Religious modesty and the female body

There’s a wonderful op-ed from yesterday’s NY Times by Rabbi Dov Linzer on religion-based calls for modesty and control of the female body. Linzer begins by discussing the case of an 8-year-old Israeli girl who was spat on and called a whore by a group of grown men who felt she was not dressed modestly enough. Says Linzer:

What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies

He continues:

The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women. In effect they are saying: We do not treat women as sex objects as you in Western society do. Our women are about more than their bodies, and that is why their bodies must be fully covered.

In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women. Think about it: By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man’s sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin. . .

At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, “She was asking for it.”

So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.

Linzer goes on to characterize this as “a complete perversion of the Talmud”. Highly recommended reading.

12 thoughts on “Religious modesty and the female body

  1. Slightly OT, but the other day I was talking to my wife about veiling in the news, and I realized that “modesty” actually has two apparently disconnected meanings.

    Modesty A: “My paper makes a modest point about free will.” Here “modesty” means something like “not boastful” or “not arrogant.”
    Modesty B: “Cover your ankles as a sign of modesty.” Here modesty doesn’t seem very well connected to arrogance at all. It’s not as though you’re covering up your ankles because you don’t want to be too proud of how your ankles might cause lust in others. In many cases, it seems more like veiling and so forth are sources of religious pride: “Look at the social sacrifices I am willing to make for my religion!”

    Modesty B is really weird when I think about in terms of its relationship to modesty A. Does anyone know if there’s literature on this sort of thing?

  2. I think it actually did start off with the “arrogance” thing. Way back in the day, they believed that the Pagans around them (who were “immodest”) were being boastful about their beautify when they were showing it off. Later it did come to be Modesty B as you say.

  3. I can’t remember for certain, but I think actually there was a pre-Islamic tradition in some areas for wealthy women to veil themselves when they went out in public, to cover their attire, especially jewelry, so as to not seem arrogant about their wealth and cause jealousy.

  4. What I wonder is that if women’s bodies incite men to uncontrollable sexual urges, shouldn’t men be required to wear blindfolds when they leave the house?

  5. Or maybe the men should be kept locked up at home since it is so dangerous for them to be running loose looking at things.

  6. It’s politics,the politics of religion,but also to do with the different psychological natures of men and women.If nudity were the norm,rather than a sexual context,would women still be worried about men looking at their bodies?Could men still be bothered looking?A lot of women feminists seem unable to look past their patriarchally instituted prejudices.So heterosexual men should go take a hike,say a lot of women.That sums up their sheer lack of political nous and sense of reality.Do you really blame men for not taking any notice of women’s concerns if they to read/hear of this nonsense?You are still living in a fairyland of your own.Maybe men who do take notice of feminist concerns are wasting their time.

  7. Comments 4 & 5 make sense to me. ;-) The “veil the women” scenario has to assume 100% compliance in order to work properly. Even one uncovered woman is a threat to the purity of dudes everywhere! The “blindfold the men” scenario on the other hand can work on a decentralized basis, so you still see some benefits even if only 75% of men blindfold themselves.

    We should see if we can get an op-ed on this published in Al Jazeera Arabic. :-)

  8. Re:Louise/7;Yes,I have.For a bit of background,check my contributions to international section.My point is:few people care to look into the aetiology of religion,the politics of it and the psychology of people in the different stages of psycho-social and socio-political development.The taboo on knowing how it works is still very strong in the West.People who are political and wish to change society,as opposed to keeping the status quo,have yet a very strong resistance to finding out what makes people tick.This resisitance to knowing how it works is,for obvious reasons,very much encouraged by the establishment.If,as a feminist,you wish to work within the confines and conditions laid down by the very establishment you want to change in ways which it persistently,pertinently and obviously resists,you are,if genuine,wasting your time.

  9. Carl, those two meanings aren’t disconnected. If I recall correctly, Aquinas devotes quite a bit of analysis to how they are both subspecies of modesty, which in turn is a mode or manifestation of the cardinal virtue of temperance.

  10. I have no idea what ‘Jacob’ is trying to sa ineiter of his posts. And, yet, I wish they were heavily veiled.

  11. sissystars!What do women feminists want?For men to continue to be what they have been all through Patriarchy,so women can continue to whine,snipe,complain,plead,beg and bargain from the position of inferior participants in human society,so women do not have to use their intelligence as independent individual sovereign agents?If,on the other hand,you want to use your own intelligence to become in human society what you purport and keep banging on about,best put your intellectual box in gear and map out a course of your own-and what-of-it that you’re being told by a male?You’re not sexist,are you?If you read without wanting to understand,you are creating more internal conflict for yourself,which is the default/backward/resentful way of forcing yourself into a position of further confusion,leading eventually to a personal crisis in which the outcome of your individual journey in society will be determined without your conscious pro-active input.This is plain psychology,no rocket science.Fact is,most women feminists will not face up to the responsibility of the role they wish for themselves.People like you are happy in your unhappiness.Well within your rights,of course.Life is a public forum.Kid yourself until the day you die.That’s fine by me.There is something women feminists tend to forget:Men spent about 9 months of their life in a woman’s womb,and almost always about 9 years,on average,under the direct control of women.Then,when the hormones start being active,the control by women starts once again(At a stretch,I can imagine why some men prefer to not get intimately involved with women once they have a genetically re-enforced choice about it).When men are daft enough to fall for the marriage trap,the nagging and manipulating really starts.Emotional intelligence it is called.I would call it resentful,unintelligent mental sloth,or words to that extent.

Comments are closed.