Modesty is a Question of Convention


Modesty is a Question of Convention
Modesty is a Question of Convention

In the Gold Coast and surrounding countries complete nudity is extremely rare, except when circumstances make it desirable; on occasion clothing is abandoned with unconcern. “I have on several occasions,” says Dr. Freeman, “seen women at Accra walk from the beach, where they have been bathing, across the road to their houses, where they would proceed to dry themselves, and resume their garments; and women may not infrequently be seen bathing in pools by the wayside, conversing quite unconstrainedly with their male acquaintances, who are seated on the bank. The mere unclothed body conveys to their minds no idea of indecency. Immodesty and indelicacy of manner are practically unknown.”

He adds that the excessive zeal of missionaries in urging their converts to adopt European dress—which they are only too ready to do—is much to be regretted, since the close-fitting, thin garments are really less modest than the loose clothes they replace, besides being much less cleanly. (R. A. Freeman, Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman, 1898, p. 379).

At Loango, says Pechuel-Loesche, “the well-bred negress likes to cover her bosom, and is sensitive to critical male eyes; if she meets a European when without her overgarment, she instinctively, though not without coquetry, takes the attitude of the Medicean Venus.” Men and women bathe separately, and hide themselves from each other when naked. The women also exhibit shame when discovered suckling their babies. (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1878, pp. 27-31).


The Koran (Sura XXIV) forbids showing the pudenda, as well as the face, yet a veiled Mohammedan woman, Stern remarks, even in the streets of Constantinople, will stand still and pull up her clothes to scratch her private parts, and in Beyrout, he saw Turkish prostitutes, still veiled, place themselves in the position for coitus. (B. Stern, Medizin, etc., in der Türkei, vol. ii, p. 162).

“An Englishman surprised a woman while bathing in the Euphrates; she held her hands over her face, without troubling as to what else the stranger might see. In Egypt, I have myself seen quite naked young peasant girls, who hastened to see us, after covering their faces.” (C. Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien, 1774, vol. i, p. 165).


When Helfer was taken to visit the ladies in the palace of the Imam of Muskat, at Buscheir, he found that their faces were covered with black masks, though the rest of the body might be clothed in a transparent sort of crape; to look at a naked face was very painful to the ladies themselves; even a mother never lifts the mask from the face of her daughter after the age of twelve; that is reserved for her lord and husband. “I observed that the ladies looked at me with a certain confusion, and after they had glanced into my face, lowered their eyes, ashamed. On making inquiries, I found that my uncovered face was indecent, as a naked person would be to us. They begged me to assume a mask, and when a waiting-woman had bound a splendidly decorated one round my head, they all exclaimed: ‘Tahip! tahip!’—beautiful, beautiful.” (J. W. Helfer, Reisen in Vorderasian und Indien, vol. ii, p. 12).


In Algeria—in the provinces of Constantine, in Biskra, even Aures,—“among the women especially, not one is restrained by any modesty in unfastening her girdle to any comer” (when a search was being made for tattoo-marks on the lower extremities). “In spite of the great licentiousness of the manners,” the same writer continues, “the Arab and the Kabyle possess great personal modesty, and with difficulty are persuaded to exhibit the body nude; is it the result of real modesty, or of their inveterate habits of active pederasty? Whatever the cause, they always hide the sexual organs with their hands or their handkerchiefs, and are disagreeably affected even by the slightest touch of the doctor.” (Batut, Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, January 15, 1893).


Moslem modesty,” remarks Wellhausen, “was carried to great lengths, insufficient clothing being forbidden. It was marked even among the heathen Arabs, as among Semites and old civilizations generally; we must not be deceived by the occasional examples of immodesty in individual cases. The Sunna prescribes that a man shall not uncover himself even to himself, and shall not wash naked—from fear of God and of spirits; Job did so, and atoned for it heavily. When in Arab antiquity grown-up persons showed themselves naked, it was only under extraordinary circumstances, and to attain unusual ends…. Women when mourning uncovered not only the face and bosom, but also tore all their garments. The messenger who brought bad news tore his garments. A mother desiring to bring pressure to bear on her son took off her clothes. A man to whom vengeance is forbidden showed his despair and disapproval by uncovering his posterior and strewing earth on his head, or by raising his garment behind and covering his head with it. This was done also in fulfilling natural necessities.” (Wellhausen, Reste Arabischen Heidentums, 1897, pp. 173, 195-196).


Mantegazza mentions that a Lapland woman refused even for the sum of 150 francs to allow him to photograph her naked, though the men placed themselves before the camera in the costume of Adam for a much smaller sum. In the same book Mantegazza remarks that in the eighteenth century, travelers found it extremely difficult to persuade Samoyed women to show themselves naked. Among the same people, he says, the newly-married wife must conceal her face from her husband for two months after marriage, and only then yield to his embraces. (Mantegazza, La Donna, cap. IV).


The beauty of a Chinese woman,” says Dr. Matignon, “resides largely in her foot. ‘A foot which is not deformed is a dishonor,’ says a poet. For the husband the foot is more interesting than the face. Only the husband may see his wife’s foot naked. A Chinese woman is as reticent in showing her feet to a man as a European woman her breasts. I have often had to treat Chinese women with ridiculously small feet for wounds and excoriations, the result of tight-bandaging. They exhibited the prudishness of school-girls, blushed, turned their backs to unfasten the bandages, and then concealed the foot in a cloth, leaving only the affected part uncovered. Modesty is a question of convention; Chinese have it for their feet,” (J. Matignon, “A propos d’un Pied de Chinoise,” Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, 1898, p. 445).


Among the Yakuts of Northeast Siberia, “there was a well-known custom according to which a bride should avoid showing herself or her uncovered body to her father-in-law. In ancient times, they say, a bride concealed herself for seven years from her father-in-law, and from the brothers and other masculine relations of her husband…. The men also tried not to meet her, saying, ‘The poor child will be ashamed.’ If a meeting could not be avoided the young woman put a mask on her face…. Nowadays, the young wives only avoid showing to their male relatives-in-law the uncovered body. Amongst the rich they avoid going about in the presence of these in the chemise alone. In some places, they lay especial emphasis on the fact that it is a shame for young wives to show their uncovered hair and feet to the male relatives of their husbands. On the other side, the male relatives of the husband ought to avoid showing to the young wife the body uncovered above the elbow or the sole of the foot, and they ought to avoid indecent expressions and vulgar vituperations in her presence…. That these observances are not the result of a specially delicate modesty, is proved by the fact that even young girls constantly twist thread upon the naked thigh, unembarrassed by the presence of men who do not belong to the household; nor do they show any embarrassment if a strange man comes upon them when uncovered to the waist. The one thing which they do not like, and at which they show anger, is that such persons look carefully at their uncovered feet…. The former simplicity, with lack of shame in uncovering the body, is disappearing.” (Sieroshevski, “The Yakuts,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Jan.-June, 1901, p. 93).


“In Japan (Captain), the bathing-place of the women was perfectly open (the shampooing, indeed, was done by a man), and Englishmen were offered no obstacle, nor excited the least repugnance; indeed, girls after their bath would freely pass, sometimes as if holding out their hair for innocent admiration, and this continued until countrymen of ours, by vile laughter and jests, made them guard themselves from insult by secrecy. So corruption spreads, and heathenism is blacker by our contact.”

“Speaking once with a Japanese gentleman, I observed that we considered it an act of indecency for men and women to wash together. He shrugged his shoulders as he answered: ‘But these Westerns have such prurient minds!'” (Mitford, Tales of Old Japan, 1871).


Dr. Carl Davidsohn, who remarks that he had ample opportunity of noting the great beauty of the Japanese women in a national dance, performed naked, points out that the Japanese have no æsthetic sense for the nude. “This was shown at the Jubilee Exposition at Kyoto. Here, among many rooms full of art objects, one was devoted to oil pictures in the European manner. Among these only one represented a nude figure, a Psyche, or Truth. It was the first time such a picture had been seen. Men and women crowded around it. After they had gazed at it for a time, most began to giggle and laugh; some by their air and gestures clearly showed their disgust; all found that it was not æsthetic to paint a naked woman, though in Nature, nakedness was in no way offensive to them. In the middle of the same city, at a fountain reputed to possess special virtues, men and women will stand together naked and let the water run over them.” (Carl Davidsohn, “Das Nackte bei den Japanern,” Globus, 1896, No. 16).


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