A lot of pieces have been circulating the jblogosphere the past few weeks and months regarding religious Jewish women's dress standards, ranging from the Jewish "burqa" sitings in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, to the inappropriate imposition of sackcloths on young dancers at the Jerusalem Bridge dedication ceremony.
Some of these stories, like those regarding the March 2008 arrest of an abusive Beit Shemesh mother of 12, might suggest some link between overly-zealous dress codes, and a tendency toward child abuse. (If you choose to follow the link, beware: I started to feel sick to my stomach reading just a few of these postings back-to-back). In this case, a woman, Rabbanit Keren, is the reported leader of a controlling, sect-like approach toward excessively "modest" dress and abusive child-rearing practices.
Other incidents, like the now-famous bridge ceremony, on June 26 (during which a girls' dance troupe was forced to wear dark knit caps and shapeless brow cover-ups over their costumes, or forfeit their performance), reflect a successful attempt on the part of a political-religious leader - in this case, Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Yehoshua Pollack to impose his personal/community standards of women's dress onto others, in this case, directly onto the dancers themselves, and indirectly onto the entire public of Jerusalem.
I, among many, many others, was not impressed with Mayor Lupolianski's response to his deputy's bullying. Many people saw it as yet another version of religious coercion by religious city council members. I, too, am convinced this was a major factor, and having grown up in a country where the separation of church and state is practically holy - or at least was, prior to the second Bush Administration - this aspect of Israeli society is especially challenging for me, on almost every level. (More on that later).
I tend to classify the concept of tzniut (modesty in dress, as opposed to anava, humility), as a tradition passed by example from mother to daughter, from within the family framework. This is not to say the community did not play a significant role -- of course it did. I've no doubt that, a hundred years ago, a young woman who hiked her skirt up, or ran around in trousers, was duly shunned by her teachers (if she was lucky enough to have them) or peers, and possibly also by some version of a community "modesty patrol."
However, the past generation or two of religious Jewry has seen what I believe is a significant change in approach.
Dress standards continue to come from within the family, with the mother remaining a central influence. But there is another voice which has been growing louder and louder, and this is a male voice - the rabbi writing a book with "approved" line drawings of sleeves that cover the elbow. The (always male) religious community leader encouraging "modest dress only" signs in supermarkets. The yeshiva bochers illegally hanging modesty signs and spray-painting graffiti on the property of others. The violent rabble-rousers throwing rocks at women driving cars, with the intent to scare, threaten, and harm.
Did you catch that?
Yes, that list went from relatively harmless behavior, to fanatic, injurious behavior. That's exactly how it happens... what might have begun as an attempt to encourage certain standards within one community, can balloon out of control into a violent, out-of-control demonstration for which no one takes the responsibility to publicly announce, This is wrong.
Don't misunderstand me. What is difficult for me to fathom is not the idea that religious men care about women's modesty. Through my work in a large medical institution, I have had the privilege of meeting many men (Jewish and Muslim) who uphold high standards of personal modesty and interpersonal relations. I believe that most religious men feel real respect toward women and make great efforts to uphold personal and religious standards of interpersonal relations, through avoiding exposure to things they don't want to see, or that they feel they shouldn't see.
What I don't understand is twofold: Why do so many religious Jewish community leaders (male and female, self-appointed and otherwise) choose the subject of women's modesty as their main public venue for control and compliance within their communities.
And on a more troubling note, what causes so many women to feel obligated to comply to every last standard, and sometimes far beyond that?
OK, we'll pick this one up later...
Keep the balance,