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.