Covering and Uncovering Women Is All About What Men Want

Whether it’s Muslim ladies on the beach or revolutionary lasses storming the Bastille with their dresses ripped off, the burkini ban has a common theme.

A woman in Islamic dress on a Marseille beach.
AP

One of the best measures of a good vacation is not just what you actually did or where you went, but what you missed out on. For a columnist, that means what you didn’t weigh in on regarding the main news stories and controversies. Away for much of the last two weeks, the best story I missed was the seaside row on France’s Mediterranean coast over the wearing of the burkini.

This was probably a good thing, since any prudent writer who is not either an expert on French Republicanism and the principle of Lacité, a Muslim or, at the very least, a woman should probably steer clear of this minefield. Which is what I was planning to do until earlier this week, when I received an email from my daughter’s school on the dress code for students in the upcoming school year.

I hasten to add that I have nothing but admiration for the normally excellent job the educational staff at one of Jerusalem’s most liberal religious girls high schools does, facing the challenge of preparing students — many of them, like my daughter, members of mixed families with both religious and secular members — for a life in a confusing and contradictory Israeli and Jewish society.

I also think it’s perfectly reasonable for a school to have a dress code and, like most fathers of teenage girls, I’m quite happy to farm out that particular part of her upbringing. And I didn’t really find that much to object to in the letter drafted by the school’s staff, most of whom I think would describe themselves as religious feminists.

I found it interesting, however, that they chose to preface the letter with a quote from a man: specifically, a talmudic quotation on tzniut [modesty] from Rabbi Yochanan in Tractate Eruvin.

Now, I love the Talmud at least as much as any former Yeshiva student, and I’m certainly not suggesting we go back and revise it, adding in female voices and perspectives. That was the way books were written in Babylon 1,700 years ago, when women didn’t have a say. But the basic fact remains that even when a group of enlightened female educators write their own guidelines for how their students should dress at school, they are still enforcing — no matter how gently and sensitively — male perspectives and prohibitions made by men.

That will remain the contradiction and challenge at the root of traditional religion, any religion. And while many commentators writing about the farcical burkini ban in France sought to place the controversy within a paradigm of an East-West identity conflict, cultural colonialism and the clash of civilizations, I really think this is a survival battle between rear guards of male perspectives.

Women wearing the burkini may claim it is their choice — indeed, the Muslim swimwear was designed by a woman. But the rules of how much of their flesh they may expose were dreamed up by men, and it is men who continue to enforce them.

The same is true of France’s secular religion stipulating no signs of religion being visible in public, as shown by the astonishing lack of self-awareness by the usually sensible French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said this week that France’s national symbol, Marianne, has her breast exposed “because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled because she is free! That is the republic!”

Whether it’s Muslim ladies on the beach or revolutionary lasses storming the Bastille with their dresses ripped off, the burkini ban was about two groups of men fighting over what women should or shouldn’t wear. Whether they’re doing so in the name of religious belief or Republican ideals doesn’t really matter.

We flew back from our vacation via Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, which is one of the main hubs servicing Muslim pilgrims on their way to the Hajj in Mecca (which starts next Friday). On the first flight, most of the passengers were Moroccan-Italian hajjis. You could feel their excitement and anticipation as they prepared to make their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. But there was also a stark contrast between the men who were loudly chattering away and the silent serenity of the chastely covered women.

Boarding the next flight for Ben-Gurion International Airport, it was impossible not to compare them to the similarly hushed fashion in which the ultra-Orthodox women — not a hair or an inch of immodest flesh showing — fussed around their children while the men and boys gathered to pray.

Israel has no burkini issues, largely because devoutly Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden from going to mixed beaches or swimming pools. Orthodox men swim separately as well, but the difference is that they made up these rules. Just as the rabbis made up the other rules that regulate marriage (also for completely secular couples in Israel), and it is the male rabbis who sit in judgment in the divorce courts.

But change is happening: In the last two years, the number of Israeli couples who chose to live together rather than get married through the Rabbinate rose by 29 percent. Many of them still had “weddings,” but on their own terms. And, of course, things have been changing in the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, with more women being ordained as rabbis and reaching leadership positions (as they have in some streams of Christianity). Some of these women (and men serving with them) have proved that feminism, equality and religion can coexist, but organized religion — whether in Orthodox Judaism, conservative Islam or Catholic and Orthodox churches, and in some cases also radical secularism — is still largely about perpetuating male domination. Let’s not kid ourselves that the burkini row is about anything else, or that it’s only Muslims and the French who have to deal with this.

A personal thank you

This column has appeared weekly for nearly nine years now. If you have at any point found it at all interesting, enlightening or entertaining, much of the credit goes to my boss and friend who has edited it personally during the entire period: Charlotte Hallé, the editor of Haaretz English Edition. This has been the longest and most fruitful editor-writer relationship of my career, and I have much to be grateful to Charlotte for: her advice, wisdom and forbearance, not least of my chronic tardiness in filing.

As this is the last column she will be editing, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Charlotte for shepherding my uneven copy; sharpening, inspiring and improving it in every way; and for her incredible term in one of the most challenging jobs in journalism. During this time she has taken Haaretz’s English edition — founded by our late mentor, David Landau — to new heights of professionalism, and I wish her all the best in her new role as Haaretz’s international director.