Modesty abroad: How clothing standards clash

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Knee-length skirts. No revealing attire.

English major Ashley Brocious thought she dressed modestly, but she didn’t plan on spending hours at the “DI” searching for a modest wardrobe for her semester at the Jerusalem Center.

“My mom always laughed because she said, ‘We think we’re so modest, and you had to buy a whole new wardrobe to go to

Fashion senses--and senses of decency--collide when cultures clash for BYU students on study abroad.
Fashion senses — and senses of decency — collide when cultures clash for BYU students on study abroad. (Photo illustration by Elliott Miller)

Jerusalem,'” Brocious said with a laugh. “None of my knee-length skirts worked there.”

Female students studying abroad are discovering that the dress standards of BYU may not work in countries where the culture dictates different roles for women.

A dissertation by Michigan State University professor Emma Trentman described the harassment faced by American women in Russia, Costa Rica, France, Mexico and especially the Middle East because of differing cultural norms. Trentman’s study showed that some American women in Egypt chose to imitate Muslim women, who cover their legs, arms, necks and hair.

Edie Dean, a master’s student who has helped with BYU research on this topic, described the intense academic debate at the Middle Eastern Studies national conference in Fall 2012. One professor suggested that the dangers faced by American women make it unethical to send them to study in the Middle East at all.

Dean said Latter-day Saint women especially struggle with changing their dress standards.

“That takes a toll on their perception of themselves because here they are thinking they were more modest,” Dean said.

However, Dean’s experience convinced her that many Muslim women feel the same way about modesty as she does, and so Latter-day Saints should not make assumptions about the ultra-conservative clothing these women wear.

“I don’t think they should be persecuted for their extreme devotion just because it’s different culturally from ours,” Dean said. “I would dress more modestly there because I’m a guest in their country, so I think I should accommodate their beliefs.”

Student Casey Bahr had the same strategy while studying in Jordan, Israel and India. In all these countries, she wore longer sleeves, shirts covering her collarbone, loose clothing and no hint of shorts. She found her modest Indian clothing to be generally practical, stylish and pretty, but certain Indian standards surprised her.

“You could totally show your stomach, no problem, but you couldn’t show legs,” Bahr said.

The India Field Study coordinator, Charles Nuckolls, said the dress code is “hardly stringent,” but showing respect for the native culture by dressing in a kufta and pajama or sari opens doors for students.

“I’ve had to tell the students over the years that they have to think about these matters,” Nuckolls said. “There wouldn’t be much point to going if you didn’t want to fit in.”

Annette Harris, a student who works in the women’s studies office, agreed that students must be aware of local cultural standards for modesty abroad. She noticed different standards for modest dress while studying in Tanzania, where women commonly go topless. Harris said that modesty discourse at BYU often concerns “a matter of inches,” and people forget that the specifics of decent dress can be culturally relative.

“The dress and grooming standards at BYU are so westernized that it creates problems when put into other countries,” Harris said. “Our capped sleeves might not be modest enough for Jordan, but they might be too modest for Tanzania.”

These complex issues can make a study abroad especially challenging for women. Arabic professor Kirk Belnap has done nationally recognized research on study abroad experiences that included these issues. He has taken female family members and students to Egypt and seen young men use their foreignness, dress and behavior as an excuse to touch them inappropriately.

“In Arabic 101, I say (to my female students) that this (study abroad) can be very rewarding, but the stats say you are likely to get groped on your study abroad experience,” Belnap said.

Belnap tells students to try and avoid crowded areas, be aware and keep a safe distance from men on the street, but sometimes “there are twelve-year-olds who will run up and grab you out of nowhere, as if they’re on a dare.”

He said the study abroad experience can still be very valuable, provided women won’t be devastated if they are touched even after taking all possible precautions.

Patricia Hicks chose to try and conform to local dress standards while on the Arabic language-learning study abroad in Jordan. She wore the long sleeves and Islamic headscarf that Jordanian women wear.

Hicks said any effort to be more modest helped her make friends in Jordan and present the best possible impression of a Latter-day Saint. She was happy to return to her American clothes but still respects the standards in Jordan, and she pointed out that there are occasions when her own faith requires more strict modesty standards.

“When we go to the temple, we dress more modestly than we do at BYU,” Hicks said.

Brocious was also glad to return to her relatively liberal closet after leaving the Middle East. However, her experience showed her that to many faithful women in the world, the jeans and T-shirt ensemble is not the default outfit of a “modest” woman.

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