I had several opportunities to talk to two of my Muslim friends, both of whom wore the hijab by choice, about why they wore it and why they dressed so modestly. One friend explained to me that the reason she wore a hijab wasn't because she was expected to or because she thought men couldn't control themselves it was because she knew she possessed sacred power. She covered herself because her beauty was for her husband and she didn't want to misuse her power or to waste it on any man walking by. She also liked it that the veil drew men's attention to her face and not to her body. Another friend explained to me that she wore a hijab because she had made promises with God and that her veil was an outward symbol of her inward commitment to Him.
Their answers really surprised me. I'd been taught about modesty my whole life but never had I seen women who internalized it like these young women did. They didn't just dress modestly, they were modest-- in their actions, their speech, and their treatment of others. They knew that possessed great worth and that within their bodies they housed divine power which they had promised God not to misuse. Not only did the young women understand this about themselves but so did the young men. One afternoon one of the Muslim girls we worked with took several of the girls in our group out hijab shopping and taught us how to tie and wear them in the fashionable way. Just for fun I decided to wear mine for the rest of the day and I was so surprised when both of the young men who ran the front desk at the hotel we were living at kept telling me that I looked so much more beautiful in it. Women are good at knowing when men think they are beautiful and I could tell that both of these young men honestly thought that being covered made me more beautiful. In their eyes wearing a hijab indicated that a woman understood her worth and that she expected the men around her to respect it as well--and that was infinitely more attractive to them than short sleeves and cute hair-dos.
I do understand that not all men and women in the Middle East understand the veil like this and that in many places it is used as a symbol of oppression and disregard for women's rights and voices. Even in Jordan there were various degrees of veiling and some of them were obviously done out of force and oppression. Yet, I'd say that many of the young Muslim women I associated with who wore the hijab wore it for reasons similar to my two friends. It was a really life changing experience for me to be surrounded day in and day out by women who were so outwardly committed to their religion and their promises to God. I realized that my Muslim friends understood something that, at that time in my life, I was only beginning to comprehend. They knew that because they were women they had real POWER housed within their souls. They knew that they had the power to love men and to attract them to them-- hopefully for life. They knew that within their bodies lay the ability to bestow life and that how they chose to use that power would affect future generations. They fully comprehended the importance and divinity of that power and as a result they protected it and refused to misuse it.
This doesn't mean that these women weren't as preoccupied with boys, clothes, make-up and accessories as American women... they were. Like most young women the world over they were very concerned about fulfilling one of the roles women have fulfilled ever since Eve, that of "getting Adam to partake." Valerie Hudson Cassler explained more about this when she wrote:
"There is an additional role played by Eve that is often overlooked... getting Adam to partake [of the tree of knowledge]. In this act, Eve persuades Adam that the realization of the fullness of life for himself is inseparable from the perpetuation of the fullness of life through future generations. To his credit, Adam hearkens to his wife, and by partaking, commits to life, to love, and to perpetuation of life and love...Eve's love for Adam, his love for her, and the fruit of that love... is the catalyst from which recognition of and desire for the light and its law is built in every civilization... Capturing Adam's attention, softening his heart, stimulating his commitment, and enlisting him in the cause of love and family preoccupy most women during their young adulthood. Our culture frivolizes this endeavor claiming that women are selfishly and narrowly absorbed in "landing a man". Doubtless sometimes the enterprise does seem frivolous, and at times it is conducted unrighteously, but at its heart this female preoccupation with relationship to a male is not frivolous at all. It is profound and important, and if conducted for righteous intent through righteous means, it is sacred. Eve must get Adam to partake, must turn him towards the light, or the plan of salvation and exaltation will be frustrated." (Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, pg. 114)"Partaking" doesn't just refer to sexual intimacy but means that a man has accepted the responsibility to move the plan of salvation forward by covenanting to a woman that he will create an eternal family and that he will bring, protect, and care for the children she brings through the first veil and help them prepare to go through the second veil. Young women, no matter where they live, will always be preoccupied with trying to get Adam to "partake" because the creation of families and the perpetuation of life is the foundation of the plan of salvation and one of women's main responsibilities on the earth. Nonetheless there is a huge difference in how my young Muslim friends were taught to approach the task of getting their Adam's to "partake" versus how young women in the United States are often taught to approach the task.
The power that my Muslim friend called "sacred and divine" and that she chose to cover and respect is what the world and the media would call "sex appeal" and in America women are encourage to flaunt it, use it, exploit it, and even sell it to get what they need or what they want. Our young women are encouraged to use their bodies to get attention and are often led to believe that their worth in society is dependent upon how beautiful or attractive they are. Very few young women truly comprehend that, regardless of their physical appearance, they have real, tangible power housed within their souls and that this power-- the power to get Adam to partake-- needs to be used with wisdom and virtue. They need to know that it is VERY possible for a woman to misuse this power, just like a man might misuse his priesthood power. When a woman uses her body as a way to get attention, when she uses her sexuality to gain a feeling of power, when she stimulates powerful feelings and emotions in men, when she allows herself to be touched or talked about in inappropriate ways, when her desire to be seen as attractive or appealing is stronger than her desire to be modest, or when a married woman tries to attract the attention of men besides her husband she may be using her power in an unrighteous way. Women need to understand that misusing this power has far reaching consequences because it tampers with the very headwaters of life and effects future generations.
In addition we need to be teaching our young men to honor and respect this power as well. They, like the young men at our hotel in Jordan, need to be the ones encouraging young women to dress modestly by helping them understand that their worth has nothing to do with their outward appearance. Young men need to know that it is important for them to be modest as well, especially in the way they interact with young women and the way in which they talk about them. We also need more young men who understand the divine roles of women and are willing to support and help them in their responsibilities. There are far too many men, married and unmarried, who are unwilling to partake of what Eve offers-- an eternal commitment to marriage, children, and the responsibility to guide those children towards the light. It is a big responsibility but if Adam refuses to "partake" then the work of God can not progress.
Now please don't get me wrong, I am not advocating for all women to veil like Muslim women do, but I do think that we need to re-evaluate our definition of modesty and examine the way in which we teach modesty to our young women and young men. Because in the end what we want is young people (and adults) who don't just dress modestly but who are modest. We want them to fully understand the divine power that lies within their bodies and to act in ways that honors and respects it. When a person has a testimony of their divine nature they, like my Muslim friends, will act and dress in ways that demonstrate to God that they comprehend the gift they have been given. For in the end modesty is truly the outward expression of an inward commitment to God and learning to be modest, not only in dress but in all areas of your life, is something that has to be developed and learned line upon line, piece upon piece until you fully come to comprehend your worth and access the power of your divine nature.