It’s summer, and that means the inevitable stares on the subway, the street, the grocery lines.
“It’s 90 degrees, and you’re wearing long sleeves?”
Welcome to the life of the religious woman. I find myself constantly explaining my Orthodox Jewish customs, defending my faith, representing something larger than myself, even in a city with a large minority of people who share my faith.
“Why do you have to suffer underneath all that clothing?” sales associates ask, carefully, as I look for a modest dress.
“Why can’t you just be normal?” my braver, blunter secular relatives ask, caressing my wig.
It’s inevitable, in a secular world that cannot bring itself to understand, or at least respect, the values of the religious other.
The debate roiling over the Bedford Ave. public pool in Williamsburg offering several hours weekly to women’s-only swim, accommodating local Orthodox Jewish women, has gotten especially ugly. Separate women’s hours, the New York Times proclaimed in an editorial, carries the “odor of religious intrusion.”
(DIN:Interesting to note that the same New York Times wrote an editorial, last week, praising Canada for allowing separate swimming for Muslims) Read on:
Awful diction aside, it’s amusing to see such righteous indignation over a women’s-only space in a society which purports to support opportunities for women to connect with one another outside of the male gaze.
While our magazines and newsfeeds are bombarded with stories of campus rape and street harassment, with young people demanding “safe spaces” ad nauseum, somehow, we women who seek to comfortably uncover our hair and body without feeling “eye-raped” are barred from seeking those same safe spaces.
To critics, this is all about church and state — but why? Some women who happen to believe in modesty want separate hours. Who gives a damn whether that modesty stems from religious values or from a simple desire for some semblance of privacy?
It sometimes seems to us that the world will defend women only until they are religious. To deride a woman for dressing immodestly is to slut-shame. “Let her dress as scantily as she wants!” the media cries. Yet the woman who asks for privacy, to bare her skin without men ogling at her — she is to be shamed. She is to be forced to find private funding for her own swimming pool. Where are our liberated women’s values here?
At root of the revolt, I fear, is a rejection of religious-motivated modesty on the ground that it is somehow inherently backward, inherently repressive, anti-feminist. If separate hours were requested by transgender individuals, or by people with disabilities, or by senior citizens seeking their own comfortable spaces, I doubt this request would have hit as sore a nerve.
It is religiously motivated modesty which is difficult for some to swallow.
But we choose to cover ourselves: hair, collarbone, elbows, knees, ankles. Some of us find it spiritually inspiring, and some of us consider it a matter of dignity, a way of wearing the badge of our heritage on our sleeves. Some of us cover ourselves so that others see us first as minds and hearts before bodies, and some of us do it for communal acceptance, following the social code of our urban shtetls.
If anyone is oppressing us, it is a world which denies us the space to be ourselves and still take part in society.
If anyone is oppressing us, it is a society which demands that we at once find our own funding, build our own spaces, and then derides us for being a “nation apart,” mocking us for being an isolated, exotic species.
Want to preserve a strong barrier between church and state? Don’t conflate women’s-only spaces with religious domination. They arise from a human need, not merely a spiritual one. Want to empower religious women? Cut the oppression rhetoric and help us accomplish what we need within the parameters of the community we hold dear.
And let us do our butterfly strokes in peace. Hair uncovered.