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Faith and modesty: Does it unify or divide us?

SALT LAKE CITY — The dress code at St. Joseph Catholic High School is simple: dress pants or shorts with a white shirt. Girls have the option of wearing a plaid skirt or skirt-short combination.

Shirts must be buttoned and not show the stomach, clothes kept in good repair and not too baggy, skirts and shorts no shorter than three inches above the knee. The reason officials give for the rules is similarly simple.

“I think anyone with a school uniform would say that one of the best things about a uniform is that it allows for a person’s true self to shine,” said Patrick Lambert, principal at St. Joseph. “It kind of levels the playing field in a lot of ways. … That would mirror exactly what the Catholic Church would say as well.”

While some see modesty as a reflection of their relationship with God and as a way to respect themselves and those around them, others see principles of modesty as outdated and stifling individuality. At the heart of it is the relationship between men and women and how faith informs the standards of both.

"On the one hand, dress can be a tool for inequality and can be a tool to kind of stratify and divide, and on the other hand that very same thing — namely, religious dress — can be a tool to unify and to create equality," said Ravi Gupta, director of religious studies in the history department at Utah State University.

Teachings and practice

In September, some Bingham High students walked out of school to protest a dress code enforced during their Homecoming dance. A few days earlier, some were turned away or questioned during the dance because officials said their clothes did not meet school standards.

Some students and parents said administrators shamed and embarrassed the girls and that the modesty rules unfairly targeted girls.

But others see value in such standards.

“If you’re comfortable with yourself and you know that you’re portraying yourself the way you want others to perceive you, then you’ll definitely feel more comfortable,” said Amanda Higgs, a senior at St. Joseph Catholic High School.

“Historically speaking, I think across the board religious traditions have, in their history, focused more on women’s dress,” Gupta said, emphasizing that the statement was a generalization. "Even if the specific texts or the scriptures spell out guidelines in general for both men and women, often in practice this reflects more on women and less on men."

It is difficult to separate religious influences from cultural influences on modesty from an academic perspective, according to Gupta.

"What one has to do is say, 'OK. In this period in Hindu history, or Muslim history, or Christian history, this is how the text was interpreted, this is how the teachings were taught by priests and scholars and theologians and gurus, and at this point in history, this is how it was done,' " Gupta said.

“One has to kind of place that religious practice in context.”

The same religion may adopt different practices at different times or in different places. For instance, depending on what region she is in, a Hindu woman may or may not cover her hair or wear specific clothing, he said.

“Dress, especially as used as worship, is meant to be such — both for men and for women — that it doesn’t distract the worshipper from the actual work of worship or ritual, and this usually means covering of skin," Gupta said.

His colleague Harrison Kleiner, who teaches philosophy of religion at USU, also mentioned the chapel veil many Catholic women wore during Mass before changes made in the Second Vatican Council in the early to mid-1960s. Now it is rare to see women wearing the chapel veil in services, he said.

Modest dress

There is also a difference in how religions define and approach modesty. Depending on the expression of Judaism, some married Jewish women will cover their hair with a hat, wig or scarf. In some parts of India — where about 80 percent of the population practices Hinduism, according to 2001 India Census data — it is disrespectful to show "a lot of leg" Gupta said, but showing hair and arms is OK.

Women often will wear a sari that covers from the waist down but exposes the stomach area. Other cultures and religions see such apparel as immodest.

"The garb does not show a lot of flesh, but that doesn't prevent one from getting an impression of beauty, in fact, a much higher impression of beauty," according to Charu Das Adikari, temple manager at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork.

The Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism does not emphasize modesty but asks its adherents to dress respectfully and comfortably for worship services, according to the Rev. Jerry Hirano of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. Other traditions with monks, such as Theravada, may focus more on dress, he said. Representatives from the Theravada tradition in the area were not available for comment.

The Catholic church teaches: "Chastity also requires us to live the virtue of modesty. Modesty means respecting your own body by not exposing it inappropriately and not using it to cause others to fall into temptation. It also means respecting others by avoiding the temptation to look at or desire their bodies disrespectfully. The Church teaches us that 'modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing,'" according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Men and women both are expected to follow Islam's law of chastity, according to Debra Baldwin, a USU professor who teaches about women in Islam and Islamic studies. Depending on the region where one lives and legal requirements, women may use a niqab — face veil — or they may wear a hijab, which covers their hair and chest. The niqab, "is not religiously required," Baldwin said, but may be appropriate depending on the culture.

Veils were adopted during the Prophet Muhammad's time when his wives would veil themselves when they were around people who were not the prophet, she said.

Muslim men are not allowed to wear shorts or short pants in public. Depending on the culture or region, some men cover their bodies and faces entirely as well, she said.

This is because men and women have unique types of beauty, explained Imam Muhammad Shoayb Mehtar, of the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley.

"The areas of beauty for men and women are not in the same place and the same areas," he said. "Islam, being a religion of completeness, takes that into consideration. But because they are separate genders, are separate beauty spots, areas of what we would call more enticement, so therefore the religion is saying that certain things have to be different … as far as men and women are concerned."

Self-respect

According to American Olympic skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, modesty is a matter of respect for self and others.

“We believe that we are sons and daughters of God, and so how we dress influences how we act and how others act around us, so it's really important to dress modestly and to show that we have respect for our bodies and for ourselves and others," Pikus-Pace said.

The LDS Church teaches that "Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to 'glorify God in (our) body, and in (our) spirit' (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19)," according to the LDS Church website.

Bodies are gifts from God, the church teaches, and members should dress as if they were going to be in the presence of the Lord.

Similar to members of the LDS Church, Hindus also see the body as a gift from God. Das compared dress and appearance to a bird, which represents the soul, and the cage it lives in, which represents the body.

“You can become so preoccupied with cleaning and polishing and gilding the cage that you forget to feed the bird inside," he said. "We’re not like, you know, negative about the body, but at the same time we try not to be overly attached to it. It’s like a tool that we want to keep in good shape and use properly.”

Fashion blogs for modest attire have cropped up in Jewish, Muslim, LDS and other Christian circles.

So has criticism that modesty is oppressive or unfairly focused on women.

Baldwin does not think Islamic or other faith-based modesty requirements are biased or discriminatory based on gender.

She pointed out that men in the Tuareg tribe of northern Africa wear veils instead of women and Catholic nuns similarly wear head coverings in public. In her mind, most people's stereotypes of discrimination and bias are rooted in cultural practices rather than in religion.

"I think it's a stereotype that … outsiders have more than those who live it," she said. "We always judge somebody else's culture based on our culture."

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