There were times I wished my daughters would have pulled their skirts down a little longer, and yet I did not want their modesty — or perceived lack of it — to be the focus of my parenting.
Issues of modesty, paradoxically, have put women’s bodies at the centre of public policy and communal debate within the Orthodox world. Ideologically-driven stunts such as photoshopping a group photo of world leaders to exclude Hillary Clinton, or erasing images of women in an Israeli IKEA catalogue for the lucrative Strictly Orthodox market, are all part of a wider move of objecting to a woman’s presence in the public domain.
This hyper-modesty is the flip side of hyper-exposure and both treat women and girls as sexual objects first and foremost, unable to be seen as full human beings. A zeitgeist that has seen the mechitzah between men and women at weddings become higher, separate entrances for men and women on public buses in some Israeli religious neighbourhoods, and men who will not sit next to a woman on a plane flight reflects a deep fear of women in the communal psyche and condones their absence in real life and in pictorial form.
The fixation on modesty is a proxy for the increasing wedge between Orthodox communities. The unabashed obsession with a woman’s body, her dress, hair and demeanour is a direct response to the threat of unprecedented changes in Jewish life: a critical mass of women engaged in advanced Talmud study, their spiritual, political, activist and communal leadership roles and increased engagement of women in ritual practice in the home and the synagogue.
To maintain control, the Charedi community has become more prescriptive regarding denier thickness, collarbone exposure, heel height and hair covering while many in the loosely defined ‘modern Orthodox’ camp have developed a particularly Israeli style of tunics over baggy pants and hairbands rather than full hair covering. The differences are also reflected in dating patterns and gendered roles in the family.
More worryingly is how modesty has been instrumentalised to instil fear in women— there is a rhetoric of blaming tragedies on short skirts and suggesting that the Messianic redemption has been delayed due to luxurious wigs. Stories of women who martyr themselves for the sake of their modesty leave a deep, and often disturbing, impression on young girls, and the ‘woman as temptress’ archetype absolves men for taking any responsibility for their actions. In this #metoo era, there has been a triumphalist narrative in the Orthodox world suggesting that sexual abuse of women simply wouldn’t happen because of the dress code, and all the rules that are in place to keep men and women apart. Yeah, right.
However, trying to understand modesty as a cultural, religious or sociological construct misses one important point — it’s a business. While companies such as Nike and Dolce and Gabbana understand that covering-up is lucrative and have focused on the wealthy and growing Muslim market, enterprising Jewish women have created a modish and modest business market, powered by social media, especially Instagram. Modesty might be a shortcut to piety, but Orthodox influencers on social media have created a new narrative about modesty focusing less on Jewish law and more on being uber-cool. Now, that’s how you get a girl to pull down her skirt.
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat (published by KTAV) and will be speaking on modesty at Limmud www.sallyberkovic.com