Modest Dress in Contemporary Judaism and Islam

A cultural and religious analysis.

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Shifting Attitudes

Among contemporary Muslims, most traditional scholars maintain that the hijab is obligatory. Conservative scholars, affiliated with the Wahhabi school of Saudi Arabia, go further and maintain that even the face veil is compulsory. And yet, a number of Muslim feminist historians as well as more liberal scholars (both in the West and East) have argued that the revelatory sources do not explicitly mandate a head covering and that classical legal scholars were influenced by cultural norms instead.

One need only look at the JOFA website's archive of articles on head covering to see parallel calls by some modern Orthodox scholars to reinterpret the traditional obligation on head covering based on shifting cultural norms. Beyond the legal issue, one finds that women's dress continues to be the touchstone of a cultural debate regarding Western values.

Proponents of hijab argue that covering represents a rejection of Western materialism and superficiality in favor of piety and spirituality. Here, one finds a striking similarity with those Jewish writers on tzniut (modesty) who see modest dress as the antidote to the hypersexualization of women in Western society.

Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of Western superficiality and Jewish spirituality in the autobiographical article by Chaya Rivka Kessel, posted on the aish.com website: "By embracing the laws of tzniut, we acknowledge that spirituality is, in its very essence, private and internal. Tzniut refines our self-definition. By projecting ourselves in a less external way, we become aware of our own depth and internality, and are more likely to relate to those around us in a deeper, less superficial manner."

Modesty as Empowerment

Rather than seeing tzniut as a system imposed upon women from without, Kessel viewed her decision to dress modestly as a process of self-actualization. As her female teacher once declared, "I will not allow myself to be objectified. I choose to reveal to whom I wish to reveal, when I wish to reveal." For Kessel, the turn to modesty represents a neo-feminist act of choice.

This theme of empowered choice echoes in the narrative of Canadian Muslim, Naheed Mustafa. In her article, "My Body Is My Own Business," Mustafa explains why she decided to wear a hijab:

"But, why would I, a woman with all the advantages of a North American upbringing, suddenly, at 21, want to cover myself so that with the hijab and the other clothes I choose to wear, only my face and hands show? Because it gives me freedom. Women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness. We feel compelled to pursue abstract notions of beauty, half realizing that such a pursuit is futile.”

These Jewish and Muslim writers both regard the act of covering up as a declaration of freedom and a rejection of the Western objectification of the female body.

However compelling the notion of modesty as an act of agency, the idea stands in tension with the way that both Jewish and Islamic literature on modesty place restrictions primarily on women. Instead of calling for a cross-gender focus on spirituality, writings on tzniut (and I would add, on Islamic dress) focus primarily if not exclusively on covering women to control the sexual appetites of men.

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Raquel Ukeles

Raquel Ukeles is a Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University, specializing in Islamic law and ritual. She completed her PhD in Islamic and Jewish Studies at Harvard University in 2006.