Attorney Shira Keidar wasn’t allowed to enter Kishon Detention Center this week for a scheduled meeting with a client because the guards declared her business attire wasn’t modest enough (a dress which revealed her shoulders). Women Knesset workers’ skirts are routinely measured to ensure a “modest” length. An American rabbi visiting the Western Wall with his six and eight-year-old daughters was shocked when ushers handed the young girls a ‘shmata’ (a cloth) to cover their shoulders and knees.
There’s something so humiliating about being told what in our attire is modest and what isn’t, what to wear and what to cover up. It is so degrading to think that women’s bodies are mere objects, which must be made to fit an agenda: covered, concealed, controlled. It is outrageous that a woman’s body is considered by some to be a threat to a man’s mind.
There should be a clear line between “dress code” and “modesty rules”. While a dress code is gender-blind and made to create a formal environment in any institution, subjecting men and women to the same regulations, modesty is aimed solely towards women. It is an instrument dedicated to cover women in order to shield men from their own urges. It is a control device.
We should really lead a “shaming” movement to the term “modest dress”. It’s a phrase that should raise a response so extreme that people stop using it, like many other politically incorrect phrases which were taken out of the public sphere and are considered inappropriate (like saying someone ‘jewed’ you, when someone acts fraudulently.)
Judaism is not the only religion where covering women is common practice. It’s not surprising that when googling “modesty”, you’d find only Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox websites, since it’s a male-dominant sphere where codes are created by men and enacted upon women. Sometimes, women internalize the very norms that oppress them. We see that this enraging term “modesty” leak from covering women’s bodies to silencing women’s, voices while praying or singing at the Western Wall. It leaks from religious sites (where for some crazy reason we tend to accept it) to public, secular sites. We in Israel have to stand guard lest it leaks into Tel-Aviv, Akko and Eilat.
Next time you’re at the Western Wall and an usher offers you a cover-up “Shamata” to cover your shoulders, elbows, knees and any other part of your body they deem “dangerous” to the male psyche, say “no”. Just like the American rabbi. After the attempt to cover his young daughters’ shoulders, he left the Kotel, stating he won’t be back as long as it is controlled by men who view young girls as sexual objects.
Next time you’re confronted with “modesty is tradition”, say “it is control”. Modesty as a term should be taken out of our public discourse. Modesty as a method should be taken out to pasture.