Dance of the seven robes

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.

(Via Indyblogs)


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.


Filed under christianity, feminism, islam, judaism, sexuality, society, tolerance

12 responses to “Dance of the seven robes

  1. I think radical Muslim clerics must work fulltime making enormous lists of very offensive people, given the number of fatwas they issue. And hee – I can’t wait for someone to break out the metal diving suit modesty outfit. I actually think that would be very valuable in a “hey, this is all a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?” kind of way.

  2. Little old me

    a niqab could come in handy when you don’t want to do your hair but have to go shopping, don’t you think?

  3. I think a hijab (just the one that covers your hair) would have definite advantages in public on a Bad Hair Day. But then when you took it off inside, the Bad Hair might just look a whole lot worse…

  4. LE: You said: "To me, empowerment is being able to move and communicate freely."

    Mohammed was certainly ahead of his time on the empowerment of women (e.g. "maintenance" of divorced wives). This may have been due to enlightenment, or (being facetious), the threat of a "squirrel grip" from Khadijah, his wife and small-businesswoman. His guidance (as opposed to the mad mullahs since) was often rooted in practicality (e.g. the frail and young children need not fast during Ramadan). Thus I’m think Mohammed would question the wisdom of heavy (and dark) clothing out in the hot direct sun of an Australian summer, as well as the wearing of hijabs when swimming in public. I suspect such appeals to practicality within Islam have less authority than in Judaism.

    Also, I’m surprised that over-the-top religiously-motivated dress by males doesn’t receive the same attention. It’s just as worrying to me seeing ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dressed for a Siberian Winter during the hot Australian summer (particularly around parts of Elsternwick and Caulfield in Melbourne) as it is seeing a woman burdened by a heavy dark hijab in the same conditions.

  5. BTW: What would you think of women conforming to purest Jainism, which means you are “sky clad”? (See Would tabloids promote religious dresscodes?)

  6. LDU


    If you assess the status of women during the time leading up to Mohammed’s prophethood, his teachings on women makes him come out a feminist.

    About the hijab, section 33:59 of the Quran reads: “O Prophet, tell the believing women that they should cast garments over themselves…that they should be known…and not molested.”

    From my understanding, in Arabia, those with little clothing were usually slaves, and thus harassed. Therefore the covering for Muslim women was required to protect them from harassment.

    There are scholars who argue that if a Muslim lady is harassed because of her Hijab, then it is permitted for her not to wear one. Here is one such opinion:

  7. LDU,
    Thanks. (As you’re quoting the Q’ran on women’s issues, I’ll also throw in the bit about Mary having really bad labor pains when Jesus was born).
    I wasn’t aware of the scholarly view that justifies NOT wearing a hijab. Thanks again.
    Unfortunately, the “laws” from the Q’ran (including Sharia which developed like common law, I believe) are often not written by scholars, but by the Islamic equivalents of Southern US Fundamentalists. There’s a good quote on the way Sharia has developed from the work of a 19th century islamic scholar

    Now, the author of the Hedaya and other writers on the Common Law quote only those few passages from the Koran which are absolute or unconditional, and shut their eyes against those many conditional verses, and general scope and tenor of the Koran. It is not to be wondered that the Mohammadan legists or the compilers of the Common Law are wrong in this point. Because, as a rule, or as a matter of fact, they have compiled the Common Law from different sources irrespective of the Koran, ….. Then only they commit the unpardonable blunder of citing isolated parts of solitary verses of the Koran, which are neither expressive enough nor are in general terms. In doing so, they avoid the many other conditional and more explicit verses on the same subject.

    Mind you, I know next to nothing about the way Sharia operates, especially between different countries, or whether it is indeed unified and dogmatic the way some fundies think it is.
    Is the scholar you mention making an appeal to “natural law”, such as is possibly under equity law in our system?
    My ignorance annoys me.

  8. LDU

    The Sharia, as i understand it, is like our common law. The Sharia covers every aspect affecting Muslim life such as: defining good manners, how to maintain personal hygiene, how to interact with members of the opposite sex, the rights of minorities, rulings on praying methods, avenues to overcome marital dilemmas, how to marry and divorce (and rulings on prenups), finance and how to conduct business matters (not being involved in interest and usury) etc…

    Now, all of the Sharia, as a body of law, isn’t found in the Quran and Sunna (teachings of Mohammed), although most of it is. In situations which were non existent in the Prophets time, scholars may deliberate. For e.g Road rules, traffic etc… Also, there are rulings from Islamic institutions in the Middle East which permit western Muslims using bank loans to purchase property. This conclusion would have been reached after an analysis of trends in the West, and how different they are than those at Mohammeds time.

    In Islam, there is usually multiple opinions on issues. For e.g. the plucking of the monobrow. Some scholars rule that people may pluck the region where eyebrows join, because its on the upper section of the nose. Others take a stricter interpretation of the prophets saying and discourage the plucking.

    Also, each region has a different culture. Indian Islam looks Indian, Chinese Islam looks Chinese, Bosnian Islam looks Bosnian. With these cultural differences, also comes different approaches to the application of faith.

    The scholar I linked above is merely providing a different opinion on the literal meaning of the quoted verse. Where the verse asks Muslims women to wear the Hijab so they may not be harassed, Dr. Zaki Badawi argues that if they’re harassed because of their Hijab, then it’s okay to not wear it in those circumstances.

    As mentioned above, there are multiple opinions on issues.

  9. Instead of a metal diving suit, I was going to say an Iron Lung.

    Both are equally appealing, and extremely modest.

  10. yeats

    Hey great post you need to have a read of Geraldine Brooks’ book “Nine Parts of Desire” – a great read and a fabulous examination of this very issue. Cheers!


  11. Yeats, I have indeed read Nine Parts of Desire – I thought it was a very fair and balanced book – see post on subject here.

    Dave, as for being “sky-clad”, if Jain women choose to be naked in their own temples or their own homes, I have no problem with that. However, for me, there has to be a line drawn somewhere as to what kind of coverage is necessary in public, and I wouldn’t let Jain women walk down the street naked. Again, if women of a particular faith choose to cover themselves totally in their homes or in their temples, mosques or churches, I think that is a fundamental right they have. The important thing is what people do in public, and what is more, what they expect others to do in public. I’ve heard from Jewish friends that there’s an area in Tel Aviv (or is it Jerusalem) where you can get stoned if you accidentally walk down the street with your arms uncovered. Now I’m more than happy to cover up if going to a devout Jewish or Muslim household (and I have done so) but this scenario raises the question – how far can people extend their religious dress rules in public space? I tend to think that there has to be mutual respect and understanding on both sides. Rather than throwing stones at a poor hapless tourist, the residents of the street could ask her to cover her arms, or provide her with a cotton shawl or jacket. Likewise, if Westerners are travelling in a country where people are generally more covered than in the West, I think it’s respectful to try not to shock people (consider, for example, that wearing a sleeveless top is somewhat like walking down the street naked here).

    LDU, your comments are very interesting. By commenting on the fatwa against Ms Mirza, I did not mean to intimate that this was the view of all imams or all Muslims. There are many strands of Islamic belief, and from what I understand, it all depends on the interpretation of your particular ulama (not sure about spelling?). It does operate like the common law, just as the Jewish law does too (what did I say about siblinghood?)

  12. Pingback: Rowan Williams has a point (2) - Detractors ignore Western law mess « Balneus

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