The whole of a woman is genitalia (or, Jewish women in burkas)

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with my roommate Ariel, who is not only a calendar pinup girl but also a Young Jewish Leader of America.TM I mention this because she pointed me to Jameel’s translation at the Muqata, of an article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It’s about a small group of haredi (aka “ultra-Orthodox Jewish”) women who have adopted the traditionally Muslim burqa.

Haredi woman in burqa

This puts an interesting spin on the trend in recent years where Muslim women have claimed hijab as a personal, religious choice, (more links welcome for that if anyone has suggestions) — sometimes in opposition to the rest of the world becoming increasingly secularized and Westernized. When you look at it that way, and add in the centuries of how the interpretation of Jewish law has constantly evolved, it kind of makes sense that very conservative, orthodox Jewish women would adopt an invention designed for ultra-modesty.

The applicable law here is tznius (“modesty”), pretty much only observed in Orthodox Judaism these days. For the less halachically clued-in amongst us, tznius explains things in Orthodox communities like long-skirted fashions, women who shave their heads and wear wigs, and why if I want a really good deal on a nice camera around here my salesman is always very careful to set the camera down before I pick it up. What’s fascinating to me as an outsider is the amount of leeway and variety Jewish law allows different Orthodox communities, and even individuals. Ariel explained it to me as a principle of local determination, but alongside an exhortation to push yourself to reduce any chance of a modesty violation.

So… tznius applies to both men and women. But Jewish feminists (and heck, feminists in general) have been pointing out for years that women fall under more scrutiny than men do for this kind of thing. That’s clear when you look at some more translated quotes from Haaretz, provided by another post by Tali on BlogHer.

The latest news, as I have read in Israel’s Ha’Aretz, tells of a strange, Jewish women’s cult that has popped up in rural Israel. This cult is led by a Rabanit (=A female Rabi. In Hebrew the term means a wife of a Rabi, and doesn’t indicate the woman is a Rabi or schooler, herself), Bruria Keren, and abides by an extremely strict dress code of chastity, reminiscent of Muslim women. A religious woman must dress chastely, with shirt sleeves covering her elbows and a skirt down to her ankles. An extremely religious woman may sport a wig over her real hair, as her hair is “an instrument of seduction”. Keren’s women must cover their faces completely, with a shawl. “The whole of a woman is genitalia. It is forbidden for a man, other than your husband to see you.” Says one of Keren’s earnest students and assistant.

(A comment on that post, it should be noted, says that the correct meaning in context is “nakedness” and not “genitalia,” but Hebrew is one language I can’t read at all, so I have no idea.)

I mean, the hair being seductive thing I’ve heard about before, in Islam as well as Judaism. (And modest Christian teens note, a girl playing with her hair may be a stumbling block!) But your whole body being genitalia, or even nakedness? Ewww! Is this the natural, organic trend of religiously-enforced modesty over time? Is this just where it tends to go? This story has so many interesting angles to it that I don’t know where to go next. This is a women’s group, led by a female religious leader, who’s either a rabbi or a rabbi’s wife, I’m not sure. Some of these women’s husbands are not pleased with the whole burqa thing, and one couple even got divorced after a court found the practice too bizarre to allow for a continued marriage. Of course, just because men are upset by it doesn’t make it feminist; there’s a larger context of religiously-regulated modesty to think about, and one Israeli academic worries that rabbis may end up supporting this trend, making it more socially obligatory for Orthodox women in general. “Raising the bar,” so to speak.

Finally, it’s impossible to ignore how this practice makes it much more difficult to visually distinguish between Muslim women practicing hijab and haredi women practicing this strict form of tznius. This presents a problem in Israel. One women quoted in Jameel’s translation talks about her neighbors yelling anti-Arab slurs at her, and says she uses her kids (who presumably look more identifiably Jewish) to prove she’s not an Arab during security checks. Shit, she wouldn’t want to have to deal with Traveling While Arab. I really wonder if any of this small group of women are thinking much about the ramifications and larger meaning of their acts in the ethnic context of Israel and Palestine? All I can say is “whoa… fascinating.” I’d be very interested in takes on this from people who feel more connected to Jewish tradition, haredi communities, the practice of tznius in various places, and equivalents in other cultures such as hijab.


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61 comments for “The whole of a woman is genitalia (or, Jewish women in burkas)

  1. invisible_hand
    December 3, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    the controversial word in question is “ervah,” which implies an improper nakedness. I.e., not all nakedness is ervah, but the nakedness of your mother is.
    your visceral reaction to a poor translation is culturalmy misinformed.

  2. Yuri K.
    December 3, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Not to go all English major, but the text (defined here as a broad range of religious writing and experience) exists outside of the interpreters, and even if this group is really all women and exists without male pressure, they are still being acted on by a dramatically patriarchal text.

    The idea that women are in totality, sexual pleasure for men is certainly a patriarchal idea, and if you get that message enough, you’re probably become extremely frightened of men and of yourself. If you believe that your whole body, is nakedness and only for your husband, you would really strive to cover it up.

  3. Mel
    December 3, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    No, they don’t think about the ethnic and social ramifications in Israel and Palestine because all they’re worried about is fulfilling Halacha (Jewish Religious Law) to the “t”.

    When I read about this in Ha’aretz (in Hebrew) I really had trouble understanding where this woman was coming from, because even the strictest religious Jewish sects that I know (and I know a bunch) never advocated this kind of modesty.
    It’s all the more disconcerting that a woman is pushing this ultra-modest movement, just goes to show how deep Religious Patriarchy goes.

  4. Aunti Disestablishmentarian
    December 3, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    I think it’s important to go back to the Burqa-wearer’s words:

    I don’t want men to look at me. I’m happy being modest.

    She has two distinct goals:

    1) She does not want to be objectified as a woman.

    2) She wants to follow perscribed religious modesty custom- and didn’t feel that the common convention did it to her satisfaction.

    I gotta say, with regard to 1) I respect her choice, and I completely understand the wish to not be objectified.

    As for point 2), I have mixed feelings: A muslim friend who wears the hijab told me that wearing the Burqa is difficult physically, but rewarding spiritually– it allows her to tune out the world and focus on God– that it’s a medatative experience for her. I would call it spiritual blinders, but again, I see her point. The Orthodox woman in this article talks about how the Burqa is something of a test of her faith– an interesting parallel.

    I’m not here to discuss my own feelings about the burqa, but I am concerned that when the woman’s husband went to the rabbi in hopes of having the voice of authority talk his wife out of the burqa, they performed an INVOLUNTARY religious divorce on his behalf.

    Having one’s husband and one’s rabbi getting all into your business is enough do drive anyone further under a burqa permanently.

  5. December 3, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I hate the idea (and it’s found in many religions) that a woman is nakedness, or sexual pleasure, or whatever. Every day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I have an encounter that makes me want to scream “I don’t exist for you!!!

  6. Aunti Disestablishmentarian
    December 3, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    The hijabization of various muslim populations throughout recent history is not always or only a result of Taliban style patriarchal pressure.

    In some cases, it is a reactionary move (presumably popularized by women– but I’d need to look into that to see what kind of patriarchal pressure they might have been under) against Western colonialism. We see this in the Arab world in the 19th Century, but also recently in Egypt popularized by more devout women in Egypt’s universities.

    Initially, many women revolutionaries in Iran in the 80’s welcomed the Hijab as a way to reconnect with the Islamic culture they felt the deposed Westward oriented Shah had compromised. Many also felt it increased their personal freedom, and afforded them more egalitarian treatment within the movement, and within society. (of course this was short-lived, as the religious leaders curtailed more and more of their educational and vocational opportunities very quickly after the revolution, but hey- for a while, hijab promised increased freedom for women– and many women).

    My point is all of this digression to the islamic side of the burqa in a discussion of Jewish modesty is that it’s important to consider the potential feminist side of burqa wearing– and by feminist, I mean self determination, choice and freedom from the male gaze– whether or not the wearer self identifies as feminist. And also regardless of whether or not we feel burqas are a tool of the patriarchy.

  7. December 3, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    We were doing some free-writing exercises in a class of mine today, and one of my peers — an art student in Santa Fe, NM, a very liberal town — described a woman as being “sex from head to toe”… The idea pervades.

  8. December 3, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    Yeah honestly, I don’t think there’s that much of a difference between saying every part of a woman is “naked” or “sex from head to toe” and saying “you’re one big erogenous scandalizing genital.” The difference in attitude between Santa Fe and the orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Shemesh is probably just in attitudes about sex in general; it’s all weirdly essentializing and obsessed with the fecundity of women, or something.

    Not to go all English major, but the text (defined here as a broad range of religious writing and experience) exists outside of the interpreters, and even if this group is really all women and exists without male pressure, they are still being acted on by a dramatically patriarchal text.

    Yeah, no duh.

  9. Astraea
    December 3, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    kissmypineapple: I had to come out of lurking just to say YES!!! I want that on a tee shirt. Every woman should scream that at least once a day.

  10. December 3, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    This was such an interesting post. I’ve just recently started thinking about religious patriarchy and challenging my own jewish beliefs based on the sexist roots…
    Though yours are current examples and bring home the point, sexism in religion (well, the judeo-christian ethic at least) goes all the way back to the story of creation. Aside from Eve being created as an afterthought, from Adam’s rib, she became the villan and quickly “got them kicked out” of the garden… crazy shit.
    Are women second class citizens in all the religions? What about in Hinduism?

  11. Dianne
    December 3, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    The whole of a woman is genitalia.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just strange, but when people say things like that my usual reaction is something on the lines of “Ok, if it’s just as bad to show a centimeter of skin as to go naked, I might as well dump the clothes.”

  12. December 3, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    because all they’re worried about is fulfilling Halacha (Jewish Religious Law) to the “t”.

    I don’t think it’s even fulfilling halacha so much as it is about “I’m MORE religious than you.” The more rules, and the more stringent you are, why, the better a person you are than all those weaklings who don’t practice Extreme Modesty.

    The good thing about not having a centralized church between you and your god is that it allows you to vary in your practice. The bad thing is that it means you get wackaloons.

  13. EG
    December 4, 2007 at 12:05 am

    She does not want to be objectified as a woman.

    But does full covering actually prevent the objectification? I would argue that it just turns you into a “good” object–you’re still the object of all kinds of patriarchal fantasies about what women are/should be. It’s like being the virgin instead of the whore–it doesn’t actually get you out of the patriarchal double standard.

  14. pinkphantasm
    December 4, 2007 at 12:47 am

    My point is all of this digression to the islamic side of the burqa in a discussion of Jewish modesty is that it’s important to consider the potential feminist side of burqa wearing– and by feminist, I mean self determination, choice and freedom from the male gaze– whether or not the wearer self identifies as feminist.

    What I don’t like is that it’s up to women to deflect inappropriate attention. The onus should be on men not to look at women solely as sexual objects. Are these women just perpetuating this structure by choosing to cover up?

  15. Yuri K.
    December 4, 2007 at 1:02 am

    She does not want to be objectified as a woman.

    What does objectified really mean? Removing any vision of her face or features sort of removes the sense that she’s an individual, for one thing. And a full-covering burqa sort of acknowledges that she IS a sex object, and therefore must be hidden. This may be response more than action, but it pretty clearly feeds the pattern that women’s bodies are sex objects, and they must be removed from sight.

  16. arcanu
    December 4, 2007 at 1:23 am

    What about in Hinduism?

    Hinduism has its own issues with patriarchy, but it doesn’t have the focus on clothing that many other religions do. Growing up in South India, girls and women were never asked to cover up their hair. In fact the norm, especially for younger women and girls was to dress in brighter colors and decorate hair with fresh flowers. Conservatives to this day are reluctant about women wearing western clothes, but that dislike seems to have more to do with the fact that the clothes are western rather than that they are more revealing than native clothing styles.

    The thing that strikes me about the practice described in the above article is that these women are so focused on their appearance to the world and how that world sees them. Clearly maintaining that appearance and navigating the world in fully obscuring clothing presents significant challenges to just getting through everyday activities. I respect and understand the choice, but I wonder if focusing so heavily on that aspect of their faith means that other aspects of religious life suffer.

  17. December 4, 2007 at 5:47 am

    What I don’t like is that it’s up to women to deflect inappropriate attention. The onus should be on men not to look at women solely as sexual objects. Are these women just perpetuating this structure by choosing to cover up?

    Absolutely.

    The argument that women should cover up to avoid harassment from men means that:

    1. Men are uncontrollable animals who are not responsible for their actions, and
    2. Women who don’t cover up are somehow responsible for men’s actions towards them.

    1. is particularly insulting to men and 2. is similar to blaming women if they are raped and are not wearing ‘enough’ clothes.

  18. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 6:17 am

    I have a couple of curious reactions to this. I was an Orthodox Jew for over ten years and was a married woman. The community I lived in wasn’t “ultra” anything and that’s not a term I’d use anyway, and it was in the U.S.

    Part of why I left was that I finally couldn’t stand the sexism. And part of the sexism for me was that I was wearing a skirt below my knees and a blouse with sleeves below my elbows and a neckline over my collarbone and a covering over all my hair. For years I liked it, and I found it affirming, but after a while it just hit me that it was all about men and doing what men wanted, which was to keep me from tempting them even though there were other religious reasons given. (But many also involved ideas such as Jewish women being protected or being “princesses” and I don’t particularly want to be a princess. And I’m also oversimplifying the issue but since whole books have been written on it I obviously have no choice.) So I do have a huge problem with someone taking it even further and saying “Women should wear burqas.”

    On the other hand one of the other parts of the sexism was that all Orthodox rabbis are men, and I got very frustrated with the fact that every religious question is, in the end, decided by men in the Orthodox Jewish world. I highly doubt this woman is claiming to be a rabbi or the whole thing would be way more controversial than it is. But she is in some way setting herself as a religious leader, and I can’t help being very intrigued by that.

    Unfortunately I have to agree that I doubt they are trying to make any statement about Muslims and Jews or Israel and Palestine, but I’d of course like to hear their voices on that and on this whole subject.

  19. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 6:19 am

    One note: When I speak of having a problem with someone saying “Women should wear burkas” I meant that in the context of Judaism. I’m not going to speak about Islam or attempt to at all.

  20. Brad Jackson
    December 4, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Its yet more evidence, as if any were needed after the state endorsed assault and battery of Miriam Shear, that Israel, like all governments that allow a mixing of religion and government, will soon become just as much a hellhole as Saudi Arabia and all the others.

    The belief in Israli exceptionalism (ie: “its ok, because “Jewish” has ethnic as well as religious meaning, so it can’t happen here”) is staggering. You *can’t* mix religion and government and expect to get anything but a hellhole, it doesn’t matter if the religion is Islam, Christianity, Shinto, Hinduism, or Judiasm. It just plain isn’t possible, anymore than its possible to get to the moon by flapping your arms. Look at Japan. Around 1868 it started modernizing, but started formally mixing religion and politics as well. By 1930 it was a genuinely fascist state. Coincidence?

    As for the issue specifically at hand, I’ve got to agree with the folks who argue that the extreme covering makes women more objectified. It seems, from my POV, to be agreeing with the misogynist idea that there’s something wrong with women. “Yup, my body is a horrible, evil, corrupting thing and therefore I must spare men the horror of looking at it.”

    Also, as a historian, I can’t help but notice that the status of women is a very good indicator of impending hellhole status for a nation. Women’s status declining == do not walk, RUN, from that nation ASAP. And, arguments to the contrary I fail to see how a rise in “eeew, your bodies are so evil you have to cover them” thinking is anything but a decline in women’s status.

  21. mythago
    December 4, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Brad, as a self-proclaimed historian, you ought to be aware that “mixing religion and government” was the default state of government until quite recently in human history.

  22. December 4, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Speaking as an Orthodox Jew … I’m not sure what to make of this.

    There’s a running gag in our community about “the chumra [religious stringency] of the month club”–some people seem to go out of their way to adopt extreme positions, not just in tzniut but with regard to Sabbath observance, keeping kosher, etc. And Ramat Beit Shemesh has some pretty extreme neighborhoods already.

    On the other hand, I am surprised to read about charedi women adopting a style of dress that is not only a break from the last century or so of Ashkenazi practice, but is clearly associated with some of Israel’s Islamic neighbors, and going against the desires of both their husbands and the local rabbinic leadership. Indeed, the article quotes a rabbinic court as saying “This is a Gentile custom; it’s the way Arab women go around in the Old City [of Jerusalem]”. So I’m wondering if this is some kind of ironic protest against the tzniut codes in general, a la Ladies Against Women.

    Note that religious and secular Israeli Jews move in pretty much separate worlds, so a reporter from Ha’aretz, a secular paper, might have missed some nuances that would explain what’s really going on here.

  23. Sylvia
    December 4, 2007 at 11:11 am

    The recent “Pious Movements” within Islam bring a new context to the Hijab that really ought to be considered in more relevant and recent terms. I say this as a Hijaby (one who wears a headscarf). I didn’t wear it to make a political statement (comparable to the “Afro” doctrine) and I didn’t wear it to rebel against “Western” ideals and influences (circa 1970’s). I wore it based on my religious research (and yes, research that originated with 99% male religious scholars). I weighed the arguments for and against, religious and secular, and am content as I am. What is downright insulting is to be told that I’m wearing it because I’ve subscribed to Patriarchy, and that I’m not “sophisticated” enough in my reasoning to understand that just yet (presumably once I do, I’d shed the scarf as if it were a leech sucking up my autonomy).

    Having said that, I can’t discount the idea of the Hijab stemming from Patriarchal roots. It’s possible. But I can also posit that by not wearing one, it’s because the “man” wants to be able to objectify you as well. That perhaps the miniskirt and the burka are opposite sides of the same debate that will continue -ad nauseum- till the end of time. This is not a “black and white” issue and as with all shades of gray will cause society anxiety and confusion.

    And heaven forbid we stay in such a state. In this day and age we *must!!* form a definitive opinion… (\sarcasm)

  24. Brad Jackson
    December 4, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    mythago Quite aware of that, actually. And, by my lights, every place on Earth until quite recently was a hellhole. One thing studying history does, for most people anyway, is stomp to death any sense of nostalgia; obviously it didn’t affect Newt Gingrich that way, but there’s always at least one idiot in any academic specialty, dozens usually.

    As for “self-proclaimed”, its hardly me just up and deciding, I do have a degree in history. My specialty is Meiji Era Japan (ca 1868-1912), but it isn’t possible to study history of any sort without reading outside your specialty. And one pattern I’ve noticed is that when politics and religion mix hellholes *always* result. I’ll mourn for Israel when its slid into tyrany and inquisitions, but I won’t delude myself into thinking that there is any other possible result to their decision to establish a pseudo-theocracy. Judiasm isn’t special, it isn’t unique, its mixing with politics will produce the exact same result the mixing of every other religion has: a hellhole. Its as inevitable as gravity.

    Sylvia wrote: “I can’t discount the idea of the Hijab stemming from Patriarchal roots. It’s possible.”

    Its “posible”? What other roots can it possible have sprung from? I’m asking in all seriousness, not trying to be nasty.

    I’d argue that the patriarchy has existed for all of recorded human history, and therefore pretty much every cultural artifact we possess springs from patriarchal roots, including both Hijabs and miniskirts, and Van Dyke beards and Mohawks.

    I will, of course, not argue with your own conclusions regarding your own clothing; you’ve got the right to wear anything you want for whatever reasons you want, or at least I hope you live in a nation that grants that right.

    I would, however, be interested in your reasoning behind adopting the Hijab, if you’ve got the time and willingness to expound. From my POV it seems to declare that women are unclean, unwholesome, and must be covered to an extent that men are not, it seems otherizing in other words. Self evidently you have a completely different view and I’d like to try to understand your viewpoint.

  25. TinaH
    December 4, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    The whole of a woman is genitalia.

    My first thought was succubus, anyone?

  26. December 4, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    Brad: Israel is a “pseudo-theocracy”? WTF?

  27. Karna
    December 4, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    What I don’t like is that it’s up to women to deflect inappropriate attention. The onus should be on men not to look at women solely as sexual objects. Are these women just perpetuating this structure by choosing to cover up?

    It’s been said, but I’ll say it again. YES!!!!! This is my whole problem with any kind of religiously dictated modesty dress-amish(which may not be a religion, but I don’t know the correct word to use), this burquas, etc. I respect that it’s a choice, but quite frankly, it’s a choice to buy into the system that oppresses women, to keep “going after a moving target” as was said in a different post here. and for that reason, I can’t and won’t support it. Women should not agree to take responsibility for how men treat them like this. Even if it is by choice

  28. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    I am surprised to read about charedi women adopting a style of dress that is not only a break from the last century or so of Ashkenazi practice, but is clearly associated with some of Israel’s Islamic neighbors, and going against the desires of both their husbands and the local rabbinic leadership.

    No offense intended, but the irony there is almost painful for me personally: Women are mandated to dress tzniusly but only in the way men tell them to. To me it’s like even more proof that tznius is all about what men want women to do. And sadly I can extend that principle far past tznius.

    I’m not saying you are saying this but it’s there.

  29. December 4, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    I’m going to ask that commenters in this thread be respectful of individual’s choices in dress — and when critiquing an overall institution such as a religious mandate on dress or behavior, please do not forget to turn that same lens on yourself first. Are you conforming to a standard of showing or not showing parts of your body that derives from larger social forces that you’re willingly or unconsciously subscribing to? If you’ve given this some thought for yourself (like Sylvia has, for instance) then please feel free to share your reasons. I don’t want to see a whole lot of “oh my god can you believe what they’re doing over there?” in this thread, and although most commenters have been moderate so far, I feel like it’s tending in that direction. I’m glad Sylvia and other people who have experience with hijab and tznius are posting about their experiences, and would not like to see those voices drowned in a bunch of very predictable Western / mainstream reactions.

    I’ll speak for myself: in most cases, especially in public, I dress modestly with most of my body covered up, even though I’m an atheist and nobody’s telling me to (at least not directly). It’s for some of the same reasons mentioned — I really don’t want the attention. Sometimes I want even less attention and wear more shapeless clothes. Of course, the difference here is that I’m not doing so in a systematic or prescribed way, or for any reasons having to do with religion or ethical philosophy. I’m doing so because of social forces beyond my control. I suppose maybe I escape from being objectified because I’m not fitting directly into some stereotype of women that’s been long-established by tradition… but really, can any of us claim to totally escape that?

  30. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Brad: At this point, this isn’t connected to the government in the least. I’m not saying that religion and government aren’t connected in Israel and I know there are many people who would like to see them even more connected (and I could say that last about the U.S. too…) but that’s pretty much a tangent from this article as I see it.

    Sylvia: I think you make a very good point. I’m not opposed to women wearing miniskirts (or hijabs/modest dress) but it’s not like women exposing their bodies could never come from a place of “Men want me to look this way.” And assuming women have never examined their own religious practices and if they’re happy with him it’s because they’re “unsophisticated” is a huge mistake.

    Speaking for my own experience in Orthodox Judaism, part of what frustrated me was the general sexism I felt was present all over in the community. It would have been easier to see modest dress as affirming or symbolic (in a good way) if I hadn’t felt like I was being placed so firmly into a “woman’s role” in other ways.

    But obviously there are huge numbers of Orthodox Jewish women who don’t feel that way. (And who have different attitudes about what constitutes modest dress, as well.)

    And again I won’t even presume to speak of another religion’s practice on this. I’m a little uncomfortable already speaking about modest dress as if it’s one huge issue.

  31. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    if I hadn’t felt like I was being placed so firmly into a “woman’s role” in other ways.

    Actually, I’d like to clarify that, because it’s not really what I meant to say. It wasn’t about how much it affected me personally because I hardly had a circumscribed life. It was a general attitude about what women should do and whether the things they are validated for doing are really considered as important as what men are validated for doing (beyond lip service), and the fact that there had to be different roles for men and women at all. But that’s going a little off topic from tnizius.

  32. December 4, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Women are mandated to dress tzniusly but only in the way men tell them to.

    My first reaction was to say, of course, the charedi community is not exactly a hotbed of feminism. (There are feminist strains within the larger Orthodox community…for certain values of “feminist” and/or “Orthodox”…but that’s a topic for another thread.)

    My second reaction was to say, wait a minute, if a man in that community told his wife “I’d like you to go out in a tank top and shorts” and she said “no”, the rest of the community would stand with her against him.

    My third reaction was to say, but patriarchy is not just “rule by men” but “rule by the patriarchs”, and that’s where the community’s rules of tzniut are being set, by the male rabbinic leadership.

    My fourth reaction was to say, but if all the rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh stood before the community and said, “you know, we overdid it on this tznius thing, it’s really OK for women to expose their knees and elbows”, the whole community, the men and the women, would denounce them for being too lenient.

    (One Jew, four opinions.)

    I also think that a Jewish or Muslim woman’s desire to dress modestly cannot be separated from her desire to follow (what she sees as) the other commandments of her religion. Conservative religious doctrines generally present themselves as “package deals”, so to speak, even though apologists for the doctrine will be happy to provide external rationale for some of the individual items in the package.

  33. December 4, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    It’s not really one huge issue — it’s an area in which a lot of issues collide and combine. Gender, harassment, sexuality, visibility, objectification, religious practices, choices, etc. I think the best place to start speaking about this is from your own experiences and the contexts you’ve been in — and while being clear about what things aren’t in your experience, like you do at the end. I mean, I’m not part of any religious tradition, so all I can really do on that aspect of this is listen and learn.

    As for Israel’s government, rosehiptea’s right that this is not part of government enforcement. At this point, it’s not even part of what rabbis are telling people to do — it’s a rabanit who is encouraging this. (see the quote in the original post) If you want some material about Israel’s religious state affecting people in adverse ways, though, here’s an article:

    Not Jewish enough to marry a Cohen

    Some couples are unable to get married in Israel because in Israel, every marriage is a religious marriage and some marriages are not halachically permitted. For instance, the woman in this couple is Jewish, but her father’s not Jewish — so I guess maybe she’s a mamzer? — and she is not allowed to marry her fiancee in Israel because he’s a Cohen. I’m not that familiar with all the ins and outs of marriage in Israel but I know it’s been debated for a long time and even caused political upheaval. But basically, there is no civil marriage in Israel, and if you’re Jewish, you can only be married religiously by an Orthodox rabbi, who will subject you and your spouse to religious law. I don’t know if that makes Israel a “theocracy” per se but it’s certainly a heavy intermingling of church and state.

  34. Kyle
    December 4, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    The few references by previously-orthodox Jews (specifically, rosehiptea) on here reminded me of this article from the New York Times about the rise of independent Jewish prayer groups in the US, where the attendees lead the service in communal fashion. The article cites gender inequality within Orthodox shuls, where women’s participation is limited, as a key driver the new movement’s popularity. While all the conservative/”fundamentalist” diversions within organized religion may make headlines for great conversation, it’s only going to provide these ideas with a road to mainstream adoption. What better way to counteract intolerance than by discussing progressive movements like this one.

  35. December 4, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Holly: the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is not, repeat, not a mamzer. The rules for who a cohen may or may not marry are separate from the rules covering mamzerim (who can’t marry anyone except for converts and other mamzerim).

    The rabbinic monopoly over Jewish marriage in Israel is the artifact of a sixty-year-old deal between Ben-Gurion and Agudath Israel. In exchange for rabbinic control over Jewish personal-status issues, making the Israeli army keep kosher, giving yeshiva students draft exemptions, and making the Jewish sabbath the national day of rest, Agudath Israel agreed to cooperate with the secular Jewish state. (This was an easy deal to make at the time, because each side believed that the other’s numbers would soon dwindle to irrelevancy.)

    Secular Israelis have been annoyed by this policy for a long time, but since the religious parties control swing votes in the legislature, they have been able to block any changes. And as the article hints, there’s a very easy way to work around the marriage monopoly–get married outside of Israel.

    When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved (please, God, soon), then the Orthodox-secular conflict will probably take center stage within Israel.

  36. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    I also think that a Jewish or Muslim woman’s desire to dress modestly cannot be separated from her desire to follow (what she sees as) the other commandments of her religion. Conservative religious doctrines generally present themselves as “package deals”, so to speak, even though apologists for the doctrine will be happy to provide external rationale for some of the individual items in the package.

    I completely agree with this.

    Holly — the woman in the article is definitely not a mamzer, and mamzerus is extremely rare. (Not that that makes the problem any better per se.) A woman who is a convert (which would be me) or is divorced (which would also be me) cannot marry a cohen and this is not the first case in Israel of a cohen and his chosen partner not being allowed to marry. (There’s a wikipedia article on “Kohen” too with some references to this and other issues.)

    However, I don’t remember ever hearing that a woman whose father is Jewish can’t marry a cohen. Maybe I’m just forgetting things faster than I thought, or there’s some circumstance here that I don’t know about. Maybe someone else has information on this.

    But anyway, there’s certainly a huge intermingling of religion and state in Israel.

    (I know it sounds like I’m discussing this very dispassionately. Part of that is that the fact that not all women can marry cohanim is very well-known in Orthodox Jewish circles, and I also knew that was legally enforced in Isreal, so I’m so used to this that I’m not shocked at all.)

    Kyle — That’s a really interesting article. It’s been hard for me to try any other form of Jewish practice even though I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew my whole life, because to be honest I had not seen them as valid or been encouraged to see them as valid in any way. The marginalization of women in synagogue practice was not an issue for me when I first began to be Orthodox but eventually it did bother me a great deal, probably because as I said above I felt that it wasn’t something only confined to synagogue practice.

  37. rosehiptea
    December 4, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Seth Gordon — I didn’t see your post before I posted. I’m curious whether you know anything about a woman whose father is not Jewish not being allowed to marry a cohen. Maybe it’s getting off topic, since the main issue is the enforcement of any religious law in the civil sphere and not what the laws specifcially are, but the article was does confuse me.

  38. December 4, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Now that you mention it, I don’t know where that rabbinic court got the idea that a Jewish daughter of a mixed marriage is ineligible to marry a cohen. I don’t know if this is a generally-accepted law or a stringency that only some communities follow. (Not being a cohen or a rabbi, I’m not well-read in this subject.)

  39. December 4, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    “The whole of a woman is genitalia.”

    I remember reading somewhere that the word “wife” comes from an Old English or Old High Germand word that means “vagina”…

    *sigh*

  40. Brad Jackson
    December 4, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Seth “Pseudo-theocracy” becuase Israel has not, yet, fallen all the way into that trap, but the day of true theocracy seems ever closer.

    There’s the marriage issue, which has already been discussed, the religious based immegration policy, etc. There’s also the fact that the Israeli government is funding, both directly and indirectly the seriously misogynist and arch-conservative Haredi. Small steps, each one bringing Israel closer to the abyss.

    The problem is that in order to save Israel the Israelis will have to abandon the very reason for its founding, and I don’t see that happening. Giving up a dream is hard, even when there are very good reasons to do so, even when the dream is fatally flawed.

    rosehiptea I didn’t mean to imply that this particular was endorsed, or otherwise tied to, the Israeli government. But where the people go governments tend to follow, especially if the people in question are vocal and can claim moral superiority. I know that most Israelis aren’t backwards idiots, but they aren’t the ones screaming so they aren’t the ones the government caters to. Thus we see gay pride marches quashed, and tax money spent on the Haredi, and the secular, non-crazy, majority dragged along on the journey to hellhole status.

    None of which is on topic, and I appologize for the derail.

    I hope Sylvia posts again on this thread, many of us here seem to have a similar attitude regarding unequal “modesty” requirements, so I’d really like to hear why she doesn’t think its a bad thing.

  41. December 4, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Brad, where are you getting your information about Israeli politics and history from?

    The issues of marriage and government subsidy of religious institutions have been around since the founding of the state, so Israel is no closer to a “true theocracy” than it was in 1948. Likewise for the Law of Return (automatic citizenship for Jewish immigrants), which in some cases does not follow the Orthodox definition of “who is a Jew”.

    And despite bitter opposition from the Orthodox establishment, there was a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem this year.

    The overwhelming majority of Israelis do not want to live under a theocracy, and the Orthodox minority does not have the power to stage a coup and impose one on the majority–especially since there are multiple Orthodox parties that don’t always agree on everything.

    And the majority of twentieth-century Zionists were secular Jews who saw statehood in nationalist terms, not religious terms.

  42. Sylvia
    December 4, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Brad,

    I have a final in one hour but I promise I’ll post tonight. In the meantime, can you please expound on the below? I don’t want to misinterpret your statement:

    …many of us here seem to have a similar attitude regarding unequal “modesty” requirements, so I’d really like to hear why she doesn’t think its a bad thing.

  43. Brad Jackson
    December 4, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    Sylvia I was paraphrasing what I saw many people who object to the veils, burquas, headscarves, etc on this thread seemed (from my POV) to be saying. It is, essentially, the same argument I have with such articles of clothing.

    They seem, to me and I think to many others (Karna for example), to be an expression of unequal modesty, and therefore a kowtowing to the patriarchy. Men aren’t required to wear the otherizing clothing, just women. Further, while the various religions require “modesty” for both sexes, there is a vile double standard involved. According to some for a woman to be visibly bipedal is “immodest”, while men can wear pants. Men can go with their faces uncovered, women can’t.

    Worse, the double standard becomes especially nasty when it comes to societal enforcement of “modesty”. Men who violate their (vastly easier and less otherizing) code are typically not harshly dealt with, while even a minor or unintentional infaction by a woman who violates the much harsher and vastly more otherizing code tends to be severely penalized.

    Take headscarves specifically, they sexualize, of all bizarre things, the head; but only for women. Men aren’t required to wear one to be “modest”, but women are. To me that looks like a double standard.

    Which is why, to me, it seems as if embracing that sort of thing is embracing the misogynistic attitude that says that women are dirty, evil, unclean, while men aren’t.

    To me it isn’t about covering, or uncovering, what any particular society says you should or shouldn’t. Its about equality, and every code of “modesty” I’ve ever seen is fundamentally unequal, and always in a way that makes life harder for women.

    Which is why I’m especially interested in your viewpoint, because its obviously quite diffrent from mine.

    Seth I’ve not made a formal study of Israeli history, and my interest in its politics is relatively recent, dating back to 1990 or thereabouts, and its only tangentally related to my primary interests. Most of what I know, therefore, tends to come from news stories on specific events (the bus beatings, the foiled attempts to have a gay pride parade until the rally of 2006, which was (from my POV) still a foiled parade). Which, I suppose, is a long way of saying I’m shooting off my mouth about matters I don’t fully understand.

    However, according to many people who do fully understand the issue, the various Ultra-Orthodox groups, especially the Haredi, are growing in power and influence. Yosseph Shilhav, for example.

    And, to me that seems inevitable. Religious extremists are typically seen by religious moderates as having a purity, which grants them power beyond their numbers. For example 23% of Israeli youth are now educated by the Haredi, not a majority, but more than it was a few years back, and a growing problem.

    The bus cases, I think, perfectly illustrate the way religious fundamentalism can creep into secular society. The government is not only disinterested in enforcing the rights of women on the busses, it often seems actively on the side of the extremists. And many of the secular Israelis take it for granted, of course those uppity women were beaten, they should have moved to the back of the bus.

    Could you dig up a link to the 2007 pride parade you mention? I’ve searched and all I could find was the 2006 rally which was held in lieu of a parade. I’m interested in seeing how this year’s event went.

    [1] In quotes becuase I’d like to emphisize that the word doesn’t seem to have any actual definition, but rather an ever changing sheaf of multiple definitions.

  44. December 4, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    Could you dig up a link to the 2007 pride parade you mention?

    CBS News, 2007-06-21: Jerusalem Gay Pride March Draws 2,500

    The bus cases, I think, perfectly illustrate the way religious fundamentalism can creep into secular society. The government is not only disinterested in enforcing the rights of women on the busses, it often seems actively on the side of the extremists. And many of the secular Israelis take it for granted, of course those uppity women were beaten, they should have moved to the back of the bus.

    You are making sweeping and insulting generalizations about both the Israeli government and its secular citizens based on, as you yourself admit, very limited information.

    Here’s how I see what’s going on: Each Orthodox community sees the neighborhoods where they live as their turf, and they want to police their view of morality on their turf. The secular Israelis usually acquiesce to that because they have no interest in hanging out in Orthodox neighborhoods anyway. The government acquiesces to that because it co-opts the Orthodox leadership into the secular power structure.

    But every once in a while, there are turf battles. The bus beating you refer to, IIRC, involved a bus line that served both charedi and secular neighborhoods. The brouhaha over Gay Pride was an attempt by the various Orthodox factions to claim all of Jerusalem as their turf, in a sense–and it failed. Similar conflicts have happened over whether a street serving both charedi and secular neighborhoods should be closed on the Sabbath.

    I don’t like this system, but the vast majority of Israelis seem to accept it, and I don’t think it’s leading to a theocracy. On the contrary, since the rabbinate is given just enough power to do things in their own neighborhoods that the majority finds distasteful, I think this system prevents theocracy from becoming any more popular.

  45. December 4, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    PS: Happy Chanukah! May the holiday fill your heart with the spirit of resistance to cultural assimilation. :-/

  46. rosehiptea
    December 5, 2007 at 2:24 am

    Happy Chanukah! May the holiday fill your heart with the spirit of resistance to cultural assimilation. :-/

    Uh… same to you? Maybe we need some good links about women and Channukah, though not in this post I suppose.

  47. Brad Jackson
    December 5, 2007 at 7:14 am

    Seth Thanks, I don’t know why I couldn’t find any links.

    As for Chanukah, I’d forgotten it started so early this year. Means Easter and Chinese New Year will be earlier than I usually think of ’em too I suppose. And a happy Chanukah to you as well.

  48. December 6, 2007 at 11:40 am

    here are some photos from pride tel aviv 2007: http://pixane.net/blog/archives/326

  49. Ann
    December 6, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    A couple of posters have characterized someone else’s opinion (whether actually expressed here or not) as “insulting.” I find this “amusing.” Something might be insulting and still be true, or at least not disproved yet. Just saying that something is insulting isn’t really an argument.
    Sylvia, I don’t mean to pick on you or argue with you about hijab, but I’m going to use your post as an example. You say “What is downright insulting is to be told that I’m wearing it because I’ve subscribed to Patriarchy, and that I’m not “sophisticated” enough in my reasoning to understand that just yet.”
    Is it your contention that such a notion could never be true about anyone? That there are NO women who have “subscribed to patriarchy” and are not yet sophisticated in their reasoning? If it could be true about someone, then it is a legitimate notion, regardless of whether it is true with regard to you, and deserves to be explored—in an appropriate context.
    Waxing indignant and claiming “outrage” just derails the conversation, which is exactly the strategy that Dana Perino used when Helen Thomas asked her about the deaths of innocent Iraqis. Any time women talk about the various compromises and decisions we all have to make every day, we should accept as a starting premise that we HAVE been deeply affected by patriarchy, and that we might not always see it accurately in ourselves.

  50. Ann
    December 6, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Oni Baba, a quick online search or the use of a good dictionary should disprove the “wife=vagina” notion. Mostly you’ll get “origin obscure.”

  51. December 7, 2007 at 1:27 am

    And, by my lights, every place on Earth until quite recently was a hellhole.

    That’s a nice closed system. Every place on earth was always a hellhole. How do we know? Because it mixed religion and politics. But how do we know that mixing religion and politics is bad? Because every place on earth until recently was always a hellhole.

  52. Sylvia
    December 7, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Ann,

    A couple of posters have characterized someone else’s opinion (whether actually expressed here or not) as “insulting.” I find this “amusing.”

    If I find your opinions based on my decisions as insulting, tell me again why I shouldn’t feel that way? Why is this “amusing” (as opposed to let’s say disheartening or perhaps odd) ? I hope it wasn’t your intent, but to be “amused” seems patrnoizing and quite dismissive. Are your opinions any more valid than mine? What you’ve done (I’m hoping unwittingly) is you’ve basically dismissed my feelings as misguided. This is precisely the the kind of issue I was speaking about, so thank you for providing a live example of what I meant.

    Something might be insulting and still be true, or at least not disproved yet. Just saying that something is insulting isn’t really an argument.

    Umm…isn’t that what I stated when I said it’s possible that the hijab came from Patriarchy? Also, you’re conflating two seperate issues. You can debate the hijab on merits but it must be done in a constructive manner- and not from a condescending or belittlling point of view. It really can’t be said simpler than this.

    Sylvia, I don’t mean to pick on you or argue with you about hijab, but I’m going to use your post as an example. You say “What is downright insulting is to be told that I’m wearing it because I’ve subscribed to Patriarchy, and that I’m not “sophisticated” enough in my reasoning to understand that just yet.” Is it your contention that such a notion could never be true about anyone? That there are NO women who have “subscribed to patriarchy” and are not yet sophisticated in their reasoning? If it could be true about someone, then it is a legitimate notion, regardless of whether it is true with regard to you, and deserves to be explored—in an appropriate context.

    I think you missed the entire spirit and point of my post. It wasn’t meant to be taken as a “universal” – it was based on my experience and the experience of a lot of women who wear the hijab. What is really frustrating is when, as a woman who wears the hijab, I’m told my opinions/viewpoints/etc need subsequent “validation” from other women who supposedly already have the “freedom” to do what they please (as if I don’t?).

    Waxing indignant and claiming “outrage” just derails the conversation, which is exactly the strategy that Dana Perino used when Helen Thomas asked her about the deaths of innocent Iraqis. Any time women talk about the various compromises and decisions we all have to make every day, we should accept as a starting premise that we HAVE been deeply affected by patriarchy, and that we might not always see it accurately in ourselves.

    Once again I think you’re conflating two seperate issues. Of course we need to reflect on the deep ramifications of Patriarchy. I’m not saying that I’m not or haven’t been affected. What I am saying, however, is that no has the right to dictate for the other the level to which we’ve been affected and/or who’s response to this manifestation is better or more enlightened than the other.

  53. Ann
    December 7, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Sylvia, who said anything about “dictating”? I’m saying that raising the “that’s insulting” card is not a legitimate debating technique. In many cases—although perhaps not yours—it’s just a way to shut down the discussion.

  54. Sylvia
    December 7, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Ann,

    Once again, I think you’re missing one of my points. I’m not speaking of the debate issue in and of itself. I’m speaking of the many instances when those who debate do so in a disagreeable manner- thereby leaving the other person to feel insulted. Yes, one person’s “insult” may be another man’s “opinion”. But if I were the one trying to dissuade/convince another, I would try to address the person in a manner which leaves him/her more receptive to my reasoning. By not acknowleding their feelings, this shuts down a discussion before it even starts (and not the other way around which is what I think you’re stating).

    I do understand your point however, and yes it happens a lot. But again, you’ll be able to engage those “insultees” (not a real word, I know, but whatever- it’s all good) in a far more efficient manner when putting yourself in their shoes and looking at it from their point of view.

  55. Ann
    December 7, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    That’s a good point, Sylvia, although I like to think that if you’d made it in your original posting I wouldn’t have missed it!

    But I wasn’t actually debating any of your points, so whether I missed them is irrelevant. I don’t care whether you wear hijab. You could plug in any other debate topic (breastfeeding in public/taking my husband’s last name/whatever) and my point would remain the same. My point was about an argumentation technique.

    In your lengthy exegesis of my original post, you wondered why I put “amusing” in quotes. It’s because my amusement and your umbrage have exactly the same weight with regard to the truth, which is to say, none. I had exactly one point to make, and that remains: Saying “I’ve been insulted” derails the discussion.

    I did NOT say that other people are entitled to insult you, or that we should not try to understand other people’s viewpoints. This is not something on which we disagree.

  56. December 7, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    The appropriate response when someone you’re having a discussion with sincerely says they feel insulted by something they said is to try and understand why, then apologize and see if you can express yourself in terms that don’t offend them. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and you’ve reached an ideological impasse.

    I don’t think that’s the case here since Sylvia has a perfectly good reason to feel insulted, and it should be obvious to anyone who’s actually paying attention why. Heck, I felt offended and rather disgusted by some of the blanket statements being made here about a generalized, abstract “women who wear hijab” without any regard for the ways that the speakers’ own culture place gendered strictures on clothing. I didn’t choose to express my feelings in my previous response — but had I chosen to expose my feelings on the subject, I don’t think it would be “derailing” to the entire conversation. Are feelings really that scary or sidetracking? If someone told me that, I’d find it rather belittling and silencing.

    Ironically, if anyone has succeeded in comlpetely derailing this conversation, it’s Ann. You’ve managed to carry it off on a tangent into some kind of argument about whether people ought to express their feelings of being insulted, disgusted, outraged or amused in a discussion. Nice work.

  57. Sylvia
    December 9, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Ann,

    If by stating you’re insulted “derails” a debate, I would counter that your debate was on really shaky ground to begin with. If I sighed or cried or laughed, and we suddenly shut down the debate, that means we have bigger issues at hand-namely our communication. I’d really advise you to reread those posts and really examine where you’re coming from. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’re as unmolested as you seem to think (in terms of intention.)

    Thanks Holly. I was really wondering whether or not I missed something. :D

  58. Sylvia
    December 9, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    It’s because my amusement and your umbrage have exactly the same weight with regard to the truth, which is to say, none.

    Sorry one last thing: Even as a practicing Muslim, I strongly believe in “There is no truth: only interpretation.” No one has a monopoly on “truth” and as such, sentences like those scare the hell out of me. It just reinforces my original point.

  59. July 23, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    I’m a lover not a hater, superb post. Let us all live in peace

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