Hijab, niqab or bralet: everything a woman wears incites some degree of philosophical, ethical or sexual commentary. With modesty becoming increasingly sexualised, here’s a perspective on why women’s clothing inspires such intense social scrutiny.
I’m watching something stupid on my laptop at a time my mother would not have approved of. This professor in some history-drama is eyeing up some woman in the middle of the night. “Do young women still wear underslips, I wonder?” he asks, in a way that I guess is supposed to be alluring. “I always found it more sexy. Another layer to battle through.” I Immediately cringe and roll my eyes. Yuck.
For those of you less versed in the artefacts of a woman’s knicker draw, an underslip is effectively a vest. Worn in times when temperatures of houses were at best subpolar, it was pretty functional as an extra layer. With the brilliant invention of central heating, it because more superfluous, and eventually archaic.
And now, for some reason, sexy. Sexy because it was unseen, private, intensely linked to covering up, hiding. It’s a bit creepy that men could think that way about what we wear, but there we have it. I’m not one to dictate what your fetishes are allowed to be.
So when Professor Creep was aroused by wondering what the poor woman was wearing, he was not aroused by a pretty boring piece of fabric, but by the whole culture it invoked -privacy, hidden sexuality, modesty…
Sound familiar at all? I can almost hear the ruffle of a hijab in your ears and Mia Khalifa flashing up in your minds. (Yes, I know who that is, it has been explained to me by many a smirking young man.)
As you might expect, many girls who wear the hijab are a bit freaked out by this rampant sexualisation, much in the same way I find you fancying my body in a vest a bit weird. “We don’t wear it for you!” Women all over the world shout out whilst waving their underslips, headscarves and glasses. Why the **** would this be something you find sexy?
The answer, same as above in the Great Underslip Theory, is that modesty is sexy. It’s the deliberate narrative of these objects (covering up, concealing, functionality, mundanity) that makes them so alluring. “Why?” I hear you ladies shout angrily, throwing their bras at me. The truth is simple: fantasy.
Any guy, or thus inclined female (let’s not be heteronormative, god forbid), can turn on a laptop and see a sexy pair of lacy underwear and a pouting blonde swishing her hair around. This is deliberately sexy. And, more obviously, fake. Most men do not walk around women in red suspenders and latex gloves every day.
This image of a woman is, respectfully, fake news. There is a realness to modesty; a privateness that evokes intimacy, a kind of reality. Sex with ‘real’ women, as opposed to women deliberately attempting to appeal, is a thing. And it’s really common.
I’ve lost count of the number of ethnographies and interviews I’ve read on sexuality in which men ask prostitutes to wear ‘ordinary’ clothes and perform ‘ordinary’ household or work tasks in front of them (I’m doing male sexual behaviour for my dissertation, I don’t do this for kicks). The hijab is sexy because its a fantasy men can engage with.
Anyone who says a piece of clothing is ‘just a head covering’ or ‘just a pair of underwear’ is, apologetically, talking a load of rubbish. We have a very visual understanding of women because, historically, the only way they could really engage with society was in what they wore. Look at Victorian bustles or Tudor gowns; those are political and social statements. The veil is a symbol of modesty, piety, purity. Underslips evoke a nostalgia for an era of female purity and shyness. These all have meanings.
We may not (I certainly don’t) like having messages read into how much leg we’re showing or what our choice of knickers is, but they will always be there as long as we still have this very voyeuristic understanding of what a woman means and says through her clothes. The same goes for the niqab.
I can argue with you until I am blue in the face about how much ‘choice’ women have in their clothes, or ‘why’ they choose them, be they religious, quotidian or formal. That’s another article in itself. This text is simply discussing why ‘unsexy’ modesty has become so widely fetishised.
The truth is that we often have a lot more read into our clothes than we actually mean. I’d say the problem isn’t really what we wear; it’s how society interacts and interprets that.
Because, whether I’m wearing a hijab or hotpants, I’m never inviting you to grab me, overly-sexualise me or label me as a meek little virgin. Normally I’m trying to walk down the street.
We need to de-message women’s clothing, not redress them.
Anthropologist, Liberally Jewish, Cat enthusiast, Nuance extremist.