Modesty Objectifies Women Says Nude Egyptian

Posed in nothing but sheer black polkadot stockings, red patent leather shoes and a red hair clip, Egyptian blogger, Aliaa Mahdy struck a blow to the objectification of women.

Strange. We usually hear that nudity objectifies.

Nudity and modesty don’t mean anything in themselves. The question is: what are they creating in any particular situation?

And Mahdy believes that strict modesty expectations in Egypt help to create “a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman.”

But how could modesty objectify? Consider the most extreme example:

Women who live in Taliban-controlled provinces of Afghanistan are expected to cover themselves head to toe with mesh across their eyes. There, a woman’s ankle is thought incredibly sexual, as are her arms and face and eyes and hair. Every part of her body becomes sexualized through extreme modesty.

But the entire body needn’t be covered for this surprising effect to arise. One young Christian woman found that less radical modesty objectified her, too:

Modesty taught me that what I looked like was what mattered most of all. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. Not what I was capable of doing.

Modesty made me objectify myself. I was so aware of my own potential desirability at all times that I lost all other ways of defining myself.

Supposedly women should be modest to protect themselves from rape or sexual harassment. Yet “immodest dress” does not force men to rape. And sexual-harassment runs rampant in places where women are fully covered.

Rebecca Chiao tracks sexual harassment and assault in Egypt where she says both are ubiquitous, “Every time you walk out of the house, you are under attack – physically and verbally,” she says. “The reports we get are graphic and angry.”

And as reported in The Guardian:

In a 2008 survey, 83% of women reported having been sexually harassed. Almost three-quarters of Egyptian women who said they had been harassed were veiled and 98% of foreigners said they had been intimidated or groped.

Sexual harassment is a huge problem in Afghanistan too, a place where women couldn’t be more covered. Last July Afghan women marched against the widespread harassment women face there. Noorjahan Akbar, who organized the protest said:

Every woman I know, whether she wears a burqa or simply dresses conservatively, has told me stories of being harassed in Afghanistan. The harassment ranges from comments on appearance to groping and pushing. Even my mother, who is a 40-plus teacher always dressed in her school uniform, arrives home upset almost every day because of the disgusting comments she receives.

These women are sexually harassed despite modesty. But then, the puritanical focus seems to actually define women primarily as sexual beings.

Meanwhile, when women work to broaden themselves, punishment may be administered via a convenient – and hypocritical – appeal to the honor of virginity which modesty supposedly guards.

At one point Egypt’s military sought to suppress women’s voices and power by stripping activists of their clothing and performing “virginity tests” by which two fingers were inserted into their vaginas. Sexual assault parading as a test of “honor”! Yet this brutality was really a tactic to humiliate and silence, observed Mona Eltahawy of The Guardian.

Women journalists are clear models of empowerment so it’s no surprise that they are under attack. So much so that Reporters Sans Frontieres recommended media stop sending female journalists to cover Egypt after two high profile sexual assaults.

No wonder nudity and sexuality arise as political protest in this atmosphere. Eltahawy of The Guardian continues:

When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance. 

Modesty isn’t itself a problem. Many women choose modesty for reasons they find meaningful and significant. Modesty becomes a problem when an obsessive focus on women as sex lies behind it.

Reposted on Daily Kos (Spotlight)

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 7, 2011, in feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. This article pin points the exact problem that many woman face in countries with clothing “rules”. The concept that the more a woman covers herself the more she will be harassed goes hand in hand with the idea that you always want what you cannot have. By allowing women to be objectified,covered and controlled the message is being sent that it is appropriate to react in any manor the male seems fit for his mood, and without the ability for women to fight against harassment makes it all that more exciting. Sexual harassment does not disappear in cultures where women are allowed to dress any way they please however it does demand for it to be more subtle, making it so that a woman can walk home without noticing harassment and I think that is a very big deal when it comes to being safe.

  2. I have long been aware that on European beaches and in tropical jungles – women do not appear to suffer more rape and fondling than they do elsewhere. Hiding (concealing from view) is what seems to excite – imagination is greater than reality. Over a hundred years ago, Phoenix passed an anti-obscenity ordinance and a local madam announced that she would defy that ordinance. The next day – the local newspaper reported that she had walked the length of the main street with her skirt slit nearly to the knee. Today, I am not particularly excited at the sight of a woman’s knee, elbow, wrist, etc. – because I have seen so many of various shapes and sizes.

  3. I feel sorry for the women in this culture. I couldn’t imagine living in this society. Men shouldn’t feel like they have to control their women. All women should be able to make their own choices. A woman is supposed to feel beautiful,and wanted which is very different from sexually assulting them, they need to get it together.

  4. I think the way someone dresses really affects how others perceive him or her. In certain cultures, women have to cover themselves and let little to zero skin or parts of their body be visible as possible. When a woman has to cover herself like that, she has no control or freedom on how she dresses. Again, it seems like the society, mostly men, incessantly tries to control women and put them in their places. By making a woman cover so much of herself, it shows how she is valued in their society and that her worth is inferior to that of men.

  5. I think that it is very unfair for women in Afghanistan to have no freedom in the way of dressing and to have no freedom in their daily lives. I think that the culture of women covering the body is not a negative thing. Since it is believed that the body is sexual and may arouse men’s sexual desire. However, the culture of men viewing women only as sex objects and ignoring their responsibility to respect others should not be kept. As women have given up their freedom in dressing, men should give up their freedom of raping and sexually assaulting. I think it is serious gender inequality which is not acceptable and is exploiting women’s rights.

    • Of course, “it is believed that the body is sexual” is what’s CREATED by all the focus on modesty/covering. In places where women walk around nearly nude, the body is not sexually objectified.

  6. Catherine Knipe

    These societies are dominated by male-ruled, misogynist patriarchs that I believe in their hearts fear the power women have (e.g., ability to give birth / life), so they create rules to disempower them (burqas, etc.). The more women can organize and keep their voices heard in societies like Egypt that are undergoing social revolution the better chance there will be of true equality there of the sexes.

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