This semester, I chose to work on a project about modesty. It started out dealing with modesty in veiled cultures, but as I continued to learn, I realized more and more similarities between modesty in those cultures, and modesty in our own.

The ultimate result of this project was to be able to participate in a talk-back panel about veiled cultures and the concept of modesty after the UMBC theatre department production of Gum by Karen Hartman (synopsis found here). This play tells the story of a woman growing up in a fictional country in which modesty and cleanliness are a women’s most favorable attributes. It is also a country that practices female circumcision. Interestingly, the panel was composed not to talk about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), but to talk about modesty in veiled cultures. Here at UMBC, we do not have any experts in the field of FGM or the reasons it is practiced, so we gathered experts on Middle-Eastern cultures, Islam, Judaism, and various other fields in feminism, along with several students. When the discussion started though, it was clear that there would be no way for the panel to stay on topic. The audience had just seen a play in which a young woman dies a horrible bloody death from FGM and were thoroughly unsatisfied with talking about modesty. Despite the panel’s insistence that we did not research FGM or its practicing, the audience discussed the universal opinion that FGM was a horrible practice that needs to be stopped. This discussion was, in fact useful in the end, i think, because several people in the audience were convinced that it is the USA’s job to go into these cultures and stop them from circumcising their girls. And while we can all agree that FGM is a horrible practice that should not be condoned, the panel illuminated the implications of a third party going into a culture and taking away what many believe to be a rite of passage. Though the panel was unsuccessful in convincing a few members of the audience, the discussion was interesting and brought up some material that I personally had never thought of before.

(Left: Alex Reaves, Right: Hana Grothe)

Though this discussion did not go as planned, I believe that my activist project overall was a personal success. Going into this endeavor, I had never before had a great deal of interest in the concept of modesty because it didn’t directly apply to me. I never really considered the implications of pushing modesty on girls from a young age. In examining it, however, I realized that telling girls things like “modest is hottest” and telling them to cover up their bodies is drastically more dangerous that I originally thought. When someone tells a girl to be modest, essentially, they are telling that girl to hide her body. If you think about the fact that a girl has grown up her whole life being told that modesty is a “virtue”, you realize that in actuality, this girl has been told that her body is something shameful, sinful, and unwanted for her entire life. This causes low self-esteem and teaches girls that they should hide other aspects of themselves such as their intelligence or opinion. If one asks the reason of why modesty is practiced, one is told that a women’s body distracts the boys, is unprofessional, is attention-seeking, etc… This idea, though widely accepted, is the driving force behind victim blaming and rape culture. This idea teaches that men cannot control themselves around scantily-clad women and therefore it is a woman’s responsibility to keep men focused by covering up. Thus if a woman is raped, this idea teaches that she wasn’t being modest enough, so the man couldn’t control himself. This concept is universally offensive in that it suggests the victim is the cause of rape, men are incapable of self-control, all women want the attention of men, and all men are attracted to women. It is interesting that men are not held to a similar standard of modesty, because there are men who are attracted to other men. A man is allowed to walk along the beach wearing only a pair of shorts, leaving gay men no protection from the horrible temptation that is the human body. In all my research, countless more reasons have come up about the problematic implications of modesty, yet it is still accepted by the majority of the world in one way or another. I consider my project a success because if I educated no one else, at least I educated myself. This has allowed me to bring up this topic in many conversations with friends, and has allowed me to be able to spot and confront problematic ideas having to do with modesty in daily life.

Though the talk-back panel did not really discuss what it set out to, I think it was an interesting and important discussion. Next time, however, I would not conduct a talk-back on modesty after a play with so much emotional ties against a topic like FGM. The audience was so wound up about the ending of the play, they were unable to recognize modesty as a problem that needed to be discussed. Overall, I think this has been an enriching experience for me and I am excited to conduct more activist projects and even random acts of feminism in my daily life.

-Benjamin Nabinger