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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775

Covering up

Galilee Diary #401, August 3, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.
-Genesis 3:7

I happened to be the facilitator of an encounter, recently, between one of the many birthright groups that visited us this summer and a group of young (ages 19-21) Arab women studying at a local teachers' seminary. Several, but not all, of the Arab women were wearing the hijab (head scarf). One of the birthrighters asked for an explanation of the hijab, and how the wearers felt about it. One student put it like this: "My body is very precious to me and it makes me feel empowered, in control, not to expose it to just anyone. There are some things that are private, that are for me alone; the hijab defines that boundary for me." The Americans were, I think, surprised to discover that the "covering up" of a woman's body and hair as is customary among religious Moslems is not perceived as a male-imposed symbol of male domination/ownership, or as a sign of woman's inherent sinfulness, but rather is a statement of feminine empowerment – a sense of control over one's body and who gets to see it. The other students wearing the hijab agreed with the speaker. And of course this explanation is the same as the one expressed by many Orthodox Jewish women regarding their covering of their hair after marriage, and their choice of wardrobe.

Now of course it is the common wisdom among modern, secular/liberal people, from various religious traditions, that the argument stated by this Arab woman is just a rationalization thought up by defenders of the tradition, to make women happy about being covered up to help men control their urges. Brainwashing. But sometimes I wonder just who has the feminist high ground.

A few days after the encounter described above, I facilitated another, for an American Jewish high school group with a group of Arab teens. This particular team of a dozen Arab kids, mostly boys, from the village of Majd El Krum, worked hard this summer, and had already met with a number of similar teen tour groups. There is a standard format for these programs: the Americans receive a lecture on the history of the region and the key issues in Jewish-Arab relations, followed by about an hour of loosely guided discussion in small mixed groups, followed by a brief wrap-up for the Americans. When, in the debriefing, I asked the Americans if anything struck them as interesting, surprising, upsetting, etc., a few of the girls asked, "How come the boys only seem to want to talk about sex?" Perhaps it is relevant to point out at this point that the standard dress for American teenage girls touring Israel is tight short shorts and tops ranging from t-shirts to v-neck t-shirts to various forms of halter and crop-tops. When their tours take them to religious sites and communities like Safed, it is often an "issue" that they have to find an outfit that is less revealing, which they often resent. The Arab girls wear t-shirts and jeans and an occasional hijab.

What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure to communicate: two opposed cultural norms neither of which has a place in it for - or even an understanding of – the other. Cultural relativism of course has its limits. If an Arab (or anyone else) kills his sister for bringing shame on the family by her perceived promiscuity, that is murder, and must be treated as such. But perhaps in less blatant cases of value conflict, we need to try to see the moral logic of the position of the other culture, rather than simply judging it in terms of our own. In this particular case, the American teens' dress was sending a message to the Arab boys, in terms of their own culture, that was not what the girls intended to say, and they themselves were totally unaware of what they were communicating, or of the cultural mismatch.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the liberation from the concept of modesty that has come with modernization is really liberation at all.

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