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Modesty in a Modern World

Muslim families living in the West face many challenges, including maintaining a sense of modesty and self-respect. Umm Suhayb recounts her experiences and reflects on the very nature of modesty in Islam.

I remember that natural haya’, and it is one of those concepts that I always knew existed, but years later I discovered Islam gives it a word.




My children turn their heads simultaneously away from the screen like spectators watching the ball at a tennis match. I’ve changed the TV channel but, really, it’s too late. Watersheds don’t exist here in Sweden, and even if you are selective in your programme-viewing, the ads are not your choice, except the ‘off’ button. Things were easier when we didn’t have a TV, but that’s another story/ potential argument.


Then we have the Internet; despite how careful you are, ads are bound to pop up, or Google images can interpret words into cheek-blushing content. To be honest, I haven’t had much personal experience of the latter, but I’ve certainly heard of it.


The latest film or clothing adverts periodically pop up in the street. When travelling by bus, my poor boys have to turn their heads away every three minutes as each bus stop approaches with the same revealing advert.


The selection of library books for tweens and teens (and sometimes younger) promotes the girlfriend/ boyfriend norms. Teen fiction often joins in the pressure to have an early physical relationship, despite this actually contradicting the law of the land.


And as much as we look forward to it, summertime arrives, when every man exiting his house is bombarded with chances to add weight to the wrong side of the scales. It feels like we’d have to move to the middle of a jungle, or make camp in a far-off desert to avoid all these anti-haya’ images.


And we become desensitised. People living in these Western societies may wonder, “What’s all the fuss about?”. But if someone arrives for the first time from a Muslim country, their eyes are almost immediately violated by the images that parade in front them, and may often make a swift exit.


What’s modest for some is offensive to others. There’s a time and place, as they say. Just as someone walking down the high street sporting only Y-fronts will be pulled to one side by an officer, then walk off that street into the swimming pool, you’ll find my son being encouraged to wear Speedos for his swimming club.


In Islam, the time and place are also significant – much to some non-Muslims surprise, we Muslimahs do not usually wear fully-covering garments as we prepare a gourmet meal, play Twister with our children or cuddle our husbands. But there are limits, and they are set by our Creator. When they are dictated by another force, by the creation, things start to go pear-shaped.  The natural haya’ is swamped and you get 5 year old girls wanting to look like Bratz, 8 year old boys giggling at underwear catalogues in the schoolyard, and then some.


As a child, I always used to cringe at the love scenes in films and soaps like Dallas, and I wasn’t even brought up in a particularly religious household. I remember that natural haya’, and it is one of those concepts that I always knew existed, but years later I discovered Islam gives it a word.


This haya’ is not just modesty in terms of hair being covered, or long shorts for men, but the practical application of a sense of respect, for the self and for others around them. Respect for women and men, the young and the old. Modesty is part of this respect where we acknowledge Allah’s rights and those of fellow human beings, and act with responsibility in all dealings. Isn’t that just what Islam is all about?



Umm Suhayb is a writer and editor at Mint Writing, originally from the UK but now based in Sweden.