Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Orthodox Women Being Patronized by Feminists? Oh, Linguistic Irony!

I discovered a blog post today titled Frum, Fashion, and Feminism on the Jewish Women's Archive's Jewesses with Attitude blog. It started so well: talking about fashion becoming more open to modest designs and the orthodox women who are working towards that end (including the fabulous bloggers Chavi and Hadassah).

Then I ran into the end, where the author questions whether these writers/advocates can be feminists (in the sense of believing in the equality of the sexes, it appears) and implies that she can't help but think these women have been brainwashed to think they're actually more spiritually connected and fulfilled through the laws of tznius. "Perhaps, then, it’s not modesty I take issue with – it’s that so many women dress modestly because they feel they have to, as required by their (our!) religion."

The first commenter doesn't even pretend to be PC:
You're 100% right that any kind of explanation about spirituality that justifies rules imposed from without (read, men) is disingenuous. Coercion negates any possible genuine spiritual value. Because it's about women trying to find some kind of meaning within a system that is by definition oppressive. And impositions like this, even if somewhere deep down they may have once had value, are completely antithetical to spirituality.
 I'll admit it. I'm not a classical feminist. (I think classical feminism either/both 1. says women are better than men, rather than seeking equality and/or 2. says that women can only be successful if they succeed at the things men are "successful" at.) However, I totally believe in the equality of the sexes and that each sex/gender has its strengths and weaknesses. I also believe this is the Torah perspective, and I have yet to meet a Jewish woman (including every orthodox woman I've met!) who isn't a "tough old bird." I have met more positive female role models in the Jewish world than in the entire greater society.

I'll even admit that I have these writers' concerns when it comes to the frum-from-birth community, at least to a degree. There is a well-publicized concern about domestic violence and get-withholding within the frum community, particularly the more insular the community. I worry that there are women in communities I don't know who do keep the laws of tznius just because that's "what's done" or simply because their husbands enjoy and/or require it.

HOWEVER, that does not mean there is not intrinsic value in the laws of tznius. Because they may be abused or "imposed" in some segments of Jewish society does not remove their intrinsic value. I have chosen these standards. On my own. No husband, no shidduch crisis, no rabbi forced these rules upon me. I think that G-d himself has provided me these rules for my benefit and growth. And let's not forget that men also have dressing requirements for tznius (that are actually quite similar to women's requirements), but those requirements just happen to fit more snugly with secular society's view of what is appropriate for men's attire. Women's requirements are an issue because they buck secular society. In fact, they're practically revolutionary! But that's just my opinion. I've always been a "modest" dresser by secular standards precisely because I felt there was something wrong with the sexed-up attitudes of secular society, as well as having the typical self-esteem issues caused by that secular standard.

So, thank you, particularly Commenter #1, for making me feel patronized because I clearly have no idea what I've chosen, what it means, or who has influenced me to make that decision.

If you're interested in reading about my change in clothing, read Changing from Jeans-and-T-shirts to Skirts-and-Sleeves. As I say below in the comments, I am treated a) more respectfully, b) more seriously, and c) in a more friendly (non-sexual) way.

Further, this commenter's comments go to my larger problems with classical feminism:

A) Men are not the ones imposing any fashion/physical standard on women. Women impose these standards on women. It is the criticism and ostracization of other women that is the societal peer pressure. Marketing creates these visions of "the Size 0," but it's other women's judgment (or perceived judgment) that pushes women to try to be that size 0.

B) Even if it is "the man" who is imposing physical/fashion standards on women, that's not the fault of men today. It is a cycle that is reinforced by each new generation doing exactly what the generation before did. And as my theory above suggests, I think it's women who've taken up the oppressor's mantle anyway. Or even worse, perhaps the cycle is self-sustaining at this point. In some ways, these arguments about "men!" remind me of the snide comments/"jokes" made about young Germans, those who had nothing to do with the atrocious actions of their grandparents or great-grandparents in Nazi Germany. Or, being an American Southerner, getting comments that all white southerners should continue to feel guilty that our great, great-grandparents may have owned slaves. (And for the record, I did the research, and mine did not. They actually spied for the North during the Civil War. -- If you think this is a ridiculous argument/analogy to make, I've more than once had someone try to shut me up in an argument with the phrase, "Well, your family owned slaves!" Apparently that is the argument to end all arguments in the South.)

All this blame is misplaced. And further, what does it accomplish? You've just demeaned and demonized half our society. I can't blame them for not wanting to cooperate (and who says they aren't??) with a partner who refuses to do anything but play the blame game.


  1. I'd be interested to read what commenter #1 does consider to be spirituality. The comment sounds textbook anti-orthodox (or at least anti-organized religion), and I feel for her, as she sounds as brainwashed as she assumes we are.

    Also, I'd love for her to try out dressing tznuah for a spell. I remember the distinct difference in interactions I experienced once I started covering up more. I was treated with (gasp) more respect! How horribly oppressive for me.

  2. Thanks for reminding me that I wrote about exactly that subject! http://crazyjewishconvert.blogspot.com/2010/10/changing-from-jeans-and-t-shirts-to.html

    I am treated a) more respectfully, b) more seriously, and c) in a more friendly (non-sexual) way.

  3. Chavi, I couldn't agree with you more. I get this attitude surprisingly often on my college campus (e.g. "So, who makes you wear skirts all the time?") and I would love it if poster Kate Bigam and commenter Elana Sztokman could point out to me which man is forcing me to dress this way, so I can free myself from the yolk of his oppression - or rather, so they can free me from him, since I've obviously been brainwashed and can't do it myself!

    I think the essence of the problem lies in Ms. Sztokman's observation in the last paragraph of her comment: "Liberation from both these sets of eyes would mean... setting our own rules on our own terms and not dressing or walking or behaving because others expect something from us. That is freedom." There are two problems with this ideology - first, it assumes that freedom is the absence of constraints, or the ability to set one's own constraints. But Orthodoxy doesn't see that as freedom - that looks more like chaos. Second, it assumes that we keep the halachos of tsnius because men require us to, when in fact we do so because God requires us to! I'm not sure how God got taken out of this decades-old discussion, but all this talk of oppression makes no sense to me once we let God back into the picture. Although I chose Orthodox Judaism for myself, I am willing to concede the feminist point that the particulars of that lifestyle are imposed on me (and all other Jews) externally - but not by rabbis or any other "patriarchy". God Himself told me (and all other Jews) to eat, talk, dress, pray, and observe the Sabbath this way. Are feminists willing to claim that I am being oppressed (chas v'shalom) by God?

  4. It's kind of ridiculous to think of tzniut as a constraint on freedom. Dressing 'fashionably' - more provocatively - is possibly more of a societal constraint.

    If you're within the bound of societal norms, you're free. Outside of that, and you're being coerced, or crazy. I've heard this with regards to 'detrimental' things: people don't do drugs or engage in pre-marital sex because they WANT to, it's always peer pressure. I feel like people place religion outside of their normal realm of experience in the same box.

    But it seems to me that the nature of fashion - to be admired based on your physical appearance - contradicts traditional tzniut - where the person is emphasized over their appearance. Not to say that you can't look great being tznius, but it seems like a question of focus...

  5. Even if it is "the man" who is imposing physical/fashion standards on women, that's not the fault of men today. It is a cycle that is reinforced by each new generation doing exactly what the generation before did.

    Sorry, no. The generation of American observant women of the 1940s - 1970s for example Rebbetzin Tonya Soloveitchik did not cover their hair outside of shul. Tzniut requirements have changed, becoming ever more particular and stringent repeatedly over the past 50 years.

    The growing obsession with tzniut and gender seperation (gender separated sidewalks, conferences in which men are instructed in the detailed laws of tzniut so they may inform their wives, etc.) is a relatively new thing and part of a general trend to embrace chumrah for chumrah's sake.

  6. Further debunking of the myth of the unchanging Jewish lifestyle from Miriam Shavit.

  7. It is true that Tonya Soloveitchik didn't cover her hair. But no one says this was in accordance with halacha, not even her husband, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Unfortunately, a lot of women didn't observe that halacha in her generation, and she was one of them.

  8. Commenter number one here. It's not Ms. Sztokman, by the way, it's Dr. Sztokman, just for the record. If you're going to be talking about me you should know who I am. What you would call an "ffb", which i'm gathering from these posts is a losing point, and also happen to have a doctorate in education, and write in lots of places about orthodoxy, gender, body and education. You can find lots of items I've written on this subject at the Forward as well as other places.

    Now, as to the substance of your critique, I will say simply that choice is a spurious thing. If, while a person is telling you what they think you should do, they are also holding a gun to your head, what would you think of the choice involved? A person in that case chooses life and all that it involves. It's not a real choice. This is what is happening in Orthodox Judaism in a way: certain leaders make claims that one way is the will of God, that it preserves family, that it preserves femininity, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It's basically saying, you want to be good? you want to be right? you want to be godly and true and following torah? well, then, women must cover the body. This is a message that gets transmitted in every corner of Orthodox life. The notion that correctness and godliness and true torah are a function of women's dress is reiterated in schools, shuls, sermons, classes, books and blogs. It's an obsession with the female body that has absolutely nothing to do with spirituality. With all due respect to what's been written here. You say choice and I say not really. You hear an idea and are told to choose "A" or "B" where "A" is associated with all that is good and right in the world. Of course you're going to choose it.

    For more on this issue of choice among religious women, read Martha Nussbaum's brilliant "Women and Human Development".

    As for making you feel 'patronized' -- nobody can do that to you. You can only do that to yourself. But if there is one group that is patronizing to women, it's not 'feminists' but rabbis for whom women's bodies remain objects of desire and nothing else. If you happened to have a positive change within yourself during the process of moving from jeans to skirts, I'm very happy for you. But that doesn't make skirts and long-sleeve skirts a good thing for women. Especially not when it's a practice that comes with so much harmful rhetoric. At the end of the day, the laws of tzniut do a lot more damage to women than a pair of jeans.

    As for my views on spirituality, google me and the words spirituality and you'll find my articles on the subject. Spirituality is NOT a skirt. It's a relationship with God and the universe and humanity and has absolutely nothing to do with the clothes on your body.

  9. Dr. Sztokman--I agree that it would be wrong to make skirts vs. pants into a bigger deal than it is. I do wear skirts, but that doesn't make me virtuous. It's just something I put on in the morning.

    However, it seems strange to me to be overly concerned about how covering the female body harms women but not about how covering the male body harms men. We're just talking about skirts, sleeves, necklines here--not burkas. In many US workplaces, men are expected to come to work every day wearing long pants and sleeves. It would not be acceptable for them to go to the office with their shirts unbuttoned to the middle of their chests. Some professions require men to wear all kinds of accessories like ties around their necks. So are men being oppressed because they can't show their bodies? Are they being harmed because they're expected to wear ties and jackets and they're not really given a choice?

    If an accountant showed up to work in shorts and a tank top, he would probably lose his means of earning a living and would risk not being able to pay the rent. If a woman doesn't follow the Orthodox dress code, she gets a boring lecture about tznius. So who is more constrained?

    1. Apples and... fish here. It's simply ludicrous to compare a secular workplace dress code and a religious daily dress code. Where your example falls apart is that the workplace dress code is not about "covering up" but about "dressing neatly in a formal environment". When a man shows up to work in a tank top, he isn't shamed for showing off parts of his body, he's shamed for looking like a slob. That's also what an unbuttoned shirt demonstrates, BTW, even though it still covers the body. You know what's the nail in the coffin? The fact that these codes are EQUALLY imposed on women. No one cares how much or how little a woman's office garb covers, just as long as it's appropriate for the workplace.

      Contrast this with tzeniut, which tells women to cover up because certain parts of their body are `erva, i.e. nudity. It has nothing to do with style at all. It is ab initio about modesty by way of diminishing sexuality, and despite the apologetics about coming closer to the Divine, it is what it is. Oh, and technically halakha says nothing about male tzeniut apart from the Kohen ascending the altar - subsequent emphasis on modesty on the part of males has stemmed from community mores - perhaps in an effort to be more, you know, equal.

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  11. (I think classical feminism either/both 1. says women are better than men, rather than seeking equality and/or 2. says that women can only be successful if they succeed at the things men are "successful" at.)

    Strawman much? Let's take the dictionary definition, shall we?

    fem·i·nism   [fem-uh-niz-uhm]
    1. the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

    Wow, could it be any simpler than that? Nothing about preaching superiority as a counter to patriarchy, nor about using male-dominated roles as a litmus test.

    Too often I find the word "classical feminism" being used as an epithet by cultural conservatives for the womyn-power faction, instead of actually referring to the ideals and writings of feminist intellectuals in antiquity. (BTW, I must thank you for taking me on a Google storm and discovering the beautiful writings of Marianne Weber and Jane Addams. Neither of whom preached the ideas that you claimed classical feminists do, natch.)