Jewfem Blog

When modest is hottest

Image: istock The obsession with covering girls’ knees is no longer the territory of religious schools alone. Earlier this month, according to a report in Ha’aretz, a group of 12th-grade girls at the Israeli state Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono were asked to cover their knees for yearbook photos, or stand behind a bench to hide their legs. Their exposed knees, they were told, were not “respectful” of the school.” No boys were asked to cover their knees. The truth is that the spread of the “modesty” obsession from religious school settings to public school settings has been going on for some time, in both Israel and the United States. In Israel, already in 2012, parents at the secular junior high school Gevanim in Kadima complained that the principal was sending girls home for wearing pants that were deemed too short, and for holding “pants checks” for girls at the entrance to the school. In Ben Zvi, girls were also reportedly not allowed to wear sleeveless t-shirts for school photos, and those who did found their arms covered via Photoshop. But it’s not just Israel. In the United States, “modesty” (a tragic misnomer for an idea that has nothing to do with humility) has become a catchphrase for body-policing as well. Schools around the country have been imposing dress codes on girls against pants that are “too tight,”strapless dresses for an eighth grade dance, tops that are considered too low-cut, and even a kindergarten girl whose skirt was considered too short. In many cases, public shaming is considered acceptable practice in the name of imposing so-called “modesty.” Principals and teachers have no compunction against humiliating students, with such practices as rounding up the girls for a spot-check of their knees; making girls wear a “shame suit”; refusing entry to girls at their high school dance after being made to flap their arms up and down and turn in circles in front of male administrators whose stated goal was to make sure that girls had “no curvature of their breasts showing”; or simply yelling at female students, as the Ben Zvi teachers did, in front of the whole school. Much of this public shaming for the sake of “modesty” is of course familiar to me, as it probably is to any other female graduate of an Orthodox day school, where teachers and rabbis would routinely stand by the front door checking our knees. “Skirting” in Orthodox schools, accompanied by this kind of public shaming, has become so routine that even when it is protested – as it was by an outraged student of the Yeshivah of Flatbush last year — educators are mostly unwilling to show remorse or reflection on these common practices. Still, despite their familiarity, it is worthwhile to look at the kinds of ideas that are used to justify the shaming-for-modesty educational practices. The rationales are different but similar in religious and secular settings. Religious educators often cite a kind of esoteric piety, like the need for girls to be “pure,” or the unsubstantiated idea that covering one’s body is the...

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  Guest post By Shimona Hirchberg, originally posted at The Center for Jewish Feminism I’m continuously surprised by the interconnections of life. I had shared my post-Shabbat book recommendations and one provoked a discussion on sexual education in Jewish private schools. Taught in Toronto schools in grade 6, the book in question included a sexual assault (Julie of the Wolves). For myself and the commentator, none of our teachers adequately (hindsight is 20/20) addressed the sexual assault that took place in the book’s pages in preventing negative internalizations and trauma. While not included in last week’s telecourse, Gender issues in Jewish Education  topics per se, Marcia Beck, Sally Berkovic, and Elana Sztokman talked about the role of educators in how we internalize messages about modesty, bodies, and sexuality. We like to think we’re in control of our bodies and world, but we’re not. This week’s two panelists Marcia Beck and Sally Berkovic discussed the impacts of female bodies being policed, controlled, and manipulated via modesty by schools (dress codes) and other people. It’s very damaging for girls and women to have their bodies viewed as powerful & corrupting, internalized from comments by educators, peers, community members, and self-disciplined (‘your skirt/sleeves show too much skin’). Reactions to being told to cover up can be internalized as viewing your/our bodies as sexualized/ugly/fat, all negative messages. “Of course we’re not okay… we’re punished no matter what we choose [hair, clothes, makeup]; it’s impossible to escape judgment”  Marcia Beck’s comment on eating disorders as a functional coping mechanism of these internalized messages was most startling to hear. Bodies, beauty (the thin-kind is the underlying assumption of what beauty looks like), and sexuality are mainly judged in relation to marriage and social status, which carry a lot of weight in the Jewish world (contextualized within the US, Canada, and Israel by the panelists and facilitator). Read the rest at The Center for Jewish Feminism

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Why great sex is a feminist issue

A few months ago, I was at a conference on Jewish feminism at Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, speaking on a panel about visions for the future. We talked about a lot of typical feminist issues – gender wage gaps, women’s leadership, sexist cultures – and it was all interesting and important. But right before the panel was about to end, the panelist to my left, an impressive woman named Rachel Tiven, asked for the microphone one last time. “I promised my friend I wouldn’t lose my nerve to say this,” she said. “So here goes: If you want to do something really feminist, go home and have sex. Have lots of great sex with the person or people of your choosing. That is what feminist liberation is about.” This comment took everyone by surprise. But the sort-of nervous laughter was an indication not only of shocked awkwardness but also of the strange place that sex has in our society, all around us in commercialized forms but nowhere comfortable for real, serious engagement. The more her words echoed inside of me, the more I realized how right she is. We don’t really talk about what good sex is, what healthy sexuality is, about our deepest desires. And for many people, especially women, that often translates into a kind of trap, of feeling caged in to a life in which our desires and our sensualities never really see the light of day. We never really free our sexuality. A lot of this has to do with sexism, and with lingering messages about what makes correct womanhood. So much of sexism and patriarchy in Judaism is about how society owns women’s sexuality. The ubiquitous discussions about modesty, for example, which have morphed into a society-wide obsession with women’s clothing choices and an astonishing spread of slut-shaming practices even in secular schools, is a reminder that women’s sexuality is still considered communal property. The idea that anyone with authority can take it upon himself or herself to police women’s and girls’ bodies, at proms or in bus ads, remains frighteningly persistent. Practices of gender segregation, which are couched in language of “modesty”, also turn women’s bodies into objects of sexual gaze rather than women’s own personal flesh, the tool with which we live our lives and breathe and love and feel.   Read the rest at Jewrotica  

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Voyeurism and the Yeshiva Girl

Madonna has got me thinking about Barry Freundel. To be honest, Madonna often gets me thinking about body, sexuality, and women’s power. I consider Madonna one of the most body-empowered women out there. She has full command of her body, and uses it as her artistic canvas. She can do anything she wants with it, put on any item of clothing and pose in any position, and the effect is one of power and ownership. I frequently find myself wondering whether she represents an ideal of body empowerment, whether on some level I should be teaching my daughters to admire and emulate her for her complete ownership of her life and seeming ability to do anything she wants. (Of course, then the Orthodox voice in my brain usually kicks in and reminds me of how far Madonna is from anything familiar to me in my own relationships with my body.) Anyway, knowing this about Madonna, I was surprised to discover a few months ago that she took to twitter to express her anger that a photo of her was leaked without her permission. The photo was an unpolished image of her in bra and underwear, apparently in a dressing room. “This is a fitting photo I did not release,” she wrote. “I am asking my true fans and supporters who respect me as an artist and a human to not get involved with the purchasing trading or posting of unreleased images or music.” The reason I was surprised at her reaction was because the week before, she had done a topless photo shoot for a French magazine. It was a strange juxtaposition to me, that she would upset about this photo of her in her underwear when just days before the entire world just saw her undressed. But then I realized, it’s all about control, about power. The French shoot was her choice and with her direction. The leaked photo, despite everything Madonna had done, was still an invasion of her privacy. I have been thinking about this the past few days since posting a blog about the impact of Freundel’s actions on his victims and on other practicing Jewish women. What I argued in this post is that there is a such thing as sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, and that we should not dismiss the impact of this kind of abuse on its victims just because there was no sexual penetration. In fact, I wrote, that the recovery from this so-called non-violent abuse can be just as emotionally challenging as violent sexual abuse because of the way it plays with the victim’s mind. - See more at:

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On modesty, sexuality, and watching girls' bodies: part 2

book cover -- educating in the divine image

"One educator admitted that he believed in discussing sexual activity (or rather the need for abstinence) even from fourth grade: “ I think that it is self evident that one should teach our students about all halachot that we expect them to observe. As the laws often called "negiah," as well as laws forbidding (among other things) pre-martial sexual relations, are certainly laws we want them to observe, we need to teach them (I bring up the subject of "negiah" in 4th-5th grade, within the context of our Mishna study. I feel it's important that they've heard of this prior to their developing "interest" in the opposite sex.)”, he wrote. “We need to give our students the information they need to fight against the "Yetzer haRa." Read another excerpt of our book, Educating in the Divine Image at The Eden Center blog    

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On modesty, sexuality, and watching girls' bodies: part 1

Read an excerpt of our new book, Educating in the Divine Image, at The Eden Center blog: "The concept of “modesty” as it is often promulgated has lost its essential meaning and been crudely twisted, manipulated and misused. What once referred to a spiritual demeanor, an internal, personal quest for growth, a framework for building kind and compassionate relationships among people in which no one person claims a high and mighty stance among her or his peers, has evolved into something else entirely. Today, when rabbis talk about modesty or “tzniut”, there is only one issue they have in mind: women’s bodies. "The misuse of this vital concept is not only unhealthy for women, who have become the objects of an almost obsessive religious gaze, but it is also terribly harmful to the religious Jewish community. The gaze on the female body has deprived the religious world of the discourse around the true meaning of modesty, a profound spiritual loss which threatens the very essence of religious practice. "Instead of talking about modesty as spirituality and character, we end up hearing about the lengths of women’s skirts and sleeves.  All around the Orthodox Jewish world, religiousness has become synonymous with women’s dress. The length of the skirt, sleeve or neckline is used like a measuring stick of religious identity – the more skin is covered, the more “religious” the girls (and their surrounding communities) are believed to be.  In fact, it is taken quite literally in some cases: one Jewish community recently came out with an actual “Tzniut Ruler”, to be used by girls measuring their skirts around their knees…."   Read the rest here

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What Banning Facebook Is Really About

Facebook is forbidden among Chabad teenage girls, as The Sisterhood told you — and as the Forward reports here. This reflects a blatant double standard, the report points out, because the movement has widely embraced technology to spread its message, but refuses to allow its own youth to use these tools. But Chabad’s double standard in its relationship to secular society is only one part of the problem. It seems to me that the story of girls being forbidden from using Facebook and other internet tools is less about Chabad’s missionary stance and more about their view of women and girls. After all, it is only girls whose school is handing out $100 fines and having mothers’ monitor their computer use. Moreover, the practice of banning girls from the computer largely revolves around one concept: modesty. The Facebook ban is just the latest in a long string of insidious practices in the Orthodox community — not just Chabad, to be sure — aimed at restricting women’s and girls’ freedom. These practices are promoted under the term tzniut, or “modesty,” but really are nothing more than classic misogyny. Read more:

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What 'Provocative' Justifies

I would like to take a moment to consider provocative women. After all, those of us who are following events in Beit Shemesh have heard a lot about this subject. A woman trying to hail a taxi in Beit Shemesh and then spat upon was called “provocative” by Haredi men around her. Tanya Rosenblit, who sat in the front seat of a segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, was accused of being “provocative” by those men who stopped the bus from proceeding on its route. Even 8-year-old Na’ama Margolese was accused of being “provocative.” In my doctoral research, in which I spent three years in a state religious girls’ high school in Israel working on decoding girls’ identities, I came upon accusations of “provocative” in some telling moments. One day, the school held a special “Tzniut Day” in which there was an assembly and special classes on the issue of “modesty.” (It was actually about girls’ clothing and I do wish that people would stop calling that “modesty,” as if there is anything remotely connected between body cover and humility before God.) The rabbi speaking to the class framed the issue around teaching the girls not to be “provocative” by, for example, revealing one’s upper arms. Read more:

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