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