Framing Modesty As A Protection For Women Is Incredibly Toxic
This article originally appeared in New Voices.
Let’s talk — Orthodox feminist to Orthodox feminist.
You represent me. You might not mean to but you do. With the exception of Ivanka Trump (oy), you’re probably the most visible Orthodox woman in America today. So, when you imply in the New York Times that modesty is a form of protection from Harvey Weinstein-esque behavior, sexual harassment and assault, you speak for me too.
And I’m more than a little miffed.
Don’t get me wrong, I get that your rhetoric isn’t radical within Orthodoxy. Members of our community argue all the time that Orthodox modesty guidelines are in part about women’s safety, that clothing or behavior traditionally deemed immodest attracts dangerous male attention to the body. Modesty, they argue, inspires better behavior in men.
So, we’re protecting women, which is feminist, so we’re good feminists, right?
Not quite. Because that framing of modesty is toxic. Let me explain why.
First off, ironically, men deserve better. The language we use about modesty characterizes men as these crazed, lust-driven swamp creatures who can’t help themselves. And when we tell boys often enough that they’re too weak to abide by our boundaries, they grow up believing it. When we tell men we’re policing our bodies for their benefit (so they treat us to our benefit), we reinforce the idea that they lack agency and impulse control.
More importantly, the whole idea of modesty as protection misplaces culpability for women’s objectification, implying that a certain style of clothing can be a prerequisite for respect. Being a human being should be the prerequisite for respect, and while I’d argue Torah wholeheartedly agrees, the principle gets lost amid discussions of just how long a woman’s skirt should be.
Men’s thoughts and behavior may be women’s problem, but they’re not our responsibility. No one should need to rely on our fashion choices to be made conscious of the obvious: that our bodies should be left well the heck alone when we want them to be. Rather, it’s a societal responsibility, not ours, to create a culture in which men are expected to engage with women on women’s terms.
I’m telling you this because modesty hasn’t protected me. I’ve been sexually harassed by Orthodox men with excuses like, “I can’t help it,” with excuses like, “You don’t dress like a frum girl (pants gasp), so why are you acting like one?” I’ve had my (covered) knee squeezed under Shabbos tables, my body commented on at shul. These moments aren’t anomalies. They’re the product of a harmful ideology.
But I’m also writing to you because I get you. I take some feminist inspiration from the concept of modesty, too. I’m sure you’ve heard the classic line from Tehillim, “Kol kevuda bat melech penima” or “All the glory of the King’s (God’s) daughter is within.” Most Orthodox women have had this quoted to them at one point or another.
But growing up, this was actually a powerful feminist message for me. While every magazine, TV advertisement, and billboard told me my body – correction: the body myriad products could give me – was my greatest possible contribution to society, Judaism taught me otherwise: that my value as a person is anything but skin deep. Rather, my principles, my thought process, my choices, and all things “within” defined me, and I deserved the respect that human inner-worth mandates.
My relationship with modesty is complicated, but I’ll admit that at times it’s inspired me to fight, to struggle for a world in which women can expect to be interacted with beyond surface level, because, PSA, we’re more than mere surfaces. According to God, we’re actually pretty damn glorious, so how can we settle to be treated as anything less?
So, I know the place you’re coming from. But there’s nuance you’re missing, and it has real effects. If you choose to dress or act a certain way because it personally sends you a message about your own God-given worth and power, gai gezunte heit. Go for it.
But our community needs to stop using rhetoric that tells men this is just how they are, that this is just the world we live in. We can’t keep telling women that they earn their respect in inches of cloth, not simply their existence.
As an Orthodox female icon, you have an opportunity to help our community spread healthier messages. Take it. Because I know at least one Orthodox woman who would have felt empowered if you had.