Last month, an Orthodox woman in Beit Shemesh was physically assaulted by an Orthodox man, supposedly because of her lack of modesty. Many people, myself included, reacted with outrage to this latest example of modesty fanaticism, a trend that seems to be rapidly escalating in some Orthodox circles. It is important to remember, though, that this sort of incident is part of a larger phenomenon spanning many religions and cultures – one where women's bodies are used to contain hateful religious or ethnic ideology (in a way that men’s bodies are not) – and that ends up being profoundly damaging to the women and girls involved.
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One example of this phenomenon comes from some research I conducted with Canadian Jewish women, where I asked them which parts of their bodies they think of as “Jewish.” This question was part of a national study on Canadian Jewish women’s experiences of sexism and anti-Semitism, and in the initial focus groups, a surprising number of women said they had never experienced any anti-Semitism.
So, inspired by the seminal work of Rachel Josefowitz Siegel (the Jewish feminist psychotherapist who wrote the first book on clinical work with Jewish women), I asked them if there were any parts of their bodies they thought of as “Jewish,” and if there were, how did they feel about these body parts. Their answers amazed me. A few women said they liked the “Jewish” parts of their bodies, but most of the women responded very negatively. Noses, hips, thighs, and hair were the body parts most often mentioned as “Jewish,” and in the majority of cases, these were disliked, even hated, by the women. (For instance: “For years I hated my nose because it was so Jewish.”)
After I’d listened to dozens of such statements or stories, it became obvious to me was that these women had not only internalized the (non-Jewish) North American physical ideal for female beauty – thin, blonde, etc. – but they had also internalized this society’s anti-Semitism. Numerous women told me, honestly, that they’d never experienced anti-Semitism; yet they disliked, or even hated, those parts of their physical selves that they thought of as Jewish. They had unconsciously absorbed a form of hate – anti-Semitism – and it now resided in their bodies.
Thinking now about the current obsession with modesty in Beit Shemesh and more generally in the Orthodox world, I can’t help wondering if something is currently happening there to some women and girls that parallels what I found in my research (just replace anti-Semitism with religious-based sexism). Debra Nussbaum Cohen refers in 'The Sisterhood' blog to a game for young Orthodox girls called “The Modesty Game.” In this game, young girls are supplied with “cards in green (for good) and reddish pink (for bad) choices on any number of things children do, from eating ice pops in public to laughing out loud, from getting changed without thinking about modesty in the privacy of their own rooms to playing with friends in a crowded park.” To me, this game seems intentionally designed to make these girls extremely self-conscious about their bodies, and to cause them to feel alienated from, and shamed by, their physical selves. How many Orthodox girls, I wonder, have already learned, or are in the process of learning, to be ashamed of – or at least ambivalent about – their own bodies?
The modesty-obsessed context in which these girls now live is not one likely to facilitate healthy emotional and psychological development. As a former therapist, and as a researcher who conducted a longitudinal study on Jewish girls, I’ve observed first-hand how crucial it is for a girl to have a positive body image in order to develop a positive, healthy sense of herself overall. I’ve also seen time and again how fragile this process is, and how easily it can be derailed or disrupted by negative or inappropriate feedback about one’s body or sexuality. Unfortunately, this kind of negative feedback is endemic in those Orthodox communities that are saturated now with anxiety about covering, or even making invisible, the female body.
This year's Passover celebration is now coming to a close. At the Seder we discussed, reflected on, and sang about, slavery and freedom. From this Pesach to the next, let’s each of us do what we can to support Orthodox women and girls – both in Israel and the Diaspora – as they struggle to liberate themselves from the men who oppress them, and from the religious and communal structures that continue to empower these men.
Dr. Nora Gold is a fiction writer, an activist, and the creator and editor of the online journal, Jewish Fiction.net. Her forthcoming book, Fields of Exile, the first novel about anti-Israelism in academia, will be published next month. Dr. Gold is the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women's Studies in Education at OISE, University of Toronto, and is a member of the board of the Dafna Izraeli Fund. She is also a founder of the New Israel Fund of Canada and JSpaceCanada. Gold holds both Canadian and Israeli citizenship.