by Madeline Bartos

Initially when I sat down to write this paper, I had an outline and a document with quotes pulled from the texts I wanted to use. I saw a connection between religion and females (in my use of “females,” I mean females to include girls and women) feeling the need to cover themselves up, as Adichie said, “make themselves smaller.” The phrase “world literature is a process” from Walter Benjamin’s Task of a Translator didn’t quite make sense to me until I realized that modesty culture promoted by strict, fundamentalist religious beliefs might be linked to rape culture. Women don’t feel the need to shrink themselves just because they are women. Perhaps there is a process that has led them to feel less than men – covering up, not speaking up, retreating into themselves and out of the world. As I researched, I discovered a process of religion promoting modesty and leading to rape culture. The process of teaching females that a lack of modesty is a sin perpetuates the rape culture myth that if a woman does not cover up, any attack on her body is her fault. Not only that, but religious beliefs that premarital sex is a sin and a female’s purity lies in her virginity ultimately leaves women and girls afraid and ashamed as if they have sinned just by existing and having a body. In the texts we examined in class, how does power in religion not only enforce modesty but also seek to control women, which might promote rape culture and make women feel like they must hide themselves?

The idea of women being smaller than men was first introduced in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words from We Should All Be Feminists, featured in Beyonce’s ***Flawless which has become the anthem for overcoming female oppression. Adichie said, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man’” (27). In We Should All Be Feminists, Adichie explores gender roles and how girls and boys are raised differently. Adichie uses stories from her personal life to examine how males are raised to have fragile egos, and females are raised to make themselves small enough as to not get in the way of men. She describes a society in which females spend time stepping around men professionally in their jobs and sexually in their relationships. Adichie says, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are” (32) which creates a double standard where women aren’t supposed to have sex but men are. While she admits she does not have the solution to getting rid of gender roles, Adichie does know that gender is socially and historically constructed. That is a problem. Males and females have been hearing the same gender roles since the very beginning of time – it’s the first story in the Bible. In the Christian creation story, Eve’s purpose was to keep Adam company and bear his children. She was pulled from his rib, which is perhaps symbolic of the fact that woman cannot exist without men. In the Christian story, since the very beginning of time, women were less than men.

Christianity isn’t the only religion that seems to oppress women. In Underground Girls of Kabul documents girls who dress as boys, or bacha poshes. Unless young girls masquerade as boys, they miss out on several opportunities, including working to support their families. Nordberg’s female translator Setareh gives Nordberg a “makeover” in order to make her fit in on the streets of Kabul. When Nordberg covers herself up in all black, she writes, “Even if I hid under a burka, my body language would give me away as all but an Afghan woman. Setareh warned, ‘You wave your hands around when you speak. You sound aggressive. Like you demand something. You put your hands on your hips, like you want to challenge people. It looks very rude for a woman to do that. You walk fast, and you don’t look down. You look into people’s faces as it pleases you” (100). Setareh’s explanation of everything wrong with Nordberg’s appearance and body language summarizes what is expected of Afghan girls. They should make take up as little spaces as possible, lower their voices, and cast their eyes to the ground.

Setareh’s comment on Nordberg’s behavior that to Muslims would be considered unfeminine leads Nordberg to use her Western point of view to describe the way sexuality is treated in a world where women must cover up and make themselves as if they didn’t exist at all. Nordberg says, “In an environment where sex is never discussed, where men and women are strictly separated, sex is, ironically and perhaps unfortunately, on everybody’s mind all the time. Body parts, fabric, gestures that elsewhere would never seem sexual become loaded. This frustrating contradiction means everyone must be hyperaware” (101). Religion deems that sex is a sin, and women should cover up as not to tempt men. Nordberg observes completely covering up women, preaching modesty, and making sex off-limits seems to have the reverse effect.

Nordberg continues to observe that the responsibility for civilization’s behavior “rests entirely with women, and in how they dress and behave” (102). Society makes the assumption that men’s “animalistic impulses” are uncontrollable, and the only way to keep these impulses in check is by removing temptation from the female body and covering it up. Out of sight, out of mind. Even in Western culture, if a woman goes to a party wearing a low-cut dress she feels confident in, what else would she expect when too many men come on to her? Both the Bible and the Koran preach about modesty, making it seem like a sin to not be modest.

These teachings of modesty, in Nordberg’s eyes, gets boiled down to “as a woman, you must shrink both your physical body and any energy that surrounds it, in speech, movement, and gaze” (102). Nordberg’s view may be Westernized in the way she views all Afghan women as oppressed and longing for freedom, but it echoes Adichie’s sentiment that women must shrink themselves so they don’t threaten the man. Telling a woman that she not only has to protect her body from men’s uncontrollable instincts, but that she also has to protect “any energy that surrounds it” makes it seem dangerous for her to stand up and speak her mind. It is safer to cover herself up with a veil and shrink herself.

Marjane Satrapi illustrates her experience growing up during the Islamic Revolution, when it became mandatory to wear the veil to school. In her graphic memoir Persepolis, the veil, and covering up, plays a big role in Satrapi’s life. She enters her teenage years with the obligation to wear the veil at school, but she also wants to wear Nikes and a denim jacket. As a teenager, Satrapi wants to express herself and find her identity, but the the fundamentalist regime wants females to wear the veil. In a way, the veil is oppressing Satrapi’s self expression and the process of finding her identity. But women are required to wear the veil and cover their hair. In society, long hair is considered feminine and showing too much hair can tempt men. When females don’t follow this religious rule that enforces modesty – and as Westerners view it, oppression ­– there are consequences for standing out.

When Satrapi’s mother is cornered by two fundamentalist men and threatened while she isn’t wearing a veil, Satrapi illustrates the way the modesty promotes rape culture. Her mother says, “They insulted me. They said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked, and then thrown in the garbage” (74). Not wearing the veil or covering up modestly had evolved into a sign that women were trying to provoke men, or in today’s rape culture “asking for it.” To show the way women tried to overcome this religious oppression, on the next page, Satrapi illustrates two women. She calls one “the fundamentalist woman” and the other “the modern women”. She says, “In no time, the way people dressed became an ideological sign. There were two kinds of women. . . You showed your opposition to the regime by letting a few strands of hair show” (75). This is symbolic of letting a bit of their feminist break through the literal veil of oppression. The fundamentalists try to shrink women and make them cover up, but a few women find empowerment and resistance through showing small pieces of their hair. However, the power that the fundamentalists had meant they had to wear the veil. Satrapi writes, “To protect women from all the potential rapists, they declared that wearing the veil was obligatory”. She then illustrates a newscaster saying, “Women’s hair emanates rays that excite men. That’s why women should cover up their hair!” to which her father responds, “Incredible! They think all men are perverts!”. Satrapi’s mother replies, “Of course, because they really are perverts!” (74). Using religion as the basis of these rules, the fundamentalists rationalized that the only way to control men was to oppress women and cover them up.

The gender roles that religion constructs with the idea that sex is only for procreation purposes, where men are animals and women are sirens, is dangerous. The solution that religion gives to the temptation of premarital sex is to cover women up. Fundamentalist religions promote modesty as a way for women to keep themselves out of the male’s mind. But like Nordberg observed, making sex forbidden means it is always on the mind. Males become even more curious about sex when religion teaches females extreme modesty. The shame of females and curiosity of males appears to make males more aggressive, which just further perpetuate the stereotype.

An article online for Time by Jennifer Mathieu called The Troubling Connecting Between Modesty Culture and Rape Culture led me to The Advanced Training Institute, or ATI. This organization was one the Duggar family associated themselves with, or as Ashley Feinberg, put it best with her article title – The Creepy Fundamentalist Homeschool Cult That Trained the Duggars. Feinberg describes the two seminars the whole family must attend to be officially enrolled in ATI. She says, “Kids get to interact in their (gender-specific) peer groups, freeing them from distractions as they go through military training-lite (boys), learn to sew and sit quietly (girls), and otherwise practice hating who they are at their innermost, sin-addled core (everyone)” (Feinberg). Ignoring the fact that the content of this program is a whole other issue to explore and that ATI’s founder Bill Gothard had at least 34 women come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, on ATI’s website they say their mission is “supporting parents in building their families on the Word of God” (“About”). However, case studies done by the organization that Mathieu linked in her article were indeed troubling. In once case study called Lessons From Moral Failures in a Family, a boy molested his younger sister. The questions the case study chooses to analyze are absurd, especially the question of “What factors in the home contributed to immodesty and temptation?” (1). Perhaps this isn’t the question to be asking if you want to get to the root of the issue.

The boy’s answers in the case study do everything he can to remove blame from himself and place it on everything from porn to his parents. It seems he thinks his parents are largely at fault for not noticing his laziness (or slothfulness) sooner, which somehow led him down a path of sin to molestation. He also blames his parents for letting his sisters run around the house naked, not educating him properly about sex, and allowing him to change his sister’s diapers and babysit them. He also blames his little sisters for not being ashamed of their nakedness and hugging him, as well as sitting on his lap while he was babysitting. He says that when his mother talked to him about it, “She explained to me that she had no idea how visual male sexuality is, compared to women who are mainly by touch. . . I don’t think so much teaching was necessary, because everyone was so young. However, a different lifestyle, with more modesty, might have prevented what happened” (2). This is a boy who molested his little sister. Instead of taking full responsibility, he says his little sister was “open to what I made her do” and that his parents and sisters caused the whole situation by not taking care to be more modest. He thinks he’s educated enough about sex, he doesn’t think “so much teaching was necessary” but instead, he thinks oppression of his little sisters is a better solution to prevent the problem in the future.

He continues to say, “Modesty was a factor. It was not at the level it should have been in my family. It was not uncommon for my younger siblings to come out of baths naked or with a towel. . .Changing my sisters’ diapers when they were really young may not have been a bit thing, but it really did not have to be that way (if we had only applied Levitical law). My younger sisters used to wear dresses often, but as they were young and not aware of modesty, they did not behave in them as they should” (2). He does not seem to fully grasp his own sin, nor the fact that it is 100% his fault, but he has no trouble pointing out how his little sisters don’t understand the shame they should have while naked. He says, “Little people do not realize their nakedness right away. It takes several years before they grasp it. It needs to be taught to them” (2). A boy who molested his little sister seems to show no shame for what he did, but believes the real sin was his sisters not understanding the concept of nakedness. I can only imagine how his sisters feel now, and the insecurities their brother forced on to them. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable wearing dresses anymore, or they can’t even shower without being ashamed.

Placing the blame on the victims in the same way the brother placed blame on his sisters and parents leads to even more issues. The parents were just trying to raise their children to be good Christian. This is a situation parallel to more cultures than just modesty culture. Instead of parents teaching their little boys not to rape, we have to teach girls how to prevent rape. Instead of letting little boys wrestle, throwing our hands up in the air and saying “boys will be boys”, we can’t give boys a pass on unacceptable behavior just because they are boys. After my research for this paper, I see that there is no cut and dry answer to why females are perceived as inferior to males. There’s a process of ideas and concepts being passed down through hundreds of years that have led us to rape culture. There’s a process of ideas and concepts that have led people (mainly males) to find power in religion and use it to control those they perceive inferior (mainly females). Finding a way to break down these ideas, dismantle patriarchy, and make sure a woman wearing a low-cut dress she feels comfortable in is not “asking for it”, will surely be a process, too.

Works Cited

“About.” Advanced Training Institute International. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Paw Prints, 2016.

Feinberg, Ashley. “The Creepy Fundamentalist Homeschool Cult That Trained the Duggars.”

Gawker. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Lessons From Moral Failures in a Family (n.d.): 1-4. Recovering Grace. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Nordberg, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. Broadway, 2015.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. Pantheon, 2003.

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