Monday, January 30, 2012
I ask because, as we've seen in Israel's Beit Shemesh
recently, ultra-uber-Orthodox men have been spitting on
less-ultra-but-still-Orthodox girls as young as age 8 for wearing
clothes that aren't "modest" enough. The fact that the girls' outfits
seem very modest to most of us just means that the fundamentalists are
seeing something the rest of us don't. Something sexy. Something scary.
Something so shocking that the men scream, "Whores!" and demand that the girls cover themselves more completely.
Which, of course, sounds a lot like the Taliban (not to mention the religious fanatics in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan.…).
Why, in this age of boob jobs and thongs, are some women forced to wrap
up like never before? Ask around, and you hear a lot of theories.
Theory No. 1 involves power.
"Basically, demanding that women dress more and more modestly is a form
of bullying," said Constance Talmadge, Dallas-based author of the "Green Stone of Healing" series of novels, about an evil theocracy. "Society
still has ambivalent feelings about women's roles, so it's a great place to start making demands." If and when those demands are met, she says,
the leaders feel emboldened to impose some more, because now they have a "track record" of success.
While men in many religious sects are often required to dress a certain way, too — think of the Amish with their beards, or
Hasidic men wearing sidelocks — women's dress is bound up with their
sexual appeal, which brings us to Theory No. 2 of burka-dom: Guilt. Religious male guilt.
Many religious guys feel guilty when their bodies react to women in a way they think is not only unspiritual, but also sinful.
There are two ways to remedy this. One is just to feel less guilty,
which is what most psychologists, sex ed teachers and anyone who lived
through the 1960s recommends: a modern-day shrug. The other remedy,
California author and artist Nancy Hand explained, "is to remove the
temptation that prompted the natural but unwanted reaction." Hide away
the women, or at least cover them up.
Alas, for the distraught males — and ever-more-hidden
females — that doesn't work. "Men who grow up seeing women all wrapped
up learn to 'see' the body through the wrappings," Hand said "So they
will still react to a woman, and that will result in ever more calls to
hide temptation." This leads to a sort of modesty arms race.
Fraidy Reiss, founder of the not-for-profit
organization Unchained at Last, which helps women leave arranged
marriages, watched that modesty race escalate as she was growing up an
Orthodox Jew. Her mom was allowed to wear ankle socks until about age
12, Reiss says. By the time Reiss herself came along, girls were
expected to switch to leg-covering tights at age 3. And today, in the
New Jersey Orthodox community Reiss eventually abandoned, girls wear
tights starting at, she said, "basically age 2. What scares me is men
making rules about these little girls, because what does it show you
that they're thinking? Would you trust this rabbi around your daughter
if he thought your 2-year-old's legs were too sexy to be around? Would
you trust him to baby-sit?"
That's the strange thing about fundamentalists; while
the rest of the world is downloading porn and popping Viagra to get
excited, all the zealots need to do is glimpse an elbow, or a wisp of
hair. Which brings us to Theory No. 3: When you do live in a world of dot-XXX sites, women's rights and every kind of social,
sexual and religious liberation, fundamentalism actually flourishes,
because it is the yin to society's ever more open-minded yang.
"For the majority of history except the last 200 years, culture changed very slowly. You didn't have much to react to," said
Don Nations, a United Methodist minister and adjunct professor at Argosy University, in Florida. You dressed and ate and prayed the same way as
the people around you. Your religious life and your day-to-day life were not separate.
Then came the Enlightenment, and everything fractured.
There were new religious denominations, new human rights, new scientific explanations. Gender roles changed. Secular life became possible. And
pretty soon, life had become a smorgasbord of options — liberating but,
to some, unsettling. How could they know exactly how to live anymore?
They had to separate from modernity itself. That's what fundamentalism
To make this separation clear and complete,
fundamentalists flamboyantly reject the things that are most obviously
modern, like women's rights — and especially women's fashion. "One of
the symbols of the Enlightenment is the liberation of women, so that
would be one area where you'd really signal to the mainstream that you
were dissenting," said Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the
University of London and the author of the 2011 book "Shall the
Religious Inherit the Earth?" "It's not the only way — there's also a
men's dress code," he added. But by aiming for women's clothing along
with their rights, fundamentalists get a twofer.
Why reject the clothing that seems already modest, like the little Beit Shemesh schoolgirls' outfits? Because fundamentalists
believe that anyone who has made any concession to modernity (even
teaching girls!) is on the slippery slope toward secularism. When a
traditional religious group tries to make peace with the surrounding
society, it is more threatening to fundamentalists than, say, a Reform
Jew eating a BLT, because it is someone just like them starting to
"stray." The fundamentalists must draw a line in the sand.
So they spit and swear.
"It's designed in some ways to get other people's backs up," Kaufmann said. "It's what's called 'creating tension' with the
surrounding society." The "us vs. them" mentality reinvigorates the
fundamentalists. And, confoundingly enough, the more we react, the more
resolved they become: They must be doing something right if the fallen
world sees them as wrong.
Considering that fundamentalists are motivated by
power, shame and/or the deep desire to be different from even the most
orthodox of others, the way to defeat them isn't clear. I'd love to hear some ideas, because the one thing that is clear is that defeat them we