Modest Dress in Contemporary Judaism and Islam

A cultural and religious analysis.

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Covering Up for Men

As Tova Hartman argues, books on tzniut profess to emphasize a woman's spirituality, but actually delineate the titillating effects of female body parts upon the sexual drive of men. In light of this dissonance, Hartman concludes that "despite being framed as the antithesis of Western values, religious discourse, and even practice, preserves precisely those unsavory elements with which it claims to be at war."

As she points out, religious women are caught in a double bind: either male religious scholars objectify women by trying to cover them up, or the Western "male gaze" seeks to conquer women by stripping them down. Islamic feminists similarly struggle with the double bind of moving between a patriarchal religious system and the Western obsession with a women's sexuality.

As African American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud writes, "In reality, the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same. The hijab of deception and the hijab of integrity look the same." Although Wadud wears a hijab and traditional dress, she does not consider it to be a religious obligation or of moral value. Nevertheless, Wadud recognizes that others project their own assumptions about hijab on her.

The stereotypes embedded in women's clothing inevitably hurt all women. "For some people, if you cover your head you're ignorant, and for others, if you do not cover your head you are outside Islam," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, who founded Muslim women's advocacy groups in North America before her death in 2004. Although Alkhateeb wore a headscarf, she pointedly encouraged her three daughters to make their own decisions. She advocated downplaying the stereotyping and animosity, saying: "We are trying to take women beyond that whole discussion."

For Wadud, the only way to transform the symbol of hijab is by linking one's physical appearance to words and actions. By choosing to wear the hijab while uttering ideas about gender equality and social justice, she is challenging pervasive assumptions about the hijab while reinvesting it with new meaning.

To encourage her listeners to move beyond their assumptions about modest dress, Wadud recites what she calls her "hijab mantra" in public appearances: "If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised." And with theatrical flair, she often removes her own hijab and drapes it on her shoulders.

In conclusion, the juxtaposition of Muslim and Jewish women's writings on modesty allows us to highlight the various ways that cultural values interact with religious norms. The act of reinvesting old symbols--such as hijab or kissui rosh--with new meaning is an age-old process found in all religious traditions that withstand major cultural shifts.

It is striking, though, that even women who pointedly reject Western cultural values frame their decision to don head covering as an act of empowered choice, which stands as the archetypal Western feminist value. That is, not only are the norms that define modest dress influenced by cultural values but the very process of defining those norms is shaped by cultural--in this case feminist--values as well.

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Raquel Ukeles

Raquel Ukeles is a Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University, specializing in Islamic law and ritual. She completed her PhD in Islamic and Jewish Studies at Harvard University in 2006.