Is My Skirt Too Short?

Different standards of what’s appropriate clothing

Does a long, shapeless dress make you “more of a Sikh”? Does a plunging neckline make you “less of a Sikh”? What about a short skirt? Tank top? Bikini?
This is a topic of many Sikh camp girls’ cabin discussions. Parents and daughters argue about what she is allowed to wear to school, the beach, or prom. Inevitably, Sikhi is brought in as a justification for some point.

The idea of “modesty” appears in Gurbani interpretations and some people use that words to suggest a standard of dress.

Modesty

Definition 1: A modest person does not draw attention to their … desirable attributes. It can include humility, shyness or simplicity.
Definition 2:  Modest is used to describe a mode of dress that is intended not to encourage the opposite sex.
These words, “humility,” or “modest” have different meanings for each person. In fact, across time, generation, context, place, and society, the standards vary as to what parts of the body that are considered “ok” to reveal.

Everyday dress in different cultures

Modesty Across Cultures:
It is pretty apparent that the rules of dress vary across cultures. In the US I can wear shorts and a tshirt but if I go to some Middle-Eastern countries, I would have to abide by their conservative rules of modest dress.

On the extreme end of the clothing spectrum are the Himba women of northern Namibia. (1) Traditionally, they are topless and barely wear any clothing.

“In a society in which women customarily go about in public bare-breasted, there is no shock value in a bare breast…”

Himba Woman

(2). It is not considered seductive, indecent, or immoral. Such a custom, however, cannot be transposed onto another time or place without a significantly different reaction by other people. So, in the Himba culture my exposed chest would be acceptable and appropriate but in a Punjabi Gurdwara, even a little bit of cleavage can be deemed inappropriate.

Consider this conversation I have had.

  • Uncle: “Sikh girls should not expose their legs! Put on some pants!”
  • Kaur: “Why not? They’re long Bermuda shorts.”
  • Uncle: “I don’t care. It’s immodest. Sikhs should be humble.”

I understand where this uncle is coming from. In Punjab exposing the legs via Bermuda shorts might be considered immodest. However, this is not the case in the United States.  This argument would be like tell a US Kaur, “Completely cover your face when you go out! Why? Because way over there, in Afganistan, it is immodest if you don’t”. or telling the Himba woman she must wear a shirt because she’s considered immodest in America.

Modesty is not transnational, Uncle Ji. Nothing about modesty is a universal truth. Furthermore, pointing to Punjabi culture to justify a behavior is not very sound logic either. One wouldn’t point to the Punjabi practice of heavy drinking and domestic abuse to justify the same actions in the United States (at least, I hope no one does).(2b, 2c)

The Uncle’s all-too common argument is superficial and transient. I need a deeper reasoning other than the uncle-reasoning of “tradition” or “just cuz.” …and for me the measure of modesty is intent, context, and perception. (Keep reading to see what I mean)

I did change into pants, because of context and perception: it was out of respect for the Uncle and also because I was surrounded by Punjabis who believed shorts to be indecent.

Modesty Across Time: 

Western Bathing Suits Across Time: 1800s, 1900, 1910, 1920, 2012

During the 1800s in the United States, it was indecent for a woman to expose her bare ankle. (In some cases, the legs of furniture was even covered up for modest purposes) (2).  In 1910, women were  arrested for showing their legs and shoulders at the beach.  The progression of what is deemed an appropriate bathing suit in the US over time is interesting and shows how the definition of “modest” changes.

1922. Washington policeman measuring the distance between knee and suit after an order was issued that suits are not be over six inches above the knee. National Photo Co.

Lastly, I look at Sikh Punjabi women. This photo is of Sikh women at Harmindar Sahib in 1907 (3). Compare this with a current day photo.

Punjabi-Sikh Women circa 1907. http://goldentemple1588.com/celebrating-sikh-women/

I think this illustrates how the idea of modesty has changed within Punjabi-Sikh Culture. Not only are the 1900s women completely covered and there is not even a suggestion of the female figure, but they are also not smiling. (4). Smiling can sometimes be considered immodest. (5)

Punjabi-Sikh Women in 2012

In Theory
I think that to say there is a strict Sikh religious answer to what exactly constitutes modesty, in my opinion, is a bit misleading because that would conflate culture with spirituality/religion. For example, if I say a Punjabi Salvar Kameez is modest and thus should be the Sikh standard…what happens if I go to Saudi Arabia where such an outfit would be considered too sexy/tantalizing or immodest? That would mean, as a Sikh I am not dressing modestly and would be anti-rehat (or anti-Sikh spirit). Thus, I don’t think the term “modest” has a fixed definition. Religion does not change, but culture and social perceptions do, and therefor so does the definition of modest.

I once heard someone say. “If Guru Gobind Singh Ji stood in front of you right now, would you feel like you were dressed appropriately? That question should guide the way you dress.”  Though thought-provoking, I disagree. I would dress for Guru Gobind Singh Ji to show my utmost respect. I would follow the cultural standard that I grew up with of what constitutes respect which, would probably be a salvar kameez or a business suit. But I’m not going to wear that all the time.

However, unlike Guru Gobind Singh Ji, Vaheguru is not human bound, nor is Vaheguru steeped in culture, preoccupied with definitions, or following social standards as I do or as the Gurus might have. So, for the moment, I remove the social constructs and ask the question, if I was somehow “brought before Vaheguru” (for this argument, just go with it) would I show clevage? Would I wear shorts? What would I wear?

Well, Vaheguru created me,

so I would feel comfortable

being naked in front of Vaheguru.

A Christian renaissance painting of a naked woman ascending into heaven to meet God in the arms of a naked angle.

Why would I want to shield Vaheguru from zer* own  creation? I’m pretty sure Vaheguru knows what’s underneath my clothing. Furthermore, Veheguru is not judgmental but is kind and loving. So I don’t have to worry about whether or not Vaheguru will think I am a slut or if ze* will think that I am a restricted prude. I have divine light within me. But, I don’t think I could use this “Vaheguru Clothing Standard” of nakedness in guiding my everyday dress choices. (FYI: I know Vaheguru is everywhere and there is no way I can actually be in front of Vaheguru.)

*gender neutral pronoun

In Practice
I think Sikhi gives me a framework to help me define “modesty,” but I also think it gives  flexibility to allow the culture of a time and place to help guide me in my choice of clothing.
If the thought, “Am I dressing according to Sikh ideals?” comes up for you, here are a few questions that I ask myself.

  • “What is my intent in wearing this? Is that intent inline with Sikh values?” ie) I’m wearing this dress in public because it looks sexy. If yes, that is not inline with Sikhi because it would be invoking lust for one’s own sensual gain.
  • “What is my purpose in wearing this outfit? How will i be perceived?”

Ultimately, each woman has her own personal boundaries that may or may not fluctuate with time or place. I  do not think any particular way of dressing is inherently better or worse than another way. However, I think each mode of dress has an objective.

Final Words

The Gurus never said,

“Show no leg.  Show no cleavage. Rahao.”

Rather they said, “Be modest.” I dont think there is one answer to, “How should a Sikh dress?” but the answer is suggested by one’s surroundings, sangat, and cultural expectations. It’s all relative. Nothing about modesty is a universal truth. I believe Sikhi is universal but the definition of modesty is not.

Sources:

(1) http://www.african-tribes.org/
(2) https://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/faculty/aallen/workingpapers/b51VillanovaLR841(2006).pdf

(2b) http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-03-24/india/29182619_1_liver-transplants-liver-damage-hepatology

(2c)http://www.cida-page.org/Docs/domestic_violence.pdf
(3) http://goldentemple1588.com/celebrating-sikh-women/
(4) http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/
(5) the nature and functions of smiling   http://www.uri.edu/…/01%20Richard%20L.%20Wiseman%20&

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31 thoughts on “Is My Skirt Too Short?

  1. Bhagatjot Singh Ji, Thank you for your comment. It is just my interpretation of Gurbani that has influenced my writing. The term “Saram” and “Sarmo” have appeared in Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s shabads in regards to dress and lifestyle and I personally understand it to mean “modesty.”

  2. Your article did a great job talking about the concept of modesty as it has been viewed across different cultures, time, and space. But thats where it stops. Surprisingly, for an article focused on modesty and Sikhi, the one culture that I did not see mentioned or discussed is Sikh culture. For example: Guru Amar Das was the one who banned the practice of veiling of women, which was a common Punjabi cultural practice at the time.

    Therefore what we do see is a separation between Sikhi/Sikh culture vs. Punjabi culture, and what they may have to say about “modesty”. Also from this point of what Guru Amar Das banned, we can get a kind of inkling of what Gurus thought were the right kinds of practices, and therefore the appropriate Sikh practice.

  3. Essentially the argument of your article comes down to a form of “In Rome, do as Romans do”, yet when this argument is confronted with the fact of Guru Amar Das banning the practice of veiling, the argument falls apart rather quickly. I would encourage you to think a little more and past the “relativist argument” because Gurbani does not encourage relativism. In fact, most of Jap Ji and Asa Ki Var are arguments against relativism, through their direct criticism of the practices of various religious/cultural groups.

    I would really have liked to have seen you get into a greater depth on the part near the end that you titled “In Practice”. I thought that part of your article contained the most substantial content, yet was left at a superficial and unexplored level. I hope to see more of your writing on this in maybe a later article.

  4. Lastly, one argument that you made particularly perturbed me, considering that this is a Sikh article. You claimed that Guru Gobind Singh is human bound. That is not the case according to Sikhi. A person who has reached the status of Brahm Gyani is not bound by “humanness”. A Guru is one who is Brahm Gyani, at least according to Sikh thought and practice. Please take a look at Sukhmani Sahib’s 8th Ashtpadi that talks about Brahm Gyani (the ideal being), beginning with the Salok before the Ashtpadi that clarifies that a human being is being talked about (quite a few people make the mistake of thinking its talking about God, but the Salok before the Ashtpadi clarifies that it is a human subject). The essence of the 8th Ashtpadi of Sukhmani Sahib is that the human being who has become Brahm Gyani, has done so by transcending the qualities that make them human, and has elevated to a divine state of being. Therefore there is no longer a difference between “God” and the “divine being”. Hence you also find Shabads that say “tohi mohi mohi tohi antar kaisa” (you are me i am you what is the difference between us?).

      • By the way, I spoke to a Kaur afterwards and she explained some of the things that were said in the article. Things made a lot more sense after having dialogued with a Kaur perspective. For example, it was explained that a particular outfit’s appropriateness may be different depending on the setting, because ultimately Kaurs have to deal with the way men look at them, perceive them, and deal with them. So your statement at the end of the article ” the answer is suggested by one’s surroundings, sangat, and cultural expectations”, made a lot more sense after we discussed some of the settings and situations where the same outfit would be appropriate/not appropriate. Also, I am realizing that the article was meant for Kaurs, and not for Singhs to nitpick (having looked at your other blogposts). Some of my initial comments were looking at what you said from more of an objective viewpoint, than from a subjective experience. Great blog. Stay in chardi-kala.

  5. It is an awesome thought you have brought forward.
    So what about the turban and the beard sikh Men are supposed to have?
    Are they bound to have that? Can they change to not having a turban and a beard?
    Thanks

  6. Nice pointers in the bullets, although I thing they should be the last thing you see in the article not that fake Rahao line….because the bullets frame the argument on any scale from ankles being shown to faces being shown where is you seem to end with the conclusion about cleavage and legs which limits the greater frame you created.

    “If you dress like a cop people will think you’re a cop, if you dress like a hoe people will think you’re a hoe!”
    -Dave Chappelle

  7. Bhanji, it makes sense to say that different cultures/places have different standards of modesty. I personally don’t have any issue with how anyone dresses in a public setting, however at the Gurdwara it’s a different issue. The Gurdwara itself has its own culture, similar to how Izhaarbir Singh suggested a “Sikh culture”, and there is a certain standard that needs to be followed in this setting.

    Try to observe your own thoughts when you’re at the Gurdwara next time. I personally can’t focus if my eyes are open because I’m drawn to all the different colours and designs on peoples’ suits. Imagine being a male now and being drawn to someone showing excess skin. This will of course affect a person’s concentration.

    I was really disturbed one day when seeing someone attending a wedding with a neckline that extended all the way down PAST her chest (yes, at the gurdwara). I was disgusted, and even more disgusted that I hadn’t the courage to say anything, because nowadays it’s so normal to see such things.

    I understand you’re not necessarily talking about a Gurdwara setting though, and in that case I say live and let live. However, the other setting I would feel it inappropriate to dress in the way you suggest is if one has the outer form of a Gursikh (eg. wearing a dastaar, kakaars, etc) and is thus representing the Guru’s roop.

    • I completely agree with you. In my opinion, it’s all about context and the Gurdwara is obviously not the place to dress like that =) Thank you for your feedback and reading my thoughts!

  8. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

    Bhein Ji, Prof Puran singh (1881-1931) has also written in his works, some thoughts related with the subject here. He has translated Gurbani (Baba Hor Khana Khsi Khuaar——–) as below: “And if by eating, your mind is rotated wrongly, that eating is poisonous for you. And if by wearing, your mind is rotated wrongly that wearing is poisonous for you.” So apparently, one of the major criteria given by Gurbani, is condition of our own mind and soul. If as a man, I do not feel like a sikh of the Guru, any time of the day, due to my dress; that will be negative credit in my sikh spirit. I personally feel that my clothes, do affect my state of mind.

    While writing about women and their dress choice, Prof Puran Singh further says,”In this too, the Guru leads the Ideas of the coming world. If sikhs of to-day, there are who veil their women and enslave them, they are not of the Gurus. The third Guru while giving audience to a Hindu queen of Mandi, when she came all veiled to Him said, ” You O mad woman, have come to see the Guru and you cover your face from Him.” How can those who call themselves His disciples tolerate anything infringing the absolute freedom of woman. On the other hand, those who free her and ape the western fashions remind one as Marie Corelli graphically puts it “of the poultry yard.” This is certainly worse than nursing a peculiar type of womanhood of noble self-restraint behind the oriental veils. Veils often symbolise the beauty and mystery of the concealed and the veiled is more sacred than the the unveiled. But if veils accentuate this sex difference or unveiling does the same, both are unholy. Only when man and woman both live above body and mind as freed souls, they represent the culture of live freedom. Live freedom is freed also of sex differences. Stupid, indeed, are those sects who wish to get rid of women as an obstacle to spiritual progress. Woman is the greatest and truest aid to the maintenance of the true spiritual attitude.————————”

    May be, we get an idea, of sikh ideals, from this text taken from his book; “The spirit born people”.

  9. Great article and wonderful blog, Bhenji. What I don’t understand and find frustrating, however, is the double-standard in “Sikh culture”. All Sikhs are supposed to try to work and avoid lust. In your article and many of the comments people place onus on the women for avoiding the lust of men. Can men not, as a previous writer stated, close their eyes when they go to gurdwara? I have also never heard anyone tell a Sikh man to dress more conservatively. As a Sikh woman who dresses very conservatively, I remember growing up and finding it very frustrating that my brothers were allowed to wear long shorts/capris, even to gurdwara or Sikh camps in the summer, but I was not allowed to do so. Anyway just my humble thoughts.

    • are we people true sikhs who are here to justify things which we like as good and according to sikhi?? we call it manmat in sikhi and sikh has to follow his or her guru ki matt….and if you have so many problems following sikhi and you want to come naked in front of SAHIB SRI GURU GOVIND SINGH JI MAHARAJ then please for god’s sake don’t call yourself a sikh

      • Gur Fateh! Thank you for your comment. Please note that this blog is no longer being updated and has been replaced by KaurLife.org. Check it out!

  10. Thanks for initiating a sound and meaningful dialogue. The present deteriorating state of sikhism needs thinkers like you and gurjeet kaur ji.

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    • Hi, Thank you so very much for your extremely kind words. I cannot tell you how flattered I am. I write all the content on my own, just as a way to sort out my own thoughts and share my ideas with others.

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