Modesty and cultural sensitivity

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Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 11.07.24 PM 3Visitors who dress immodestly will no longer be allowed to enter Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex, the agency that oversees the site announced last week. Beginning August 4th, all tourists will be required to wear pants or skirts that fall below the knee and shirts that cover their shoulders.

When I read that, I immediately went back to our photos from Jan 4, 2009 to see what we were wearing the day we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction. Would we meet the new standard, I wondered.

We got up at 4:30 a.m. the day we toured Angkor Wat so that we could be there in time to watch the sun rise over it’s towers. It was still a bit chilly when we arrived and at that point, dressed in a warm fleece hoodie and capri pants, I would definitely have met the new dress code.

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Richard would not have, however, as he was wearing shorts and later, in the heat of the day, I wouldn’t have either.

I almost hate to post that picture because I look so frumpy, but please keep in mind that we were basically backpacking through southeast Asia. We had just traveled the length of Vietnam by night bus and we were staying in a $12/night guesthouse that wasn’t much more than a roof over our heads. I may not have looked great, but I was having the adventure of a lifetime and fashion was the farthest thing from my mind!

The question here, though, is what is modesty? My tank top may not be particularly attractive, but is it immodest?

In 1 Timothy 2:9, the apostle Paul advises women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation” but he doesn’t give a lot of detail about what that looks like. He does go on to say, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing” but to understand what he was getting at, one needs to look at the culture and the context. In this passage, Paul was advising women on how to dress for church, telling them to adorn themselves in a manner that was considered appropriate for worship. In Ephesus, where his protégé, Timothy, was pastoring at the time, the elite of that culture were known for their gaudy and extravagant wardrobes, their elaborate hair styles, and their expensive clothing that communicated extraordinary wealth. Paul’s description of immodest dress conjured up a picture of someone preoccupied with appearance, fashion, luxury, and perhaps even sexual prowess. He was simply advising the Christian women of that time and place not to mimic that behaviour, but to dress in a way that showed that they desired attention to be on God, not on themselves.

Dictionary definitions of modesty include “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency” and “the quality of behaving and especially dressing in ways that do not attract sexual attention.”

In discussing dress codes, it’s important to note that modesty must involve cultural sensitivity. We don’t find the wearing of shorts or sleeveless tops offensive here in North America,  but Cambodia is a completely different culture. Angkor Wat was the spiritual centre of the Khmer empire that dominated that region from the 9th to 15th centuries. It’s a symbol of great national pride and is depicted on the Cambodian flag. As such, it is worthy of utmost respect. If, to the Cambodian mind, that means a certain manner of dress, then visitors definitely need to honour that.

Though it’s unlikely that I will return to Angkor Wat (only because there’s so much world that I have yet to see), but if I do, I won’t be wearing a tank top. If you haven’t been yet, I would definitely suggest adding it to your bucket list, but make sure you pack accordingly. After August 4th, those who are not dressed appropriately will be turned away or required to change their clothes before being allowed to enter.

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4 thoughts on “Modesty and cultural sensitivity

  1. Visiting the Vatican requires a similar dress code. I definitely agree it’s important to be considerate of different cultures, especially on religious sights.

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