I recently read about how a woman decided to respond to men’s compliments online with an affirmative. On the dating site Tinder, people approach each other through text after seeing if their profiles are compatible, so this woman would get many men complimenting her. Someone said “you have a pretty smile”, so this woman just said, quite simply and directly, “thank you, it is”. Someone texted her “your eyes are lovely” and she responded, “Yes, I think so too”. Without exception, all the men were terribly offended and replied with something like “you’re really arrogant”, and other, nastier permutations thereof. She shared these screenshots on Twitter, and the twitter-sphere exploded with women sharing anecdotes of much the same: apparently women are only meant to gratefully receive compliments as a deep favour done to them by men (and some women, one supposes). It’s unacceptable to just say “thanks, I agree” instead of giggling and simpering and saying thank you in a disbelieving way as if you’d never seen yourself in a mirror and liked what you saw. It’s seen as utter arrogance, vanity of the highest order, for a woman to believe she is, in fact, beautiful or clever or anything else, without the validation of another.

Odd, really. This self-deprecation is packaged as modesty to us, but it doesn’t seem to go both ways (what a surprise). Modest women are ‘simple’: basically women who have no desires or needs except those which are obvious and easily manipulated. In general usage, ‘simple’ also means mentally challenged so I suppose it’s no coincidence that so many eager mammas are looking for ‘simple’ girls—girls who wear white shalwars, girls who don’t have ambition, girls who don’t wear too much makeup and don’t have nakhray like wanting to work or not wanting more than two kids or other foolish ideas. Modest women have modest ideas, modest clothes and middling lives. It’s the ideal kind of woman to have around, because modest women are not vain. Modest women do not exploit the full power of their beauty privilege because they aren’t meant to aspire to beauty that has nothing to do with anyone else. When women lose weight or learn to do their face up or revamp their wardrobes, it’s always assumed they’re doing it to catch a husband or keep their existing one happy. When men lose weight and revamp their wardrobes, everyone tells their wives to “keep an eye” on them, because which man in the universe would actually want to be thinner and more stylish only for themselves, or, heaven forfend, to make their wives happy?

Immodest women terrify everyone, and the chief problem with the word itself is that it has no definition; thereby any woman who is even slightly different is immediately and easily immodest. Malala Yousafzai, poor child, is at least once a year maligned as an immodest tool of Our Enemies who faked being shot in the head. The TTP thought her opinions on education obscene, and some halfwit makes an annual declaration of their fealty to this lunacy by saying the shooting was all lies, lies! The problem isn’t that a bunch of grown men tried to kill three little girls, but that Malala is an immoral and immodest creature who not only defied one set of rules, but had the sheer audacity (read good luck) to actually escape it altogether and make a life outside of that oppression. How dare she! How dare all the single women have fulfilling, amazing lives, how dare the divorcees remarry, how dare they not sit at home and die of shame and remorse instead? How immodest! And since modesty is always linked to morality, the immoral woman is also a shameless hussy, beginning with thinking you are indeed quite pretty and ending with winning a Nobel Prize. There’s no controlling a woman with self-esteem, and so you should wait to be complimented. You should wait to be asked for marriage. You wait for permission, always waiting on someone else’s whim. You wait until someone decides you’re worthy.

When was the last time you heard about men waiting like that? About anyone describing a man as “immodest”? Genuinely immodest men are usually called “rakes” and “shauqeen-mizaaj” and “wandering eye” and other euphemistic, indulgent things. Do you know the male equivalent for slut? No? That’s because men are hardly ever slut-shamed. When you insult a man, the last thing you attack is his modesty. Modesty isn’t the province of men, outside of “lower your gaze” (and unfortunately lowering one’s gaze from the face just points it to an even more unfortunate place). If someone whistles at a woman and she reacts, it’s either her fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or it’s her problem that she can’t take a ‘compliment’, but it’s never the man’s fault for being indecent and lecherous. The narrative is that women should entertain the attentions of men because their attentions are a privilege, but also be modest and shun those attentions because encouraging them also means you’re immoral. So if you say no, you’re an uptight killjoy and if you say yes you’re fast. If you get shot by the Taliban then you’re a martyr and if you survive you’re a faking, traitorous spy. Notice how the logical conundrum follows us through the ages, across cultures—from drowning witches in medieval Europe (if you died you were innocent, if you survived you were a witch and burned) to proving your purity in India by sticking your hand into a cobra’s nest. Women have had, through the ages, to prove their modesty via an impossible set of rules. Makes you wonder why on earth anyone continues to bother.