Orthodox Jewish Women Wear Burkas — and Their Men Don't Like It!

It seems made-up, but it’s not.

A group of haredi women in Israel have taken a cue from their Muslim neighbors and taken modesty to new heights (for Jews), donning burkas on the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves. Under the tutelage of one devout — and apparently ascetically inclined — mother-of-ten, these women have decided that the basic modest black outfit and wig or head-covering of their peers isn’t modest enough for them. They don’t want their flesh seen at all by men outside of their families, and wearing burkas does the trick.
Haaretz reported on the story in Hebrew but a rough synopsis in English can be found on the Muquata blog.

The new fashion has the religious authorities, none of whom have advocated this trend, baffled. As Muquata’s Jameel writes, “The radical Beit Shemesh tznius [modesty] patrol is even scratching it’s [sic] head whether someone managed to out do them, and leave them in the dust with the liberal left.”

Mother in Israel also has a post on the story and brings out an important point from the Haaretz article, that such obsessive modesty is akin to anorexia — “it’s obsessive behavior based on a desire to deny one’s femininity,” she writes.

This comparison to anorexia seems right on, but goes deeper than just the denial of femininity. [Side note: I’m no psychologist but growing up female in upper-middle class Jewish circles, I’ve come to learn a thing or two about anorexia.] Both anorexia and the burka-wearing phenomenon stem from an obsession with reaching an unrealistic ideal set up by society, be it a model’s lean and long figure or a model of modest virtue and spiritual purity. Both are ideals which the average woman cannot live up to, but trying to do so is an expectation of women in Western and fervently religious societies, respectively. The quest to reach both ideals involves self-denial, literally and figuratively. Anorexics deny themselves food in an attempt to wither away their physical selves (often the feminine curves that come with womanhood, as Mother in Israel points out), while burka-wearers are denying themselves the material pleasures of pretty clothing and physical comfort (it’s hot under there and hard to see) in an attempt to deny their physicality, to be purely spiritual beings. And both phenomena are about control, but here’s where the comparison veers off.

Anorexia is often said to be an attempt for the individual going through difficult circumstances beyond her control to take back some semblance of control by determining her food intake and controlling her own weight. Yet, when controlling her food intake and weight becomes an obsession, it ceases to be in her control. And when she becomes so skinny that she looks as though she’ll break in half, she has gone beyond society’s ideal and is not considered desirable but rather sick and unattractive.

These burka-wearing Jewish women have also becomes undesirable to their society, yet they maintain control over their social status. They’ve taken modesty to such extremes that their society deems them freaks — one man has even taken his wife to the beit din for violating shalom bayit [peace in the house], and he was issued a divorce because his wife was considered so outlandish. Yet, unlike with anorexia, these women still maintain a kind of control. Muquata, paraphrasing/translating Haaretz, calls the trend a “radical chareidi feminist ‘invention’,” and, while, on the one hand, the idea of wearing a burka as a feminist act seems absurd; on the other hand, insomuch as these women have been socially chastised yet persist in their behavior, there is an element of subversiveness to it that lends them power. They are adopting the ideal of modesty that to some extent has been ingrained in them by male religious authority (and no doubt by female authorities, too), but they are doing so on their own terms. They are taking the power of dictating women’s dress away from the male religious authorities in their community, deciding for themselves what modesty means and, in classic fashion, being persecuted for it.

These women have the right to wear whatever they want, but we should also question the values that have led them to such extreme decisions, and the society that perpetuates those values.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

18 comments on “Orthodox Jewish Women Wear Burkas — and Their Men Don't Like It!

  1. mother in israel on

    Whether or not it’s similar to anorexia, I don’t think that being forced to accept a get against your will and having your children taken away from you is an example of maintaining control.

  2. RHF on

    But the women still have the choice to dress differently if they want to keep their children and husbands, unless I misunderstood the situation. Anorexics don’t have the choice to just eat normally, that’s why it’s a disease.
    Unless you’re suggesting that this obsession with modesty has become a disease that’s beyond these women’s control?

  3. Jen on

    How is putting on more layers subversive or taking control? In order to think that, they’d had to be totally brainwashed and nihilistic – at least that’s the only way I can parse it out.

    I’d say more, but you’d only delete it. 🙂

  4. frimet roth on

    Most of these women, based on the interviews conducted by the Maariv and Haaretz journalists sound seriously mentally ill. They are suffering from a condition that is common in the chareidi world, scrupulosity, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The chareidi environment offers a haven for such people and exacerbates their symptoms with the stress it places on scrutinizing and re-scrutinizing, repeating and re-repeating every required act in order to be absolutely certain it was done according to halachic requirements. The newspaper articles point out that the condition manifests itself in these women in areas other than modest attire as well.

    This phenomenon is not related to assertiveness or freedom, other than in the case of the Rebbetzin who leads the cult. The followers, on the contrary,are prisoners of their own fears and compulsions and of their mentor’s blatant pressure tactics. From the interviews, it is apparent that the Rebbetzin unabashedly plays on their insecurities and pathologies.

  5. Lily Loring on

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    The extreme behaviors of the haredi seem to be escalating at an alarming rate and go more and more against the grain of traditional Jewish practice and sanity.

    There is nothing in our tradition that encourages this kind of extreme behavior.

    Will this spread? Will the Orthodox in America who have recently caved in to the haredi demands on conversion, now make excuses for this and try to explain to the rest of us why this is really ok?

    These women, and perhaps their families as well, need immediate mental health intervention and possibly something akin to de-programming.

    This is not Judaism, nor Jewish observance.

  6. Rachel on

    Covering the hair is very different than imitating the gentiles. The gentiles are extremely sexually depraved. Yet their ‘hooves’ are split so to speak in that they project great sexual modesty. The victorian age was famous for it’s sexual hypocracy as well as the muslim worlds and of course the televangelist & catholic ‘celibate’ priests. We must walk down a middle road. Not too modest with the same force as not to imodest. (Actually the burqa queen’s daughter is in prostitution)

  7. Circuit7 on

    While at first glance I thought it appeared rather amusing to see these women annoying everyone by going overboard with modesty – it’s very difficult to be taken seriously when one preaches modesty in the United States today. But it is a sad commentary on a lack of mercy and actual spirituality in this community that would cause these women to obsess to this point. Our G-d is merciful and just as He set the Sabbath for the benefit of humankind, so did He set forth the principles of modesty. After all, it is one of those things that sets us apart from animals, right?

  8. person on

    wow. i think that theres some truth in what your saying, but really, get over it. if they want to be OCD, and dress ultra modest, thats there own business..

  9. Daniella on

    No, it’s not their own business, unfortunately. If only it were. The symbolism and the underlying tenets embodied by the act of a JEWISH woman wearing a burqa are much, much too vitally important to brush it off as “their own business”. This is an individual woman’s own, probably severe mental and emotional, issues that have spiralled way out of control, serving a threat to the very fundamental tenets of Judaism of moderation and even of modesty itself (you aren’t supposed to attract attention to yourself which this is doing)

  10. YoJewMama on

    The thing that drives me nuts is the idea that we need to start bashing chareidi. The vast majority of chareidi Jews are not extremists and they would not condone what these women are doing. Why are we so fast to criticize the religious women as a whole when there are so few women donning this new dress?

    My suggestion? Spend more time blessing and less time criticizing or analyzing.
    Just sayin’.

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