Too Much and Not Enough: When Purity Culture Crosses Borders

Note: this article contains sensitive subject matter, including reference to a sexual assault.

“Be sure to stay attractive and don’t let yourself go. If you don’t please him, there will always be another woman who will.” 

This was the advice I was given by the well-meaning married women in my small group weeks before my wedding. While I know these ladies truly loved me, their fear-inducing advice adhered to the innermost parts of my brain like superglue. 

Two years later, as we transitioned to life overseas, I heard similar sentiments from a seasoned global worker who had been on the field for decades. She advised me that cross-cultural ministry is hard on men, so I make sure that I was always taking care of my appearance in order to keep my husband faithful. Interpretation: Don’t get fat or ugly, otherwise your husband would be justified for being unfaithful to you. 

The tentacles of purity culture in the West have crossed borders and poisoned the waters of both women and men who left their home countries to heed Christ’s calling in far-away lands. Alongside our call to kingdom work overseas, many women also brought along a warped sense of responsibility for men’s sexual purity. For married women, we hoisted upon our backs the heavy burden of being sexually appealing enough for our husbands to stay interested, while simultaneously being modest enough for the rest of the world not to notice us.

Drop this baggage of paradox into a Muslim culture that perpetuates a gender ideology nearly identical to the West’s purity culture, and we might find ourselves attempting to pick between the poisons of being sexy enough for marriage and invisible enough for public view.

While living in Afghanistan, I was warned to follow a few simple rules to avoid sexual assault. Firstly, always walk with a man when out and about. If ill-intentioned men on the street see you walking with a male chaperone, they will leave you alone. Also, do not wear clothing like short sleeves or revealing headscarves that show your hair or neck.

I, like many women, quickly learned that these rules were useless among men determined to indulge their impulses. I covered up thoroughly, and trying to conceal my appearance as something dangerous and disgraceful became the norm outside my home. Within my home, though, I looked in the mirror and wondered if I was coming even close to meeting the ill-defined standards of “good enough” to keep my husband from straying. While I knew he loved me, the advice of my small group friends taunted me at any sign of ageing and weight gain. 

The first time I was sexually assaulted in the bazaar, I had been following all of the rules. My hair was hidden from view beneath my blue scarf, and my buttoned overcoat thoroughly obscured any indication of a feminine form hiding below. Walking just steps ahead of me was my trustworthy chaukidor, the gentle grandfather who kept careful watch at our gate and was accompanying me home from the pharmacy that day with my bag of antibiotics.

I was unremarkable, small, quiet; exactly what the strict local culture demanded of women, and simultaneously the ideal of purity culture’s standards. Nevertheless, these burdens that guaranteed my protection and honor failed. My body was violated by a random shopper on the street, and so was my sense of agency. 

My husband was ever-accepting of me and never uttered or insinuated an unkind comment about my appearance, but I assumed of him all that I had been told to expect: he will stray if I do not look good enough. While I carefully watched the scale and slathered on beauty products in order to be acceptable inside my home, I meticulously draped on layers of hiding in order to be acceptable outside of it.

As if the Islamic standards of dress were not enough, Christian expat communities also tend to form a spectrum of opinions on how closely we women should adhere to or subvert Islamic standards feminine conduct and dress. Not being perceived as culturally aloof in how I dressed was also a high priority. I patted myself on the back as I strived to be all things to all men, as the apostle Paul had said he was. In truth, I could not even discern who the actual person beneath the shapeshifting was anymore. 

The dam walls finally came crumbling down many years after moving from Afghanistan to the Middle East. Dressed in my frumpiest sweatpants and sweatshirt, I had just finished a long run and was huffing as I plodded home. The Arab Gulf does not afford many mornings cold enough to render your breath a cloudy form before your eyes, but that morning was one of the few.

Amused by this rare sight, I looked up to notice a man walking toward me on the sidewalk. The gap between us narrowing, it became clear that this man was not about to make enough space for me to pass him by on either side, so I began to move towards the street in order to cross. Nevertheless, the man quickened his step, and whispered a lewd solicitation at me. I looked away and quickly crossed the street.

Once behind the locked gate of my garden walls, the rage that had been quietly simmering for years erupted. I was crushed beneath the burden of managing the boundaries of my femininity, and my failure to fulfill obligations of propriety danced a victor’s jig atop my frumpy, ageing, sweaty body. No matter how meticulously I covered myself, men would stare. No matter how I toiled to obey the fearsome advice of elder Christian women to stay attractive, I surmised that it was not enough. 

“What do you want from me?!” I scream-whispered at God. 

The epiphany of that morning propelled me into a flurry of frustration and questioning. Both Christians and Muslims seemed to be giving women like me the same message: The sexual sin of men will always be your fault. My tween daughter was beginning to experiment with her own fashion sense, and I realized that my toxic confusion, birthed from purity culture, was about to reproduce a flimsy fortification of shame and fear around her femininity. Instead of a rule book, I needed a transformation of my mind. 

Not only was I wrestling purity culture’s twisted rules in my home, but in my conversations with Muslim women as well. For them, the stakes of staying attractive were intensified. My Muslim friends regularly disclosed fear and suspicion of their husbands marrying a second wife; one with a more youthful body and energetic libido.

As I self-audited years’ worth of self-deception, misconceptions of marriage, and altogether unbiblical advice, I found myself preaching to my own soul the words of truth I had spoken countless times to my Muslim friends: “You are a precious treasure to God. Even if your husband does not recognize your value, you are deeply beloved by the Living God.”

Similarly, as my Muslim friends whispered words of judgement about women who did not cover their faces or hair, I asked them, “Whose fault is it if a man looks at her lustfully?” Their responses, staggeringly akin to tenets of purity culture, were usually least hospitable to women. “The men should look away, but they cannot help themselves. Women should cover themselves, or they are at fault.”

While I had always outwardly disagreed with their words, I came to see that my striving to be unnoticeable was actually embodying an affirmation of their sentiments. In our own ways, all of us were striving for the same thing: to avoid being visually and physically violated by men. The coverings serve as a safety measure for women in a system where men are rarely held accountable for their sins against women. 

Jesus had damning words for those who look upon women with lust. Curiously, he did not give an adjacent warning to the women who might be the object of that lust. When Pharisees approached Jesus seeking ratification of their divorce practices, Jesus declared men the sinners in cases of discarding their wives in favor of new ones.

While these passages are complex and deserving of attention to nuance, Jesus unabashedly held men personally responsible for their sexual sin. These were messages of truth that I had spoken for more than a decade in other languages, but they were words that could not transform my own tainted heart until I desperately needed them to be true. 

And His words are true. Amidst my attempts to shoulder the painful baggage of shame and perpetual inadequacy, Jesus offers me rest and a yoke that is light. He invites me to entrust my marriage to him and to forfeit the losing game of “modest enough.” 

One morning I sensed the Lord asking me this question: “What if you believed that you are already good enough… right here, right now?” The self-loathing and shame corner of my brain had been working overtime, and I knew that if one thing was true of me, it was that I was inadequate in every possible way.

The question whispered into my heart that morning was so far beyond anything that I was capable of believing that I knew it had come from the lover of my soul. His healing words and lifting of burdens have continued to confound and heal me. Healing tends to be quieter and more subtle than the slow spread of sickness, but its effects disseminate a sweet contagion: hope.

As cross-cultural workers, we are capable of unwittingly bringing along any number of falsehoods and self-deception. In his kindness, the Father often allows us to recognize the very same deception within another culture in order to bind up and heal places in ourselves that we did not even realize were wounded. And in his mercy, he also gives us the opportunity to share those healing wounds with those around us. 

To those who are struggling to shake off the painful yoke of lies and half-truths that purity culture burdened upon our souls: keep leaning into the One who reveals the truth. Seek the teacher who did not tell Mary that she ought to be tending to domestic responsibilities, but rather honored her for choosing to sit among the men and learn. Lean into the rabbi who left onlookers aghast as he broke gendered cultural mores for the sake of his Father’s Kingdom.

Finally, hold on to the reality that even as Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the Gospel, he did not stop teaching, transforming, and healing the hearts of those very same disciples when they came back to report all that they had seen and heard. 

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Emmy Lopez

Emmy Lopez lives and works with her husband and two kids in the Arab Gulf. She loves cooking spicy food, bird watching, and early morning runs. She spends part of her day chauffeuring her two children to school but also can be found drinking an alarming amount of tea with Afghan and Pakistani women.

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