It is a dangerous venture to comment on a book one hasn’t read. Flipping through pages – naturally to the sections of interest – cannot provide one with a comprehensive understanding of the author’s argument or presentation. Well, I did precisely that, but it still left me with ample food for thought.
Redefining Dignity (2023) sits on my debatable shelf. Comprising two sections, essays and halacha, it tackles a difficult and heated topic: tzniut. Tzniut, despite meaning many more things, has become notoriously associated with female modesty, particularly clothing. The book aims to “redefine” tzniut by taking it away from the realm of sexualization and into self-dignity. In other words, rather than a woman having to dress in a certain way because she has an inherent provocativeness and seductive body which tempts any heterosexual male, she dresses in order to maintain her dignity.
Now, as already mentioned, I haven’t read the book; rather, I skimmed through the halachic section to see how typical concerns – head coverings, jeans/pants – were covered. I was impressed by the constant emphasis that she was not dressing in order to suit (or not) men’s whims, and I applaud the authors for taking a step in the right direction.
However, naturally, this wouldn’t be a post if I had nothing to criticize. I want to make it clear that I am stepping away from the book itself here and using it as a springboard. For what stood out to me particularly in the parts I read was the overemphasized role of community in place of individuality.
Regardless of where you stand on the tzniut convention, I think most will agree that it is the community-individual tension that underlines the debate. With the 21st century’s obsession with self-expression, dress has become yet another modicum of showcasing oneself to the world (despite the ironic fact that individuality is hard-come-by when fashion designers and Hollywood set the agenda). Of course, this is certainly not a 21st century innovation, what someone else wears has always been a topic of discussion. After all, clothing practically defines one’s external image. What I wear is what you see.
In this way, communities too play at a macrocosmic level of the individual. We see it all too well across all religions and cultures, and one can easily generalize not only his/her gender orientation, but his/her political, social and religious beliefs as well. Conversely, if I do not dress that way, then I stand out. This has benefits, but it also has irreparable damage because in gender-stratified communities or societies (effectively the whole world), we need to ask not what is decided, but who decided.
In the pages I perused, Redefining Dignity spent a significant amount of time talking about communal discretion. Whether a woman must wear stockings, how much hair a married woman can uncover, what kind of shirt color, this was all ultimately decided by the relevant community based on the broader halachic minimums. Yet, I want to ask: who is the community? I struggle to believe that it is the female side.
A woman’s so-called dignity cannot be communally decided because in a community where she has no say, it goes without question that she has no say in what defines her dignity. From the moment she is born, and she is announced as a girl, her clothing is set for her. And therefore, we land up in that vicious circle of sexualizing women. When men decide how women dress, there is a fundamental problem. This is why we need more female leaders, more women’s voices and more space for individuality.
Will halacha ultimately allow a woman to dress in any way she wants? No, it won’t and it also won’t for men. But just as we don’t obsess over how men dress, perhaps we should leave women be and focus on more important things. By all means, have a dress code, but if we fixate on it, it should be that it aims at allowing individuality rather than at perpetuating a male-defined dignity.
Halacha should not be seen as restrictive but instructive, and if we leave the dignity question up to community discretion, we run a terrible risk. Because it is not only a slippery slope for women’s rights, but arguably, for halacha as well. Where will the “chumras” (stringencies) end? When will we lose the bigger picture, if we haven’t already? Let us not forget that fixating on a person’s body image turns that “someone” into “something.” You cannot redefine dignity if you do not redefine who is deciding it in the first place.