Modesty: Part One

Modest /Immodest  Modest/Extravagant  Modest/Eccentric  Modest/Improper  Modest/Disgraceful…it’s extreme, but if you grow up in an orthodox community that last pairing makes just as much sense as the others because, if we are to really simplify it…the people who define what it means to be “modest” will not hesitate to define you as a shameful and unfitting (for the community). And that is the problem I have with “modesty” as something definitive and prescribed.

Modesty has been a topic of great importance in my life…I went to Yeshiva (religious jewish day-school) for high school and for most of college. In the orthodox jewish faith one of the most important aspects of being an observant woman is modesty. In the Mishnah (the written compilation of Jewish law that was transmitted verbally), in the Gemara (the documented discussion of the mishnah between the great, ancient masters) and in the various writings by highly esteemed Rabbis over the millenia the idea of a Jewish woman’s modesty is explored in great depth. There are guidelines, suggestions based on derivations from laws, and allusions made in scriptures. There are examples: behaviors modeled by the matriarchs and great women throughout the bible.

In high school in order to determine whether a shirt was appropriate we were told to place our fists along our throats and the point where the fist ends is where the shirt’s collar should be. Our skirts had to cover the knees. Sleeves were preferably to reach the elbow…short sleeves were permssible as long as they werent cap sleeves (afterall, my school was modern orthodox…there was some progressiveness).

The religious college I went to had similar requirements. My gemara teacher actually once kept me after class to ask me to start wearing longer skirts (my knees were showing). I had always been somewhat conservative when I was growing up in terms of my clothing.In secular school I was very critical of the girls who wore tight clothes to show off what was only budding at that time. I would have arguments with the “fast” kids in my classes, saying, “We are only 10 years old! Why don’t you act it? “…Miss Morality Police. So when I went to Yeshiva High school, the dress code made sense to me. I was not interested in the laws that forced us to dress in this way. I just felt that putting boundaries on how you dress was a positive restriction to place on teenagers. I felt it was important to shift the focus from the raging hormones to the actual purpose of being at school…learning.

But something started changing in my mind as I got older and I was exposed to more of the world, and most importantly, as I grew into this skin of womanhood. When the Rabbi in my college kept me after class to ask me to dress differently, I was mortified. In high school male teachers were not allowed to comment about female dress. They could report any issues to a female faculty member who would then address the issue with the girl. When the Rabbi spoke to me I was struck with profound sense of shame. This shame turned to guilt and also a feeling of being dirty…”who am I to dress inappropriately while studying these holy scriptures?”, I thought. Disgusting.

But I thought about it further…and I remembered something that happened to my friend. One morning she was changing in a bathroom. Someone walked into the bathroom, and by chance my friend’s Rabbi happened to be passing the door at just such an angle that he saw my friend. My friend plummeted into a deep shame and depression that lasted for days if not weeks. She was filled with self loathing. She endlessly castigated herself, “how could I have let this happen? why did this happen to me?” I was shocked at how severely she judged herself. Clearly, what happened was not in her hands. But she believed, “It must have happened to me because my thinking is in the wrong place, my consciousness has fallen.” She seemed to think that  somewhere inside of her she was depraved, and that as a wake-up call this massive embarrassment had to occur to set her on the right path. I guess we all believe what works for us, and yes, things do happen to convey a message to us. But the way I felt about myself when the Rabbi spoke to me about my skirt and the abuse my friend inflicted on herself…cannot be the types of feelings that give us greater self-love and self-respect.

And so I came to a conclusion

Modesty is a very subjective issue…

I’d say I have been accepting this truth only in the past few months. It’s a provocative declaration to make when you’ve lived a good portion of your life following specific guidelines of modesty. I think following guidelines are useful when you do not fully know yourself, your skin, your mind, your needs, your sexuality, your taste and your relation to the world around you. But following guidelines also brings us to a particular problem…once you reach a point where you have more self knowldge, or at least the capacity for it, do the guidelines let loose their grip on you so that you may explore the important questions of the self? Or, do the guidelines latch on to your mechanisms, overtaking them like a virus, preventing you from exploring what your true senses and true values are? Scary thought…

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Is “the clock” ticking?

It’s always been interesting for me that of all the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, only 3 (THREE!) are considered chovah, mandatory for a woman. The commandments are split up into to general categories, commandments that time restricted and commandments that are not. The Mishnah (the compilation of Jewish oral laws) explains that women are not required to fulfill laws that are time-restricted, and they may voluntarily choose to do the laws that are not time-restricted. This leniency is granted because of their constant demands, children, the household, etc. Requiring them to do all time-based laws would be unrealistic.

Isn’t it fascinating? For a gender that time is so much of the essence,  Judaism decided to give a break on exactly that issue? Women are not bound by time!

As I grow, as a woman, time is becoming more and more of an issue. What do I want to do with my life, when do I want a family, how will it all figure in, if I do this now how will I become successful, if i wait will I be able to have kids and raise them as I want to…it’s actually quite terrifying. I know people, friends and family who have gone through fertility issues, first and second marriages, first and second careers. Culture and society, obviously, play into this a lot. It’s more acceptable now to put off having kids, to pursue a career and make professional success a priority…but is it? I am sandwiched between modern culture and the modern orthodox (Jewish) culture. I would say that at least 50% of the people I went to high school with are married…and that is a conservative estimate. So am I late? According to a woman in our community I am; she once told me, “Nuu, come on, when I was your age (22 at the time) I had 2 kids!” Ehem…

Yeah, it’s a different generation, but different, in a big way, in that it is confused. Mixed messages are all around. Teen pregnancy, divorce, adoption, motherhood at 65, in-vitro at 25. We know we have options, but how can we hear our own voice over all the bantering, all the suggestions, all the PRESSURE?

It’s about perspective…objectivity to be precise. At the end of the day, time is an illusion. At best it is a social construct. “Norms” don’t entirely exist anymore, as far as I can see. I think as a woman who struggles with expectations, ambitions and guilt, the first and healthiest thing one can do is to just throw that clock away all together. It is a hindrance to creativity and a burden. We/I need to always remember that the world is wide and age is a number. This is not to say that one can just float like a dandelion seed  to wherever the wind blows. My point is that life is not about reaching checkpoints in a timely manner. It’s funny, that game “Life” that we play as kids is just like that. You get a job or go to college, you get married, you buy a house and have kids…but we need to remember, that’s just a game. It’s not the real thing. Forget the checkpoints. The only way to have peace of mind is to be efficient in whatever it is you are doing. Live. Whatever you are doing, do it with purpose, with mindfulness and with love.

Once in college I went to career guidance to talk about and plan graduate school. I came into college as a naive, sheltered (very sweet) observant girl from a religious high school. I asked the career counselor, “so how does all this figure in if I get married? How do people balance?” She gave me this funny look as if to say, “You got plans to get married, hunny?” And she said, “I…wouldn’t PLAN around marriage. You do your thing, and if something comes up like marriage, then you fit it around what you are doing.” It was SO incredibly important that I heard that piece of advice.

I think the moral and my message are first, as I said, throw out that old clock. It’s meaningless, a waste of time and causes the secretion of unnecessary stress hormones (bad for the skin). As a woman I know I need to be mindful that I am living for myself and not for a mold or a norm, imposed by others or even by myself.

Just look for a minute at the mystical aspect of things: The soul is timeless, isn’t it? So what is age? A number…not more. And we all have as much time as we want to have…we are as free as we allow ourselves to be.

Chag Shavuot Sameach :)

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Beyond Patriarchy

Two researchers from the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam Policy Studies at Monash University in Australia, Rebecca Barlow and Shahram Akbarzadeh, wrote an article that was published in the Human Rights Quarterly in 2008. It’s called “Prospects for feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran“. This was an important article for me because while I have been interested in the topic of middle eastern women for a few years now, it was one of the first articles that brought out in me a desire to write and speak about my thoughts. My last post, “fragments of a whole” was kind of a philosophical segue to some of the major issues that I plan to bring up over the next few months. This root issue I want to talk about first is that of modernization and its effects on traditional social structures and world views. Barlow and Akbarzadeh talk about how feminism is undergoing a deconstruction, or rather, schism, as it becomes increasingly clear that secular feminism and Islamic feminism are not as reconcilable as people had hoped. For a country in which women are trying to find their bearings, maneuvering through a “theocracy” (emphasis on the quotation marks, the term is nominal if not comical), “feminism” is too broad a term, too flimsy a raft to cling to in the opposing tides of modernity (secularism, westernization, pro-American mentality) and an Islamic Regime.

In mentioning feminism, I’d like to strip down that concept, go a little more basic, to the idea of femininity, the female in the context of our world and our social constructs today. The Middle East is an important place to consider when looking at some deep rooted social constructs because it has successfully maintained a rather rigid social structure over the past few hundred years. These social structures have a strong sense of patriarchy. I used to credit this to the religion of the region, Islam. Indeed, religion is used as a means to perpetuate a patriarchal society, especially in countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran. But we must consider the following: 1) It is extremely incorrect to say Islam is THE religion that perpetuates patriarchy, because it is not. Judaism, Hinduism, etc…all should be given that credit as well. 2) Many, MANY, can argue that patriarchy is a misinterpretation and mis-practice of each of these religions. 3) My main point: Patriarchy is Beyond religion. Religion has in too many cases (though, hear me, not all cases), become a tool; it has become a silenced, shapeless channel for the manipulations of scared, misinformed, brusque people.

Now here, I turn my argument to the women who live with/within patriarchy. I speak with MUCH humility in all that I am to say, because I know I am ignorant of almost all of the realities of living in the Middle East. I have been brought up in America, of all places, by a “liberated” woman. But despite this, all of this, it did not escape me that even in my situation and in my place of upbringing the concept of “liberating a woman” is in existence, and for one thing to exist its opposite had to have preceded it. Obviously, it was not long ago that women here were just as “unliberated” (let me leave that term vague). But there are certain elements that can significantly quicken the pace of change, the breadth of leaps and bounds and the amount of growth that can occur in real time.

One element that stuck in my mind through TV commercials, posters in school hallways, bus stop advertisements, subway posters, radio commercials as I was growing up was the “Role Model”. “Be a role model,” “who is your role model?” Why are role models so important? Because they really DO make that much of a difference, and it’s fair to say that it’s made all the difference in at least American Women’s History. Of course, it comes hand in hand with exposure, education, and education doesn’t come easily and certainly not for free… So, perhaps the inaccessibility of role models is what leaves many women locked up in undeserved and unjust silence.

One of my objectives with this blog was to explore this issue of connecting women, opening the world and breaking the walls that separate us so that we can all reach out and Realize all that we deserve. But I will be the first to admit, my medium is, ironically, another barrier. Presumably, ones who really need the ideas I and others like me are talking about are barred from internet, education or communication. Till I find a better way of reaching out, and I will, about the societies that believe “a crucial factor in the maintenance of social cohesion … is men’s control over women,” (see reference below) I would like to say the following:

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when humankind was still overcoming the shock of achieving a higher level of cognizance. Humankind was in a state of trauma, newly discovered threats loomed at every turn. One did not understand him/herself enough to fathom the thoughts and intentions of another – mutual understanding or trust of any kind would be Ages away.

Social order fits its time and its people. To govern others based on brute strength is the easiest when wisdom and higher processing are not at disposal. Thus it is conceivable why societies were built on conquest and fear, and Patriarchy is the modern day version of this form of “socio-political order”. But we are beyond that and have been for too long now. It is incredible to me, however, to realize, everyday, how much of our social constructs still function on this prehistoric credo: I credit most of the oppression of women and the submission of women to this oppression and abuse to primeval and antiquated ideology…and also to the lack of accessible role models that exhibit progress and offer alternatives.

I wonder everyday how I can know myself better and know my world well enough to reach out …

Reference (the article I mentioned at the beginning – I highly recommending reading it!):

Barlow, R., and Akbarzadeh, S. (2008) Prospects for feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Human Rights Quarterly, 30 (1), 21-40.

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