Miriam Shaviv
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Why I won’t wear a burka to shul
Date: Friday, February 1st, 2008
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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The rabbinical judges had no idea how to deal with the woman standing in front of them. Dressed from head to toe in a cloak, and a veil which covered her entire face — including her eyes — she looked like a resident of Kabul. But this was an Orthodox Jewish woman from Jerusalem in 2005.

Asked several times to remove the veil, she refused, saying only, through her lawyer: “I only reveal my face to my husband, for reasons of modesty.”

The rabbis granted her husband’s request for a divorce, against her will, and handed him custody of their 10 children. They concluded that the woman, who had to be guided from court by her hand, suffered from a “serious mental disturbance”.

If so, it is one afflicting an increasing number of women. In the past few months, reports have emerged of more than 100 Orthodox Israelis who have taken to wearing a Muslim-style burka, in the belief this will bring about redemption. They can be seen in Orthodox areas of Tiberias, Safed and even Jerusalem, and are mostly followers of Rabbanit Bruria Keren, a mother of 10 from Ramat Beit Shemesh.

According to the newspaper Ha’aretz, she rarely leaves her home and speaks only for four hours a week to offer “alternative therapy” to her followers.

Some wear more than 10 layers of clothing, including dark socks, with the ends cut off, over their hands. They never wear heels, lest the noise attracts attention.

How are we to understand this behaviour?

The women see themselves as motivated only by piety. As one of them told Ha’aretz: “The entirety of a woman is considered ervah,” or a naked part of the body which must be covered up, “even one’s wrist. A man who isn’t your husband must not see it.”

But halachah makes no such judgment, and the lengths to which these women are going to fulfil this fictional expectation are so extreme that they cannot be categorised as just one more stringency. These women are not just covering up another inch, another body part; they are not just nudging the laws of modesty a
little bit further.

By donning the burka, they are making themselves invisible, effectively non-persons. Modesty, for them, is not participation in the world, while de-emphasising their physicality — as it is in halachah — but complete self-effacement, to the point of self-obliteration. They have no faces. Some have no voices. A few have no existence outside the home.

Some bloggers have cited parallels to eating disorders. Both anorexics and the burka women are denying their bodies in order to make them “disappear”. Both are reacting to unattainable cultural ideals, be they size-zero thinness or increasingly stringent standards of modesty in the Charedi world, by taking them to an obsessive extreme. And anorexia is often understood to be a desperate way for women to assert control over at least one aspect of their lives. Surely, wearing a burka or vowing silence can be construed similarly.

So how did we reach a situation where a group of women believes that this sick behaviour is actually a Jewish ideal? On the face of it, they are behaving in opposition to the norms of Orthodox society. The rabbinical divorce court was clearly repulsed by the concept of the frum burka — or the “frumka”, as bloggers are mischievously calling it. No rabbis publicly condone it. Several women quoted by Ha’aretz complained they were harassed and rejected by their peers.

And yet, the “frumka” is the logical extension of two clear trends in the frum world.

Firstly, standards of modesty are becoming increasingly stringent and require increasing effort to follow. A CD recording by a top rabbi from Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, reportedly asks women not to swing their arms while they walk and not to allow their daughters to wear colourful banana-clips in their hair. Women know that if they wear skin-coloured stockings, they must include a seam so it is clear they are not bare-legged. Schoolgirls do not wear shiny shoes that could “reflect their underwear”.

Paradoxically, the Orthodox world’s attempt to create a generation in which physicality is minimised has resulted in a generation obsessed with looks, clothes and sex.

Secondly, tznius, or modesty, has long moved from being about modest clothing to being about keeping women, and images of women, away from men.

Open a Charedi newspaper, and there are either no images of women, or they are blacked out. In the past few years, several women have been beaten up in Jerusalem because they would not move to the back of the bus in Charedi neighbourhoods; a top rabbi in Bnai Brak asked women to leave before the end of shul so they did not mingle with men following davening; that same town has a street with separate sides for men and women; separate shopping hours are not unknown.

Just last week, a sheitel shop in New York was boycotted for refusing to remove headshots of women wearing wigs from its window.

But since when is looking at women’s faces forbidden? It’s not.

The fact is that, in the Orthodox world today, women are already being pushed out of the public sphere. The rabbis may not understand the Pandora’s Box they have opened, but the jump from the Brooklyn sheitel store to the burka-wearers in Israel is not that great.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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