The title to this post could also be “Anything you can do, I can do better.” I’ve long believed that bickering and conflict between the three Abramic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is a bit like sibling rivalry, as I’ve said before, and the story below just confirms that belief. The three are very similar, but the differences are all the more contentious because of that.
Apparently there is a new trend among ultra Orthodox Charedi women in Israel. Inspired by Rebbetzin Bruria Keren, these ultra Orthodox women wear ten skirts, seven long robes, five kerchiefs knotted at the chin, three knotted at the back of the head, hide their faces behind a veil and then cover themselves with several thin shawls. Whew! I’m surprised that these women can walk after putting all those clothes on.
The effect is somewhat like a niqab, or a full Islamic veil revealing only the eyes. I refer to and repeat my comments about the niqab (here and here). An outward show of inner faith, or a display of modesty before God are, to my mind, acceptable reasons for wearing religious costume. But as a feminist, I draw the line at religious costumes which impede women from interacting with the outside world. If a woman cannot engage in face to face communication, cannot drive, cannot run, cannot drink a glass of water in public…then I think it’s just plain wrong. It makes her less of a person than a man. I also dislike the idea that layers of clothing must be worn because a woman’s body is peculiarly seductive, or because it is thought that women’s bodies are unclean or lewd.
There are a number of interesting things about this phenomenon. First, the ultra Orthodox men tend to dislike the practice, despite their emphasis on tzniut, or modesty, in women. Thus it has been considered to be a kind of “counter revolution” – women saying, “Well, if you’re going to ask us to be modest, we’ll do that to the maximum degree possible.” I still don’t think that it can be considered “empowerment”, except in a very negative way.
The other interesting thing is that the women are apparently mistaken for Arab Muslims or Arab Christians, and are somewhat offended by this. They don’t feel any solidarity with their Arab sisters. I wonder, as foreshadowed by the alternative title to the post, whether there’s a sense of “oneupwomanship” here: “You Muslims think you’re modest? We Jews can be ten times more modest, and wear even sillier outfits, just watch us.” I’m waiting for some fundamentalist Christian women to start wearing old fashioned metal diving suits, just to show that they are the most modest of all.
In the end, it’s up to all these women (of whatever religion) to choose to wear whatever they please. I don’t really mind, as long as they don’t judge me for what I choose to wear, and don’t impose their standards on me or my daughter. My body is not dirty, thank you very much, and nor am I a harlot because I show my ankles. To me, empowerment is being able to move and communicate freely.
And it’s stories like the one of Indian tennis player Sania Mirza which make me believe that requiring women to cover up cannot be empowering or “feminist”. Mirza is an Indian Muslim, and some radical clerics have issued a fatwa against her. She has just withdrawn from the Bangalore Open after receiving threats because she wears short skirts and sleeveless tops.