In general religious discourse (at least in the context of the Abrahamic religions), modesty, particularly for women, is considered to be a key virtue. While both sexes are theoretically supposed to be modest in terms of dress and behavior, modesty, like chastity, tends to be seen as a uniquely feminine trait. Within conservotrad Catholicism, we see an emphasis on cultivating “Mary-like purity” among the young, as well as disseminating a gender essentialist view of relations between the sexes as outlined in Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body. John Paul II, author of the afore mentioned TOTB, spoke a great deal about “the dignity of women” as well as “the feminine genius,” concepts that were supposed to lead Catholics to respect women and avoid secular notions of feminism. It is this concern with the female modesty that lead the Pennsylvania bishops to ban male/female wrestling in Catholic schools, which I wrote about previously (https://extraecclesiamestlibertas.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/women-who-fight-and-the-bishops-who-disapprove/). I was discussing this incident on another blog, and one of the male conservotrad participants asked why traditionally-minded men couldn’t be taken at their word that they were truly honoring women by being concerned with female modesty and by trying to be a “gentleman.” What follows is my answer to him.
The notion of being a gentleman only applies to public behavior regarding “respectable women.” It does not govern what a man does behind closed doors or to women who have been deemed by society to be “bad” or of low morals. In times past, a man could sire a baseball team’s worth of illegitimate children or frequent bordellos and still be considered a “gentleman” so long as he didn’t endanger the virtue of “respectable women.” If a woman was a servant, a slave, poor, or a prostitute, she wasn’t going to be the beneficiary of a gentleman’s chivalry, but she might be subjected to his perversity.
The problem with modesty, particularly in a religious context, is that it is seldom about protecting the “dignity of women” but about controlling their behavior to suit men. For example, in Israel the ultra-Orthodox community is obsessed with female modesty to the point that they will physically assault female secular Israelis and hapless tourists who dare to wander into their enclaves dressed in ways that they deem immodest. Buses that have routes in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods are segregated with men in the front and women in the back, and women who protest are met with violence. It’s gotten to the point where you can’t even have photographs of women (including pre-pubescent girls and infants) in ultra-orthodox publications. In one well publicized incident, an eight-year old girl from a religious Zionist background (roughly analogous to Modern Orthodoxy) was spat upon and called a prostitute by ultra-orthodox men who deemed her clothing to be “immodest”:
Call me crazy, but if a man’s sex drive is flared up by the sight of an eight-year old girl, the person with the problem is the man, not the child.
Although women in Islamic countries dress very conservatively by Western standards (and in some cultures are totally segregated from men), they are subjected to an absurd level sexual harassment and violence. Egypt is commonly believed to be one of the worst offenders in this regard:
Similarly, Iranian women and girls accept sexual harassment as a fact of life, despite the state-imposed wearing of the hijab that should theoretically render them “modest”:
The common denominator in all of these situations is that the onus is on women and girls to dress and behave modestly to protect the virtue of the men around them, and when they fail to do so, they are threatened with violence, as if to say, “If you don’t do what we want, not only you will be to be attacked/raped, but you’ll deserve it.” Modesty standards are not about preserving women’s dignity, except in the sense that a woman’s reputation and modesty makes her valuable property to her male family members or wider community. I have no doubt that the Taliban think they’re looking out for the best interests of Afghan women by keeping them burqa-ed up and confined to the home, but from a human flourishing angle, they’re wasting the potential of half of their followers.
Now, you might be saying, “Those problems you mentioned are in Judaism and Islam. Catholicism is totally different.” However, given the large number of statements from the Church Fathers that say point-blank that women are inherently evil and only interested in seducing virtuous men suggests otherwise. This fairly recently article from Alice von Hildebrand reinforces the view I mentioned earlier that women have to be the “guardians of purity”:
Catholic women may not be stoned for wearing shorts or forced to wear head coverings, but those same poisonous attitudes are still out there, especially given the popularity of the “Theology of the Skirt” that in found in many conservative and traditionalist quarters. There has been a lot of writing within the last couple of years about the psychologically damaging effects of the purity movement on women, since it essentially reduces the value of women to whether they have an intact hymen or not:
While such articles tend to focus on evangelicalism, I think that many of these criticisms are applicable to Catholicism as well. Telling girls that they should aspire to a Mary-like standard of purity is unrealistic, especially since Catholic doctrine states that Mary was engineered by God to be a perpetual virgin (see https://extraecclesiamestlibertas.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/was-marys-yes-really-a-yes/). If women are only seen through the lens of how useful they are to male spirituality (or conversely, male sexuality), they will never be seen as full persons.