“What Not to Wear” Should Never Be More Than a TV Show

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The other day I came across the blog of Mary Beard, a highly respected Cambridge academic, voted by Vogue UK as one of the “30 most inspirational women of 2009.” Since the idea of a Cambridge don’s blog is nerdily appealing to me, I was paging through Ms. Beard’s posts, whereupon I discovered a recent post entitled “Why I like Islamic dress.”

The post is accompanied by a photo of what I can only describe as “Muslim Barbie”—pretty, smiling brightly, and wearing completely concealing yet still form-flattering attire.

Beard goes on to explain that while she was in Sudan, she adopted the modest attire of Sudanese women, and found it a pleasant experience. Reasons she cites are that she is 54 and doesn’t want to show much skin, and that Islamic dress offered an opportunity for “colour coded fun.”

Now I’m not interested in attacking Ms. Beard, as she is thoroughly entitled to like Islamic dress if she chooses. But that’s the point that I think she missed, which is that she has a choice whether to like it or not. While she is relishing the fun of picking out a color-coordinated Islamic outfit, other women might find the same outfit constricting and would rather wear, say, jeans and a T-shirt. And shouldn’t that be their right?

I am disturbed because this sort of basic ignorance in the most hallowed halls of academia runs directly counter to any kind of evolution of rights for women. What begins as politically correct praise of an “other,” exotic culture can end with an embrace of the tyranny that women have been seeking to escape for the past hundred years or more.
I have strong feelings about this because I grew up with an enforced code of modesty, and was implacably shaped by the attitudes that go with such an upbringing. I was raised an Orthodox Jew in a stringently Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. I grew up under the constant, watchful eyes of teachers, principals and neighbors who would make an instant judgment about me if my attire did not conform to the strict standards of Orthodox Jewish law.

One teacher in the tenth grade, an internationally respected rabbi, singled me out in the middle of class for a tongue-lashing because I was wearing my hair loose on my shoulders. In the ultra-Orthodox community, such licentious display of a girl’s hair is a flagrant offense. Coming from a community in America where such standards are more relaxed, this was my first exposure to the rule.

My homeroom teacher later told our class that this same rabbi would have fainted if he had known we were wearing knee socks instead of tights under our duty-length skirts (trousers, which reveal the legs and groin, are expressly forbidden). I suppose it’s a good thing he never looked up our skirts, though I can’t help wondering why he would be thinking about what was under them in the first place.

That is only one example. Another is the law that Jewish married women must cover their hair. There are many cited benefits to this practice: The woman doesn’t have to worry about caring for her hair anymore, after all. In addition, covering one’s hair is seen as romantic because then the hair is “special for your husband.”

I have chosen not to cover my hair. This places me at odds with the community in which I grew up, which saddens me at times. But I couldn’t get around my own feelings on the matter, which is that covering my hair makes a statement that I am owned, am no longer allowed to be attractive, and have a fundamentally different role in our marriage than my husband, who is not expected to change a thing in his mode of dress.

To me, the above examples of my life experience have one thing in common: They are both counterproductive to the goal they purport to serve, which is to protect women’s dignity. (An oft-quoted, difficult-to-translate Jewish proverb that makes this point is “The princess’s honor is in her inner beauty.”) The result of a rabbi’s obsessing over knee socks vs. tights or the sight of a married woman’s hair has the oddly paradoxical effect of sexualizing women in a way that tank tops never will.

When I wear jeans and a T-shirt, very few men look at me. I am not unattractive, but the fact is that most men are used to seeing women in trousers, so they are not struck dumb by the sight. Whereas when I wear Orthodox garb, I get cat-calls and insinuating comments from men who clearly believe I am an innocent ripe for corruption. Rather than deflecting attention, my long black skirt attracts male stares in the street because as Israeli men, they know What It Means. (Or in this case, think they do.)

And like the Muslim Barbie in the photograph, many Orthodox Jewish women manage to dress provocatively within the restrictions. They may be covered from above the collarbone to below the knee, but the outfits can still be tailored, suggestive, lovely. And the women are very aware of the sexual potential of every inch of skin, since they have been instructed in its perils and pitfalls with such devout thoroughness. I doubt secular women think of their upper arms as being incredibly provocative, but Orthodox Jewish women do, because they have been trained to see them as something hidden and forbidden.

And all of this is fine, really: I don’t advocate that all women dress the way I do. That’s exactly my point. I don’t choose to wear miniskirts, for example, any more than I choose to wear a snood. When I read the thought-provoking novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk, I thought the author makes an excellent point along the same lines, albeit coming from the opposite direction: that women should have a right to wear the headscarf, if they choose. Just as religious garb should not be enforced, nor should secular garb be enforced.

Otherwise we run the risk of creating a society in which clothing takes priority over people, and women’s bodies are everyone’s business but their own.

11 COMMENTS

  1. as a former orthodox woman myself i’ve had my share of conflicts with the religious school and youth group (bnei akiva) i went to. but i’d like to add another point to the issue of modesty. in my case it didn’t apply to the length of skirts and sleeves, but to my specific choices in clothes and accessories. i was reprimanded for attracting too much attention, for standing out of the jeans skirt/pink sweatshirt-with-matching-socks-crowd. the conclusions people (and by people i mean my teachers and principle) drew from my choices sent a very clear but mixed message – it’s ok to be an individualist, as long as no-one can see it on you. in the orthodox world as i experienced it, submission to a very narrow minded view of individual expression was just as oppressive. and furthermore, the argument of how sexually suggestive the baring of an elbow can be strikes me as ridiculous, especially when the sole responsibility for this so called suggestiveness, is the woman’s. men it seems, should be protected from immodesty, so as not to corrupt their fragile libido’s with, say, an ankle, or god forbid, a collarbone.

  2. Thank you for your article, but I too do not agree. I have had almost the identical experience that BGH has had.
    I am surprised that you would compare Orthadox Jewish dress to Muslim. If we wear something not within our guidelines it can cause us or others who do fallow Jewish dress Halacha feelings of awkwardness and discomfort when we are together. Sometimes unfortunately, it can come between relationships. If I went over to a conservative friends house wearing a mini skirt in front of her husband and kids it would be similar. It makes people uncomfortable when they have to be around others that seem “half-naked” by their standards.

    You wrote : ‘I have chosen not to cover my hair. This places me at odds with the community in which I grew up, which saddens me at times.” So, you made a choice not to cover your hair. There were some repercussions, but still, you had a choice. Maybe not as a youngster, but a person does not have to have religous parents for them to restrict what their child wears.

    Here are a few exerpts from an article on Muslim dress codes. THIS is what NOT HAVING A CHOICE looks like.

    These exerpts are from an article in The Boston Globe:
    In San Francisco, a young Muslim woman was shot dead after she uncovered her hair and put on makeup in order to be a maid of honor at a friend’s wedding.

    In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic police prevented schoolgirls from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas; 15 of the girls died in the inferno.

    No international furor saved Aqsa Parvez, a Toronto teenager, whose father was charged on Dec. 11 with strangling her to death because she refused to wear a hijab. “She just wanted to look like everyone else,” one of Aqsa’s friends told the National Post, “and I guess her dad had a problem with that.

    There has been no storm of outrage about the intimidation and murder in Basra, Iraq, of women who wear Western-style clothing. Iraqi police say that more than 40 women have been killed so far this year by Islamists; the bodies are often left in garbage dumps with notes accusing the victims of “un-Islamic behavior.”

  3. While I appreciate your insight, I completely disagree with your article. Yes, it is true that women can bend hilchos tznius in order to still manage to look sexy, even completely covered. However, I am a ba’alas teshuva who just started dressing with accordance to the Jewish standard of modesty. I am fashionable, but covered. I wear clothes from Banana Republic and J.Crew, and while I would say that my outfits are flattering, they are in no way suggestive. The results have shocked me. I go to a secular, top-20 university, and I am suddenly treated with exponentially more respect. Now that my chest is completely covered and my sleeves are long, males look into my eyes and actually listen to what I say. I am treated as an equal, not as a toy. On the contrary, when I was dressing like a secular college student, men would often look down my shirt, and I received more than my fair share of appreciative glances when I walked down the street in my v-neck and skinny jeans. While I was not intentionally seductive, men assumed that I was willing to put out because what college female isn’t? It is very apparent when I am dressed in long skirts and long sleeves that, no matter how good I may look, I am not going to have a one-night stand and will probably not even touch them.

  4. It should be noted that I am as religiously fundamentalist and conservative as the Haredim. It’s just that I am conserving a Judaism that dates from the time of the Shulhan Arukh and Talmud and Tanakh, rather than conserving a Judaism that dates from the 19th century Hatam Sofer’s paradoxical (and oft-cited, yet blatantly violated by its same proponents) adage, “Hadash assur min haTorah” (“Anything new is forbidden by the Torah”).

    I am a religiously fundamentalist conservative, but my religion is the historical Judaism, and not this newly-invented Haredi caricature of historical Judaism.

  5. Excellent article; thank you for this.

    As I remark in my blog post at http://michaelmakovi.blogspot.com/2009/04/orthodox-women-and-body-image.html, I think the key to solving this entire problem is not so much to modify the rules of tzniut (this may very well be necessary, but I do not believe it to be the crux of the issue), but rather, our task is to reeducate men.

    As you note, when men overemphasize tzniut (whose purpose, ostensibly, is to teach men that women are more than just bodies, that they are people as well), they defeat the purpose of tzniut, because women become nothing more than bodies to be hidden! An immodestly-dressed woman may appear over-sexual and deceive men into believing women are less than fully human, but overemphasizing tzniut will do precisely the same!

    The key, then, is to reeducate men, to teach them how women are to be viewed. We might start with Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s truly awe-inspiring article, “A Jewish Sexual Ethics”, in Crisis and Faith (Sanhedrin Press, 1973 if I remember correctly), and reprinted in Essential Essays on Judaism (ed. David Hazony, Jerusalem; Shalem Press, 2002).

    We also need to educate our women differently. As Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes, Orthodox Jews of old were not so particular on halacha as the defining nature of Jewishness. Students of Rav Kook would say that it is a post-Temple perversion of Torah to limit Torah to the four cubits of personal individual halacha. Either way, women should be taught that FAR more defines them as Orthodox Jewesses than what they wear. To paraphrase and adapt Rabbi Amital’s words, women may very well be required to dress modestly, but this is amongst other halachic imperatives, and this does not define them as Jewish women, any more than their eating kosher alone defines them as Jews.

    See my blog there, http://michaelmakovi.blogspot.com/2009/04/orthodox-women-and-body-image.html, for elaboration.

  6. Thank you for a beautifully written, well made point. One question remains though: do parents have the right to force very young children into their religiously observant dress patterns?

  7. As a convert to Orthodox Judaism, I have adopted much of the dress code but as you say, it has been a choice. After just a few years, it has amazed me how differently I’ve looked at my elbows, my knees and those other regularly covered parts. It has been much debated on my blog whether I should cover my hair due to mitigating circumstances.

    But what no one seems to get is that by making the decisions I’ve made, I have made a choice, like you said MY CHOICE and I do not in any way desire to press that choice unto others but I’m glad that it was mine to make.

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