We're too obsessed with the way women dress

There's much more to the practice of modesty than worrying about skirt lengths


Israeli girls in secular high schools recently wrote to the Education Minister to protest discriminatory dress codes in secular Israeli schools; girls, unlike boys, are banned from wearing shorts to school. Girls who wore shorts in defiance of the ban were reportedly sent home and not allowed to take their exams.

This engendered much discussion about the correct approach to school dress codes and whether they should promote equality in dress between girls and boys. The dress code was justified by some schools as protecting girls from becoming sex objects and allegedly preventing both sexual harassment and the boys from being distracted.

These justifications prompted some girls to argue that schools should not promote a blame-the-victim culture and that they should not be taught to be embarrassed about their bodies.

While the girls were right to protest the discriminatory dress code, I suggest that schools should consider the issue of dress codes and behaviour in a wider sense so as to include boys as well as girls and to promote a general value of modest behaviour in a learning and school environment.

In the Orthodox world, too, there is an ongoing obsession with, and focus on, the dress of women and girls. However, is women's and girls' appropriate dress the issue that should be given so much attention? Should we focus on the length of a girl's skirt, shirt sleeves and neckline, protecting girls' bodies, shielding girls from the glare of boys, or guarding boys from the seduction of women's and girls' bodies? Or rather should we be focusing instead on the Jewish value of modesty, tzniut, in the widest sense?

Women and girls should avoid running in the street whenever possible

We should not cast girls as the seductresses and the boys as the ones who desire. The increasing trend towards obsession with female "modesty" does not stop with dress but is part of a wider trend to remove girls and women and their voices from the public sphere. These restrictive approaches are sought to be justified on the basis that women must maintain a certain sense of "modesty". Modesty is cited as the basis for guidelines for women's and girls' dress and becomes synonymous with how "religious" a Jewish girl or woman is.

The emphasis on covering up is a mirror of the over-sexualisation and uncovering of women's and girls' bodies which we see in the general media, on television and in advertisements. It is also a fixation with the male view of the female body.

A widely accepted book by Rav Eliyahu Falk called Modesty: An Adornment For Life purports to discuss the modesty of women's dress and conduct. However, it focuses on women's bodies, with many detailed diagrams of women's bodies, and considers the many aspects of a woman's body that can arouse men. "Women and girls should avoid running in the street whenever possible," Rav Falk advises. "If they have to run, they must be careful that it does not cause the skirt to rise above the permitted level or the slip to show… Ideally, teachers should teach their pupils about the hazards of running, since parents do not think of warning their daughters about these types
of pitfalls.".

In his book Understanding Modesty, the leading halachic scholar Rabbi Yehuda Henkin criticises Rav Falk's fundamental positions and insists that tzniut must be seen in the larger, cultural context of given communities, arguing that by definition sensuality is subjective and must be judged on the basis of community norms. He considers that many in the religious community are obsessively preoccupied with details of permitted lengths and materials of clothes. In his view, this leads to the danger of "losing sight of the real basics of modesty - not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else". He emphasises the importance of women's Torah learning and dismisses the view that just as a man has the study of Torah, so a woman has the practice of tzniut.

We need to teach modesty in Jewish schools to both girls and boys within the wider context of behaviour. That modesty is a value that should inform how both girls and boys ought to behave in the world; that, like Moses, we should aim to achieve a sense of humility in how we treat other people, accepting that we are all equal before God; that while in biblical times women were honoured for their modesty in their private roles, as expressed in the saying from Psalms "The honour of the daughter of the king is within", that does not prescribe women's roles or what modesty is today; that women are not compromising their adherence to modesty by being active participants in public life today.

This approach to modesty in schools would de-emphasize the current focus on girls' bodies and dress and would instead cause attention to be paid to the wider concept of modesty in all its senses for both girls and boys.

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