French people off Evangelical Christianity.
    That being said, I really like your other posts :)!

  • Celia says:

    Thanks Sharon for your reply! I was busy typing when you posted it, so what has come before was not a reply to your reply (is this getting complicated?).
    I’m not sure what the context of this law is. I’d say it’s about learning to live together. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, with a majority being uneducated and living in deprived areas (a sizeable minority are educated professionals, such as my colleagues, but this law is not about them). The issue is what goes on in the deprived areas.
    Depending on where we are in the electoral cycle, the media is full of stories of “ghetto” boys putting teenage girls in two categories, sluts (who are sometimes gang-raped), and good girls, who follow Islamic standards of modesty. If you wear a skirt (any skirt, I don’t mean a short one), you are signalling that you are sexually available and they may either attempt to take you up on the offer, or insult you. This leads to some girl wearing Islamic dress to avoid being harassed.
    The Government’s reaction to this has been about 15 years of guidelines and then legislation leading to a ban on Islamic headscarves in schools. Removing the option of Islamic standards of modesty is meant to lower the standard of modesty that girls have to reach in order to be left alone. So on one level it is about protecting some women’s liberty by reducing the liberty of other women.
    And this exposes the weakness of liberalism as a political philosophy. In theory, the law allows each woman to make her own sartorial judgments. However, if you live in an area where the pressure of the group is very strong, then some options are just too risky. Now, I don’t know how bad things truly are in France’s “ghettoes”. These reports come and go in cycles.
    But I’d say the purpose of these laws is to draw a line in the sand to say that some Islamic practices will not be legal in France, because they threaten the liberty and dignity of women. The issue comes up because we now live at close quarters. In my office, there are 12 of us, including 5 “Muslims”. Their way of life has quite a big influence on my way of life: so far it’s been mostly good. I have heard that in the US communities can exist side by side without mixing. But here, that is anathema: the French ideal is that we all do things together, therefore it makes things tense when contradictory ways of doing things start competing in the same space.
    This tension is actually felt throughout Europe, and it is a headache for policy-makers. It also means that an awful lot of political decisions that affect Christians are taken primarily because of their suspected effect on Muslims. The most common reason given for refusing a meeting room to Christians on campus is that if they give one to the Christians they would have to give one to the Muslims and they don’t want to do that. Basically, it’s a fear of the Muslim mob. I’d say it’s the Paul in Ephesus effect: it’s much easier to ask a single, calm, Christian to leave somewhere they have the right to be, than to stand up to a mob that objects to said Christian’s presence. Paul did move on when asked.
    Now, it’s quite serious to say that Muslims would behave like a mob. That’s quite a slur on their character, and I think civic leaders should take the chance that they would behave reasonably, and just call in the police if they don’t (actually, they’re not allowed to intervene on campus _ so that is a headache!). But the context of this law is a fear that Muslim extremists will threaten people who don’t live according to their customs.
    I didn’t vote for the government we have. But they were elected by a majority of my fellow-citizens, and so they have to address this kind of issue. They chose to nip it in the bud, rather than wait to see if it would grow into a major problem. It’s one approach. I really don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. I don’t live in a ghetto.

  • Sharon says:

    Wow that is certainly a lot of food for thought! You have very astutely raised the important distinction between modesty and religious freedom–I’m still unresolved as to how it plays out in this particular situation, but it’s an important distinction to remember. That’s also very interesting to hear more about French culture and the many dynamics in play. Thanks for all your insightful thoughts!

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