Introduction

Notions of modesty and sexual restraint are found across all cultures, but in no cases are these notions defined or practiced in exactly the same ways. In a survey of the modesty practices of 92 societies, Stephens (1972) found great variation in the following: the perceived need for copulation to take place in private (although in all societies surveyed none is completely indifferent to a need for privacy); notions of appropriate clothing as well as the perception of which bodily parts are in need of covering; the presence of sex and/or sexuality in ceremonies, including erotic song or dance, sexual talk, or sexual intercourse outside ordinarily permitted relationships; the presence and tolerance of sex talk and sexual humor; and degrees of avoidance (in terms of touching, eating, joking) due to notions of "respect" or "shame." Stephens concludes that modesty practices are most elaborate in preindustrial civilizations, and are associated with all the major religions and with the presence of premarital and extramarital sex restrictions.

Today the concepts of modesty and sexual restraint are most highly elaborated and central to daily life in the Islamic cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. These concepts play a significant role in shaping local practices related to veiling, female seclusion, female circumcision, premarital virginity, and marital fidelity. Three theoretical approaches to understanding modesty and sexual restraint in Middle Eastern Islamic cultures are commonly used and discussed here, including (1) "Islamic principles" or the Great Tradition versus the Little Tradition approach, (2) honor and shame or a structuralist approach, and (3) personhood and self approach. Specific ethnographic examples drawn from the Islamic societies are offered to demonstrate the insights gained through attempts to study and understand better the issues surrounding modesty and sexual restraint.

Studying modesty and sexual restraint, particularly in the Islamic Middle East, offers one way to explore the relationship between biological sex and socially constructed gender roles, religious beliefs and practice, and men's and women's lives. In terms of sex and gender, examining the practices of modesty and sexual restraint allows us to see how biological sex is elaborated, in some cases literally constructed (e.g., through female circumcision), and thus given meaning. Modesty practices further suggest that ideas about gender are not constructed only from the facts of genitalia; rather, parts of the face, the hands, and the feet may also be highly meaningful and believed to require certain modest acts. The parameters of exactly what constitutes the most meaningful aspects of the body are therefore greatly expanded, allowing us to reflect on the western preoccupation with genitalia as the sole source of gender identity (cf. Butler, 1990).

Looking at modesty and sexual restraint practices in the Islamic Middle East also adds to our understanding of the relationship between religious beliefs and practices. In the ethnographies discussed in this article, all the men and women believe that they are acting in accord with proper Islamic belief. Yet this does not mean that men and women act in the same way; indeed, one striking feature of the ethnographies discussed here is the variation in practice and belief in the name of Islam. Thus modesty and sexual restraint are excellent windows for viewing the complex nature of religious interpretation and practice, and for understanding that these issues are not static but continue to change to meet new demands and challenges.

Finally, examining the issues of modesty and sexual restraint allows for a consideration of the highly variable nature of the relationship between men and women across cultures. While the evidence presented here may seem to support the theory that men are symbolically associated with culture and women with nature (Ortner, 1974), this evidence also complicates and deepens this formulation and addresses the central issue of who determines and challenges this symbolic association. Also challenged here is the notion that practices associated with modesty and sexual restraint—in particular the veil and female seclusion—are necessarily demeaning to women and indicative of men's control over them. Rather, women often assert that they voluntarily adhere to these practices in order to gain both self-respect and the respect of others, including men. While women's relationships with men may at times be antagonistic over these practices, this is certainly not necessarily the case.

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