"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society." -Mark Twain
I met a gal in the Virtual Jerusalem chatroom yesterday. I was under the username, "AmIAFrumFeminist" and suddenly I got a PM (private message):
Gal: I'm a feminist
Me: Woohoo! Yay feminists!
We got to talking and she brought up a question that gave me some food for thought, so here I am, and I'm going to start chewing on it...
She asked me how I felt, as a (potential) feminist, about the dress-code (called, "Tzniut," in Hebrew) in the frum world.
Let me respond, first, by saying that the dress-code in the frum world is pretty strict, according to modern societal standards. We don't have to wear burkhas and we don't get stoned for showing a little ankle, but in modern American society our dress code is probably considered pretty primitive.
The reason why this dress-code presents a potential problem for someone with feminist inclinations is because... Well, there's no way to get around it: it's definitely stricter on women than it is on men.
The basics for women include wearing tops with necklines that cover the collarbone and sleeves that cover the elbow, and only skirts\dresses, which must cover the knee. It varies in different communities, with some communities insisting that women must wear opaque tights at all times to ensure that their legs never show, and other communities having no problem with no socks at all, but those are the basics.
The basics for men... not nearly as complicated. They have to wear a kippah (skullcap) and tzitzit (a fringed undergarment - click on the link if you don't understand. It's kind of hard to explain in short.)
Showing their elbows: not a problem.
Neckline: also not a problem.
Knees: Eh, depends on the community. Technically speaking, wearing shorts isn't a problem, though some communities frown on it.
Looking at the differences between the men's and women's dress-codes in the Orthhodox world, it's pretty obvious that women are held to a higher standard than men. And that, I expect, presents a problem for a true feminist, because it implies an inequality between the sexes.
Faced with this question, of whether I find the dress code offensive, I was reminded why I'm still not sure whether I'm a feminist or not. I wear my skirts and long-sleeved shirts and don't really give it much thought. If I decided, one day, that I wanted to start wearing pants and tank-tops, I could do that. Like I said, no one is going to stone me, at least not physically. (But if looks could kill...) But, quite frankly, I don't have a problem with the dress code; it's just a fact of life to me.
Yet when my new friend from the chatroom asked me about it, I realized that if I'm a feminist, I should have a problem with it. Why should I be subjected to strict dress-rules if men are not? Being faced with the realization that I didn't have a problem with a dress-code that sounds pretty sexist gave me something to think about.
I explained to my new friend that I don't have a problem with the dress code because I believe in G-d and believe that He gave the Jewish people laws of life to live by because when we follow His will, we get closer to Him. Following His dress-code, to me, was just a commandment that could help me get closer to G-d.
But there are plenty of other things that G-d commands that I have questions about. The very fact that I wonder if I'm a feminist in the frum world is based on questions that I have about a woman's place in the Orthodox community. So why didn't I question the dress code?
It's something I've been pondering since I began "chewing" on this topic last night... Unfortunately, that's all the time we have now. Shabbat (the Sabbath) is coming in a few hours and I've got to run.
Until then I remain questioningly yours,
Frum Feminist (?)