I first posted this essay in December 2015. But in February 2018, after a national uproar over allegations of sexual harassment and rape by dozens of powerful men, it seems even more relevant, and I have greatly expanded it.
What do you think when you see a woman wearing a Muslim head scarf or veil? I certainly experience quite a mix of feelings and judgments. Whereas most Americans once thought it was a mere curiosity, now we can’t escape the constant flow of images – and political fear mongering – that for better or worse, force us to wonder: What does this mean? How does she want us to interpret her appearance in our secular American public spaces, where so many of us see her only as the Other? Who forces her to wear it? Does she choose to wear it? Indeed, if she chose not to wear it, she could avoid our scrutiny altogether, but circumstances determine other-wise.
I have written previously about how the veil (the burkha, and to a lesser extent the hijab, the head scarf) invites us to consider the liberating return of what we have repressed. The veil certainly expresses the ancient and persistent patriarchal view of women as property and their segregation from public life. It’s a very old story, the basic myth of patriarchal culture, extending back at least 5,000 years.
But this interpretation of modesty is merely one end of a continuum, from where progressives typically analyze the beliefs and behaviors of others without actually asking them why they do what they do. When we are willing to hear their own voices, we may discover the other end of the continuum – pride in identity, as one woman writes:
Hijab stands for empowerment for a Muslim woman…(who) do not have to uncover themselves to be liberated. Hijab is a huge part of their identities, signifying their freedom and choice to present themselves modestly.
By focusing on what God wants from me, and thinks of me, I am no longer a prisoner of other people’s desires…Knowing that I am doing what God, my Creator, has ordained for me gives me a contentment and happiness like no other.
Rafia Zakaria offers an anti-imperialist, sex-positive, Muslim feminist perspective, criticizing the common notion that equates sexual pleasure with freedom.
Back to the modesty doctrine. Jews and Christians tend to live their lives under more secular conditions, but these traditions express exactly the same themes. Online we can find countless, elaborate statements about modesty in dress and hair adornment that we may interpret variously as justifying patriarchal repression – or, again, as pride in identity: We do this in this manner because we want you to know that we are members of a tribe. We know who we are, and our values are not determined by your consumer culture.
In between these extremes, however, we find that the three Abrahamic faiths share deeper assumptions about the fundamental nature of sex, about women, and surprisingly, about men. Here is a common Islamic statement:
For an ardent Muslim man, an unveiled woman is no different from a naked woman…the appearance of unveiled women in public is an attack on the very pillars of Islamic morality. When women go out showing most of their bodies – this is one of the greatest causes of crime and corruption of men’s morals (my italics), and of the spread of immorality…Are you going to show some meat to the hungry and then try to stop them from eating it?
Orthodox Jewish tradition instructs women to cover their heads with scarfs or even wigs.
A typical website speaks in more secular language but conveys a similar undercurrent:
“We should be attractive but not attracting,” says Yehudis Heyman, who teaches classes in tzniut (modesty and humility) to pre-teen girls as part of a national program expounding the merits of modesty…“Of course Jewish women should look attractive,” she says. “But we don’t want to attract attention in order to avoid arousing unnecessary or impure thoughts” (my italics).
Another site makes those assumptions more explicit:
…she is to conceal herself from every man in the world in every manner possible. Her eyes shall always be cast down and her speech moderate. Not even the smallest part of her body shall be exposed, so that no man will come to sin through what he sees…Her voice shall not be heard, for a woman’s voice is licentiousness (my italics). Not a one of her hairs is to be seen. The Zohar (III: 79a) placed great emphasis on this sin; and even in the most private chambers she must take care…The Old Testament states: “Women are for taking care of our children and protecting us from sin.”
What are these fundamental assumptions that the orthodox traditions share?
1 – Hair, especially long hair on women, has always been seen as sexually appealing.
2 – Men are animals (or children) who cannot control themselves. The mere sight of unveiled women can – and by nature should – encourage them to act out the ancient rituals of possession through rape.
3 – Women bear all responsibility for this problem. Since men don’t know any better, women have to. The fundamental sin (a concept unknown among so called “primitive” people) is in the temptation, not in the act.
A Christian woman eloquently sums up the situation, adding further complications:
We know what it’s like to be told over and over and over again by red-faced preachers that our legs, our breasts, our curves, our bodies have the bewitching power to “make our brothers stumble.” So it is our responsibility to cover them up, to dress modestly to “please our brothers” by keeping them on the path of righteousness…While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. In both cases, it becomes the woman’s job to manage the sexual desires of men, and thus it is seen as her fault if a man ignores her on the one hand or objectifies her on the other. Often, these two cultures combine to send out a pulse of confusing messages: “Look cute…but not too cute! Be modest…but not frumpy! Make yourself attractive…but not too attractive!” Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals. It’s exhausting, really, dressing for other people.
The traditional assumption, then, is that proximity breeds temptation, that the mere presence of a man and a woman (in extreme cases, any woman, but especially a young one) together in a private space will result in the man automatically enacting the most regressive, ancient patriarchal ritual. And it will not be his fault if he does. I say “ancient,” but Vice President Pence apparently never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side. In an extraordinary combination of Puritan fear and preposterous machismo, he says this is because feminists are “trying to seduce me on a daily basis.”
Orthodox Jews still follow the law of yichud, which prohibits the seclusion in a private area of a man and a woman who are not married to each other. Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad traditionally said, “When a man and a woman are together alone, Satan makes their third.”
As recently as 2017, Ronald Reagans’ son Michael protested Fox News’ firing of Bill O’Reilly, suggesting that men should sue women who wear low-cut dresses for “sexual arousal.”
The situation approaches high farce when we consider the increasing numbers of airline flights being delayed or disrupted as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men demand that women be forced to move from seats next to them.
It approaches something much darker, however, when a privately-run bus line (on a publically-awarded route) that runs through Orthodox areas of Brooklyn requires that women must sit in the back.
What irony: even as all three faiths share the misogynistic assumptions behind the old Hebrew prayer of male supremacy (Blessed art Thou O Lord, our G-d, king of the universe, who hast not made me a woman), their actual day-to-day beliefs accept the notion that women are more mature than men – and, like their mothers, must be responsible for male behavior. Indeed, when women do not take the responsibility for male lust, any acts become acceptable. Another Christian woman writes of how the modesty doctrine fuels the possibility of rape:
If you’re already decrying women for “causing” men to lust after them by dressing immodestly, how much of a stretch is it to assign some responsibility to women who are raped?
And how much of a stretch is it to imagine this Christmas 2015 headline in Kentucky: Homeless Women and Children Booted by ‘Christian’ from Shelter to Keep Them From ‘Tempting’ Men. The shelter, by the way, was willing to make exceptions if the children were accompanied by men. Or how about this one: ‘Serious damage to modesty’: Israeli rabbi bans girls over 5…from riding bikes.
Such restrictions are not always religion-based. Dignified, proper dress – decorum – has long been required for admission in courts, corporate board rooms, faculty meetings and other places where society’s gatekeepers gather, including, oddly enough, one specific room in the House of Representatives. The Speaker’s Lobby is adjacent to the front of the House chamber, where reporters meet lawmakers for brief interviews. There, police have removed women reporters for wearing sleeveless blouses or dresses, sneakers or open-toed shoes. These rules seem to be quite arbitrary, have no visible signs defining them and are not enforced on the Senate side of the Capitol. “Decorum” is one thing. But are Congressmen (as opposed to Senators) prone to arousal by seeing women’s toes?
Back to those airline disputes. It gets even crazier as we consider the implications of this statement by a rabbi who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox sect:
When I was still part of that community, and on the more conservative side, I would make every effort I could not to sit next to a woman on the plane, because of a fear that you might touch a woman by accident.
Perhaps unwittingly, he reveals that temptation (even in public spaces) isn’t even the main issue. The fear that he might touch a woman by accident implies something darker – such an accidental touch would corrupt him. He is first and foremost a Jew, but he is also an American. And in American mythology, “corruption” is a code word for much darker things, including miscegenation, racial purity and, ironically, anti-Semitism itself. But all forms of “othering” stem from the original sin of Patriarchy, the demonization of women. The rabbi’s admission implies that his own mother would be considered impure and corrupting should another Orthodox Jew touch her, even by “accident.”
And on that Brooklyn bus the front-back segregation isn’t arbitrary. The authorities won’t allow a reversal of the seating arrangement. One woman acknowledged that women could not sit in the front and men sit in the back because the men are “not allowed to see the women.”