In October last year, Australia's most senior Muslim cleric caused outrage when he appeared to blame the "suggestive swaying", immodest dress and make-up of the victims for what happened to them in the infamous gang rapes committed by Bilal Skaf and his friends six years earlier. The most widely quoted part of the speech was the part where he compared women who don't wear the hijab to 'uncovered meat': "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem... If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."
The clash with secular Australian thinking could not have been more stark. In our culture, we have been taught by feminism to regard all talk about 'modesty' as a repressive strategy employed by men to keep women under control and blame crimes of violence committed against women on the 'suggestive dress' of the victims. Whilst most feminists would agree on the right of women to wear whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want to wear it, the various versions of contemporary feminism differ sharply on how women ought to use that freedom of choice - some advocating a complete rejection of heterosexual eroticism and fashion, others embracing 'raunch culture' as somehow constituting a gesture of liberatedness.
So how are we as Christians to think about these things? Seeing as it's 'modesty week' (well, actually, I just declared it to be myself, because I think it will be a while before the UN gets around to it!) I thought I'd start with a few thoughts about what I think the Bible tells us on the subject.
1. The Bible makes it clear that both men and women need to treat their bodies with modesty and honour.
From Genesis, it is clear that with the introduction of sin in the world, both men and women are to cover their nakedness. It is interesting that after the fall, God made them both garments (Gen 3). Another example that suggests that men in a fallen world are also to 'cover up' can be seen in Gen 9 where there is shame in Noah's sons gazing on their father's nakedness.
Similarly, on the positive side of the ledger, the Bible's teaching is that sexual desire and the appreciation of physical beauty are meant to be mutual in marriage (eg. Song of Songs 1:15-16, 1 Cor 7:2-5).
2. Nevertheless, the Bible has particular words to say to women about how they dress and to men about how they look at women.
Maybe it's something to do with the different natures that God gave us in creation; maybe it's something to do with the different ways in which we are affected by the fall; maybe it's a bit of both, but whatever the reason, the Bible goes beyond those unisex principles of honour and modesty to give particular instructions to women about what we do with our clothes and to men about what they do with their eyes.
So in passages like 1 Tim 2:9-10 and 1 Pet 3:3-4, the Bible directly addresses us as women and urges us to dress appropriately. (Notice, by the way, that it's not just about skimpy clothes, but also about ostentation and extravagance; also, it's not just about the literal clothes we wear but also about the 'metaphorical' clothes of our lifestyle and attitudes.)
3. Jesus takes temptation to sin very seriously.
To the person who is potentially tempted, Jesus says it is better to tear their eye out than to let it cause them to sin; but to the person who is in a position to lead another into sin, he also gives an equally stern warning (Matt 5:27-30, Matt 18:7-9).
Both verses are relevant to the modesty issue - not only do I want to take responsibility for whether I am using the power of how I dress to lead men toward sin; I also want to avoid a scenario where the men I know feel a responsibility to avert their eyes or stay out of conversation with me because of their obedience to the words of Jesus.
This is not in any way about letting men off the hook, either in how they dress themselves or in how they look at and relate to women. But it is about us as women choosing to take responsibility for what we do with our bodies and our clothes.
4. Nor is this about embracing drabness or despising the body and its pleasures.
According to passages like Song of Songs, Proverbs 5 and 1 Cor 7, sex is a good gift from God to be enjoyed within marriage. One of the big reasons why we need to be modest is to guard the intensity and the exclusivity of that enjoyment. This means that within marriage we have the freedom (and the responsibility!) to be intensely and enthusiastically erotic.
Nor do the things we have said so far mean that we need to be boring in the way we dress. We can be creative with colour, shape, design in a way that expresses that God is a God of beauty while being modest at the same time.
So how should we dress? I'll have a few suggestions about the 'how to' in the next few days.