Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Religious Dress Codes For Women. And Some Confused Echidne Thoughts.

I came across two stories about attempts to regulate what women may wear.  The first consists of the specific instructions one rather strict Israeli rabbi is providing for the women in his flock,  I presume:

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, known as one of the strictest Religious Zionism leaders when it comes to women's modesty, has formulated a new dress code in which he orders women to avoid wearing red, keep their hair tied in a braid and put on 40 denier stockings.


According to the new "regulations" published in the "Be'ahava U'bemuna" synagogue leaflet, a woman's garment must not be transparent or tight, must cover the entire body and be "calm and reserved."

Girls must be educated on modesty rules starting at the age of three, or seven at the latest, the rabbi stated.

There are very specific measurements  about the width and length of dresses and so on.   Somehow it's weird that the rabbi knows so much about women's stockings.

The second story is from Aceh, Indonesia, where a modified shariah law is applied.  As is often the case, it's applied to women's clothing:

Authorities in Indonesia’s Aceh province are pressing ahead with a proposed Islamic law that would ban female passengers from straddling motorbikes despite reported opposition from the central government.
Aceh introduced a version of Shariah, or Islamic law, in 2009, after it gained autonomy from the government in a 2005 peace deal to end a long-running separatist war there. The Aceh laws regulate women’s dress and public morality, require shops and other places to close at prayer time, and are enforced by a special unit. Punishments can include public caning.
On Monday, authorities in northern Aceh distributed a notice to government offices and villages informing residents of the proposed law, which would apply to adolescent girls and women. It states that women are not allowed to straddle motorbikes unless it’s an “emergency,” and are not allowed to hold onto the driver.
Suaidi Yahya, mayor of the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe, said a ban was needed because the “curves of a woman’s body” are more visible when straddling a motorbike than when sitting sideways with legs dangling.
“Muslim women are not allowed to show their curves, it’s against Islamic teachings,” he said, declining to give details of what the punishment would be for violators.
I wasn't able to find out if women can straddle their own motorbikes, as the person holding the handlebars or if they have to somehow make the bike go while riding side-saddle.  Or perhaps that question is a purely academic one.

Given that these two stories are about two of the three Abrahamic religions, I looked to see if I could make the trifecta today.  But alas, no fundamentalist Christian sect helped me by recently publicizing their female modesty codes.

What lies behind these modesty codes?  In some ways they are an attempt to control heterosexual  men's lust, or so I read.  The assumption is that if a woman dresses modestly the men who see her won't get all sexually excited.  If, on the other hand, should a woman dress immodestly (the meaning depending on the place and culture) she has only herself to blame for the sexual furor she has roused and its consequences.

The problems with this way of thinking are at least two.  First, all the apparent responsibility for sexual incontinence is shifted on women's (properly covered) shoulders, even though we know that this particular solution does not work.  Second, and related to the first point,  as dress codes become stricter and stricter the erotic areas of women's bodies follow suit.  Thus, an ankle is sexually exciting if women's legs are usually completely covered and a wrist is sexually exciting if women's arms are usually completely covered and so on.  In other words, if we try to make a female dress code do the work of controlling all heterosexual sexuality, we might as well give up because it's far too weak a police force.

The third problem with all this is of course the assumption that men cannot control themselves at all or avert their eyes, say.

The concept of religious modesty in female dress is a fascinating one.  Women are not supposed to dress in a way which might remind someone of the fact that they are women,  yet at the same time they certainly cannot dress to look like men!


This is the point where I stopped writing this post yesterday, not being quite sure where I was planning to go with it.  On some deeper level the two questions I struggled with were these:

1.  What are the BENEFITS FOR WOMEN from following the religious dress code?  This is important to answer because most benefits, subtly implied, seem to accrue in the form of protecting men from the lustful nature.

In a sense the benefits for women are obvious, of course, when not following the dress code results in a legal punishment.  Beatings, say.  But when the behavior is not legally sanctioned, there still must be benefits.  Are they simply in terms of societal approval from those who follow the same rules?  Or does the religious dress code truly protect women from getting raped, for instance, or from general sexual harassment?

I don't know the answer to that question.

The second question is completely different and has to do with the much wider question:

2.  What is APPROPRIATE DRESS FOR BOTH MEN AND WOMEN?  Is there some societal judgment on that?  And if so,  should the code differ between men and women?  Or should we even try to define appropriate dress because once we set out on that path some will surely bring in that modesty aspect for women? 

Yet clearly most of us would agree that it's not appropriate to go to a funeral dressed in swim suits, say, (unless the dearly-departed wished for exactly those outfits at the funeral,) and that's because we don't want to hurt those who are grieving by our flippant form of dress.

So I really struggle with the concept of appropriateness.  Perhaps you can help me with that?

The final thought I had before deciding to scrap the post (which I didn't, as you can see) has to do with the subtle pressures for women to dress "immodestly."  They are not really explicit dress codes but just something we absorb from the air of the popular culture in some countries.  Even "immodest" dress is ultimately determined by how it impacts heterosexual men.

Perhaps, then, we should address appropriateness of dress while explicitly excluding any thoughts about modesty from it?  Concentrate on health, comfort and so on?  Or is even that infringing on people's rights to dress as they wish?