Friday, December 28, 2007

Does Clothing Make the Man\Woman? PART I

"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 (?)


  1. Hey Frum Feminist,

    You know, there are things that have been engraved into our heads from the moment we are born. And really even before we are born, the society and culture our families live in already have preconceived stereotypes and perceptions of the social, gender, economical, and religious identity that are pushed onto us even before birth.

    For example, a couple that finds out they are having a baby girl (I have heard that many orthodox couples do not ask to know whether they are having a boy or girl but lets say one couples finds out), are more than likely to begin preparing the room the child will live in with pinks and purples, will receive gifts at the baby shower that have flowered patterns with rainbows, and purchase frilled clothing with bows and ribbons. And, as we both know, the room, gifts, and clothing would have been quite the opposite if they had found out they were having a baby boy.

    I have many issues with clothing restrictions not only within orthodox culture but within the general western society. Why are pinks and purples only for baby girls and blues and greens only for baby boys? Why can only girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks? (thats a whole other conversation) Why does a piece of material constructed in such a way that it becomes a cylinder around the legs be labeled as a female garment and that same cylinder cut and stitched down the middle be labeled as a male garment? The questions i have are endless.
    Since many of these cultural constructions are set in stone even before we are born, it is very hard to notice the inequality in them. They pass down through so many generations that they eventually seem natural and unbiased.

    I really do feel that you are a feminist. The reason is because you are willing to question aspects of your life even if you are comfortable with them, and ask yourself if this everyday accepted part of life is fair. Some of these cultural constructions may be tricky because they may on the surface seem biological but on the inside are just creating an imbalance between sexes.

    Even if you feel in the end that the orthodox philosophy on gendered clothing is fair and you are comfortable with it, you have my respect because you at least took the time to decide if you felt it was right or not. I really believe there is a difference between accepting the life and environment you live in and complying with it, and acknowledging that there are some shades of gray that need to be questioned and then challenged.

    Your Fierce Feminist Friend,

  2. Hi Rachel,

    The fact that I question the norms of my society is not usually appreciated, so thanks for expressing your respect for it.

    I hear what you're saying about social determinations of which colors are for boys and which are for girls and about different kinds of clothes belonging to the different sexes. I'm going to address the second part (about different kinds of clothing for men than for women in the Orthodox world) in the second part of this blog post.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. can i suggest you take a look at R'Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's comments on 'Women and Women's Lib'. They are printed in 'collected writings'.
    He explains Tznius in a positive way. I commend you for questioning your feelings towards hilchos tznius. But observing them out of habit is not ideal. 'Mitzvos Melumados' is not the way we should be keeping the Torah. Every Mitzvah has a unique taste or ta'am, and as a thinking Jew you have a right to explore meanings that talk to YOU!
    Go Frum Femeninst!

    ~Frum Thinker ;-)

  4. You should read Part II of this post, in which I state that the reason why I keep tznius is because Hashem wants me to. Not because it's a habit for me. There are times when I know that I look better in a top that's low cut, or a skirt that's shorter than halacha permits, but I don't do it precisely because it's halacha - because it's what Hashem wants from me.

    Contrary to your statement that we should do mitzvos because of their ta'am, the highest level of avodas Hashem is to do mitzvos solely because Hashem commands us to do them. I believe that it's the Sefer HaChinuch (please correct me if it's a different sefer) that starts by saying that while the author is going to discuss taamei hamitzvos, we as human beings cannot know the true reasons for mitzvos. And we're not supposed to. It certainly can give us more of an incentive to understand them, and understanding as much as we can is definitely important, but ultimately we're supposed to do them just because Hashem wants us to.

    And because mitzvos (milashon "tzavta" - connection) connect us to Hashem.

    Thanks very much for your comment. I will have to look into Rav Hirsch's comments on Women and Women's Lib. Any idea where I can find it?