Sisterhood Blog

Why Women Are the New Gatekeepers of Modesty

By Frimet Goldberger

  • Print
  • Share Share

Getty Images // Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel

Who are the gatekeepers of the conservative religious ideal of tznius, or modesty? This question has been argued and parsed on social media and on blogs in recent years as radicalism in the ultra-Orthodox communities has taken on new and more visible forms.

A common misperception is that rabbis and male community leaders are fueling the radical surge. But are Haredi women indeed victims of a patriarchal culture that puts extreme and outsized emphasis on tznius? Are Hasidic and Yeshivish women merely oppressed by fanatical males fervently trying to control their flock of subservient women?

Yes and no.

Yes, many ultra-Orthodox leaders do have an extreme and fairly new obsession with tznius – one that has no solid basis in the Torah or Jewish history.

And no, ultra-Orthodox women are not the gullible and oppressed creatures we sometimes purport them to be. (I have been guilty of making this claim, too.) In fact, they are often the most fanatical devotees to the cause. They are the ones who recognize the nuances of the way women dress; they are the ones who inform the appropriate authorities when other women step out of line; they are the ones who call and harass store owners when they sell an item deemed “un-tznius.” Recently, a voicemail recording that illustrates this point popped up on my social media feeds. The recording (listen below) was apparently left on the phone line of a Lakewood store called Ladida; a woman had called to complain about a Ladida advertisement depicting a male child in trendy clothing (see the picture below). In the voicemail, the woman says said the young boy in chino shorts and a fedora looked “un-tznius” and “goyish.” She threatened to boycott the store. (When I called the store to confirm the veracity of the voicemail, the person who answered the phone said that she doubted the owner would want to comment on it.)

This ad apparently drew the ire of one ultra-Orthodox woman in Lakewood.

It is unfortunate that women themselves are feeding into the tznius craze and have, essentially, become the gatekeepers of tznius themselves. Need more examples? Women, not men, invented thin summer coats for women to hide what is already hidden. Women come up with genius products like tznius rulers” to measure the length of a skirt to ensure it reaches the minimum four-inches below the knees, a requirement for all pious ladies of the 21st century. Women run tznius hotlines, which broadcast announcements about the next tznius asifa (assembly) in town.

Growing up Hasidic in Kiryas Joel, I experienced this female ownership of the tznius issue firsthand. Pious women in oversized and frumpy clothes — looking and feeling holier than thou — had no problem walking up to other women and chastising them for wearing a shirt unbuttoned at the collar, or a skirt with a slit in the back that fell two inches, not four, below the knee. I was approached on more than one occasion by well-meaning gatekeepers of tznius who told me — “No offense, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way.” — to never step out again with a shirt that shows my collarbone or a skirt that doesn’t hide my upper shin (two highly erotic zones on the female body, at least according to Hasidim).

As with every community, every campaign and, well, everything in this competitive world of ours, the fanatical devotees and the most radical adherents are the loudest and drown out the more moderate minority. I will not go so far as to malign all ultra-Orthodox females; many are outraged by what their peers are imposing on them. Eventually, some of the outraged get swept up with the zealots, too. But the ones whose voices are heard by their male counterparts, and the ones who, unfortunately, set the rules for the future, are the loud radicals.

And thus continues a cycle in which women perpetuate their own victimhood. For many unwilling women, being forced to conform to more stringent codes is indeed a form of victimization.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: women, tznius, modesty, feminism, Jewish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.