6.22.2007

Veils and Tsniut

I wrote about this once before, in another context. While reading the New York Times this morning, I started thinking about it again because of the front page article titled "Muslims’ Veils Test Limits of Britain’s Tolerance." My main reaction to the article was extreme discomfort at the photos of women who were covered up except for their eyes and hands. There is something extremely eerie about seeing a person whose face is covered.

It certainly has connotations of sinister men who wear ski-masks in order to commit bank robberies or convenience store holdups, if not more heinous crimes. It also reminds me of the way that a priest cannot be seen during confession--as strange as I find the idea of confession, I think I would find the idea unbearable if the confessor and the priest had to see each other's faces during the confession. It wouldn't work. The priest would betray some sort of instinctive reaction through his facial expressions and the confessor would be unable to continue. A covered up face reminds me of the way that people, especially children, bow their heads and cover their faces instinctively when they are embarrassed or ashamed, in order not to be seen. Finally, covered faces remind of how I felt when I cut my hair short and could no longer let my hair swing in front of my face as a protective veil when I wanted not to be seen. It felt like the loss of a way of hiding that had been important to me, for example, when I wanted to sleep during class.

So, with what do I associate covered faces? Let's review:
  • anonymity
  • crime
  • sinister motives
  • embarrassment
  • privacy
  • shame
  • sin
  • hiding
  • sleeping in class
Anyone have anything else to add?

Given what I think are sort of universal associates with face-covering, I think it's quite reasonable to expect lawyers to do their work in courtrooms with their faces showing, and for teachers to do their work in the classroom with their faces showing. I'm not sure how to reconcile this with a sincere desire to allow for freedom of religion and freedom of expression. I don't think that this is analogous at all to a veil that covers one's hair, head, and shoulders, which has been banned in France. I also don't think it's reasonable, really, to ban the niqab (as the full-face-covering veil is called) entirely. I do think that it's reasonable to require a certain dress code for court rooms, classrooms, and other settings where communication is paramount. This dress code can require one's face to be fully visible. It cannot require one's neck, knees, or elbows to be visible, since these parts of the body have no bearing at all (or should have no bearing at all) on normal communication. Likewise, I think you can require students, plaintiffs, and defendants to show their faces in class or while on trial, since doing otherwise could, I think, severely impact the learning/teaching/adjudicating process. Can you require students to show their faces during recess? Not so much.

On the other hand, the article stated the following, which I also find disturbing:
  • Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the niqab a “mark of separation.”
I don't think that "marks of separation" are really a problem, but that's probably my multi-cultural American blood speaking. I understand that separation is more frowned upon in Europe, where ethnic nationalism is stronger (not for long, probably, given the way immigration is going there.).

Why did all of this make me think about tsniut? Judaism, after all, does not recommend that women walk about with their faces covered. This statement, though, struck a chord:
“It [the niqab] says that all men are such brutes that if exposed to any more normally clothed women, they cannot be trusted to behave — and that all women who dress any more scantily like that are indecent,” Mr. Sexton wrote. “It’s abusive, a walking rejection of all our freedoms.”
Uh, yeah... Bingo!

This--the idea that women should exert a lot of control over their dress because men cannot exert any control over their desire--is the main thrust, as far as I can tell, behind modern incarnations of tsniut, and one of the things that bothers me most deeply about the whole concept. It bothers me that this seems to be the main impetus behind all of the rules and restrictions and it bothers me even more than it's still taught this way in school. I find this deeply troubling, and although I don't think I would ever go as far as to call even the most stringent tsniut laws "abusive," the concept of tsniut is clearly a rejection of many freedoms that are important in Western Democracies. (I've written a little bit about halacha and freedom here. It may be time to revisit the subject.)

Let's go back to the beginning. Tsniut is usually translated as "modesty," and almost always applied exclusively to women (and girls ages 3 and above). My favorite biblical verse that uses this root is from Micha 6:8, where it says:
ח הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ 8 It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.
Ironically, this verse is written in large letters on the outside walls of 838 5th Avenue, the former URJ (then the UAHC) headquarters. I believe it was designated as a historic landmark, and now all of these very wealthy Manhattanites are stuck living in a building that says "walk humbly with thy God" on its outside.

Anyway, this verse has almost nothing to do with what contemporary Jews mean when they use the word "tsniut." You might also see it in the forms of "tzniut," "tsnius," or, as an adjective, as "tsniusdic." This mostly refers to a set of laws governing women's dress and behavior including at least some of the following possibilities, and in some communities, applying starting from the age of 3:
  • Women's shirt collars should cover their collarbone.
  • Women's collars need not cover their collarbone but should not be plunging.
  • Women should not wear cap-sleeves.
  • Women's sleeves should hit at least halfway between shoulder and elbow.
  • Women's sleeves should reach their elbows.
  • Women's sleeves should cover their elbows.
  • Women's sleeves should reach their wrists.
  • Women should not wear tight-fitting shirts.
  • Women's skirts should cover their knees.
  • Women's skirts should not contain slits.
  • Women should never wear pants.
  • Women may wear pants under a skirt.
  • Women may only wear pants when men are not present.
  • Women may only wear pants while skiing or working in the field on a kibbutz.
  • Women may wear pants as long as they cover their knees and are not tight-fitting.
  • Women should not wear tight-fitting pants.
  • Married women must cover their heads.
  • Married women must cover their hair completely.
  • Married women must cover all of their hair except for a tefach.
  • Married women must cover their hair with a wig.
  • Married women may not cover their hair with a wig; they must use a hat or scarf.
  • Married women must only cover their hair outside their house.
  • Married women must only cover their hair when men are present.
  • Married women must cover their hair except when they are sleeping or bathing.
  • In co-ed schools, girls should not stretch in class.
  • Women may not speak in public before men in a public setting.
  • Women may not speak from the pulpit (specifically in synagogue, as opposed to, say, the boardroom or courtroom).
  • Women may not dance in front of men.
  • Women may not sing in front of men.
  • Women may not exercise or play sports in front of men.
Obviously, some of these rules are stricter than others, if what we're being strict about is preventing women from dressing or doing (as opposed to, say, being strict about preserving their freedom). They are all things that I have been taught or observed at least once somewhere along the way. Let me know if you think that any of these are taught for reasons other than tsniut. I intend, when I have more time, to go back and fill in halachic sources for some of these. I would have to dig them up first, though, and at this point, my time is probably much better spent apartment-hunting and packing. (Eeek!)

I read this post by A Mother in Israel with some of her thoughts about tsniut, way back in April, and thought that if I were writing a meme about tsniut, I would ask an entirely different set of questions. (Her meme seems mostly to be directed at married women and/or women with children, neither of which apply to me and many of my friends.) Reading all of the responses that she got was still interesting, though. Check it out.

My own tsniut meme is below. If I may be so bold, I'd like to tag Mother in Israel, Nem, Sarah of Underground Heights, Sarah of Chayyei Sarah, Mama o' the Matrices, miriam, Esther, and N. Anyone else who wants to answer should jump in as well. Also, writing this is harder than I thought it would be, so if you want to disregard or change of these questions, please feel free to.
  1. Regarding sleeves, collars, and skirt-length/shorts/pants, do you dress the same way you did when you were five? Fifteen?
  2. If you dress differently now, why?
  3. As a child, how, if at all, were you taught about tsniut in the home and/or school? What were the rules? How were they presented?
  4. How does your dress differ from your mother's in terms of tsniut (not, say, fashion sensibility)? From your grandmothers'? From your sister's or sisters'?
  5. Do you dress differently inside your home and outside your home, regardless of who is present?
  6. Do you dress differently depending on where you are or what you're doing? Is this for halachic or social reasons?
  7. Do you dress differently if you are in a mixed (men and women) setting versus a women-only setting?
  8. How do you define tsniut as a halachic concept, either as it currently stands socially or in some halachic vacuum?
  9. If you had full freedom to rewrite halacha, what would you do with tsniut?
  10. To what extent do your decisions about dress and/or head covering reflect:
    • social reality of your Jewish community? (i.e., wanting to fit in, or, alternatively, n ot wanting to fit in)
    • an immutable halachic code?
    • personal physical comfort?
    • feelings that people should focus more on your mind/actions than your body?
  11. How would you rank the importance of following communal and/or halachic standards with regard to Shabbat, kashrut, and tsniut? (I'm not discussing nidah/negiah now, which is usually the third after Shabbat and kashrut.) Do they hold equal weight in your mind?
  12. How important is the idea of "בגד איש" to you in determining your dress?
  13. How important are the ideas of "שוק באשה ערוה שוק באשה ערוה" and "טפח באשה ערוה" (see Brachot 24a) to you in determining your dress?
  14. If you are married or otherwise in an exclusive relationship, to what extent does your partner influence your dress decisions, tsniut-related or otherwise?
  15. If you are dating, to what extent does your date influence your dress decisions, tsniut-related or otherwise?
  16. How, if at all, do your feelings about your body influence the way you dress? And how does the way you dress influence the way you feel about your body?
  17. Do you enjoy buying clothing for yourself?
  18. Do you think that looking attractive and being tsniusdic (either halachically or socially defined) are mutually exclusive or mutually inclusive? Do you think that looking sexy and being tsniusdic (either halachically or socially defined) are mutually inclusive or mutually exclusive?
  19. What, if any, do you feel are positive results of tsniut? What, if any, do you feel are negative results?
These are the questions that I want to answer myself and am also curious about how others feel. It may sound a little bit like I'm out to undermine tsniut, but I'm not. I think if done right, it can be a powerfully positive thing.

However, I'll have to leave you hanging, as Shabbat is approaching and I still have a bunch of things to do. I will try to answer these questions next week.

11 comments:

mother in israel said...

I'm honored that you linked to me. I will try to respond soon.

David said...

I agree in principle that the net effect of the approach which the Orthodox communities have to tzniut is that it bears more heavily on women than on men.

However, to be fair, a couple of dress-code concepts apply to men as well. The communities which are strictest about the amount of skin women show are also strict about the amount of skin men show too.

One notable difference is that in general, women have a wider variety of dress options than men do - as an example, women can wear a dress, a skirt/blouse, or pants/shirt. Men can only wear pants/shirt.

I suspect that the above is a contributing factor in the number of rules & regulations which apply only to women (i.e. the various ones about leg covering, when apply to men, boil down to wear pants).

But I am uncomfortable with the amount of attention which people give to how other women dress - this view of tzniut is toxic, in my opinion. Tzniut should also include such things as not attracting undue attention in a given place (i.e. don't wear a bekkeshe on a beach) - now this rule gets flouted by men at least as much as women, and inappropriately so.

mother in israel said...

What does the halacha say about not wearing a bekkeshe on a beach? What about shouting in a library? What about being the only one in the office to wear a kippah?

miriam said...

i answered your questions, mostly, at http://floatingbear.blogspot.com/2007/06/modest-mice.html#comments.
hope it's sort of what you intended...

N said...

I'm flattered! I wrote something.

http://gefiltemermaid.blogspot.com/2007/06/tzniut-meme-from-abacaxi-mamao.html

Nem said...

Could you explain what you mean by "meme"? I've seen that word used in a different context.

Thanks for the tag - I plan to respond soon.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

is it untsniusdic for a man to comment on a women's tzeni‘ut post? :-)

ALG said...

Steg,

I do not consider it untsniusdic for a man to comment on a blog post about tsniut. Depending on what you say, it may be patriarchal or oppressive (though knowing you, it wouldn't be), but I don't think it would be untsniusdic. So, comment away! (If some other untsniusdic/chauvanistic man posted a comment that I considered inappropriate, I wouldn't let it through.)

Nem,

Here is a pretty good definition of a meme. It is one of those words that started out as a cultural/evolutionary/philisophical/sociological term and jumped into the blogosphere, where it is used willy-nilly by people unfamiliar with the original meaning. In the blogosphere, it still retains the meaning of "self-replicating," in the sense that those who are tagged are then supposed to tag others, and also the evolutionary sense in that the memes that are most resonant and/or fun for people to complete are more likely to spread widely.

Blog memes are sort of like participatory chain letters. A lot of them are sort of silly (see the first-and-only meme that I was tagged with), but I think that they could be a lot more interesting if they were more thoughtful. Here is one website about Internet memes and here is a meme database, but both of these sites use meme in its more general sense of self-replicating bit of cultural data, not in it's strictly-blog sense of set of questions that a tagged person is supposed to answer before tagging others.

I am working on my own response now, but in case anyone is still checking back here, miriam (of floating bear) and N (aka the gefilte mermaid) have already completed it. Go check it out!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

well, i don't like commenting on women's tzeni‘ut issues, since, after all, i'm not a woman. so i was wondering if you were interested in a man's view of his own tzeni‘ut, albeit lacking in any known textual basis.

ALG said...

Steg,

Of course I am interested! I've never heard any man give a view of his own tsniut, and I would love to hear about it from you. Comment away!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i think that sleeves should reach the elbows and shorts should reach the knees, but i hardly ever wear shorts outside. i try to wear a t-shirt when swimming.

i was told once that dyeing hair is beged isha, but bleaching isn't, so in college during two summers i bleached my hair from dark brown to red so it would match my beard. of course, the existence of "just for men" haircolor products may indicate that dye is also not beged isha itself.