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For Women of Different Faiths, a Dilemma: What’s Modest Dress?

November 3, 2004
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Though much else separates them, religious women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds struggle with similar issues related to their clothing. According to Devora Zlochower, an Orthodox woman who directs the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, the Hebrew term tzniut, translated as "modesty," comes from a biblical verse stating that man should "walk humbly with God."

But while modesty can be associated with many types of behaviors, it most often is associated in Judaism with women’s dress, a link Zlochower finds disturbing.

As is customary among many Orthodox women, Zlochower covers her head with a hat — though she leaves some of her hair showing, unlike her mother, who wears a wig or a hat that covers all of her hair.

Similarly, Sarah Sayeed, a Muslim who is an assistant professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, wears a scarf that covers all of her hair — but not her face, as some Muslim women do.

As is traditional among Orthodox Jews, Zlochower began covering her hair when she married. Sayeed decided to wear a head scarf after her first child was born and she began to think of herself as a role model.

Zlochower and Sayeed are aware of the disagreements over how women should cover their hair — or whether they should cover it at all — but both believe it should be a woman’s choice.

"The scarf can mean many things — being liberated, having a political identity or being suppressed," Sayeed says. Personally, she sees it as part of her daily dialogue with God.

Muslim women’s head coverings have been widely associated with male suppression of women. It’s not as well known that Christian ideas about women covering their heads while praying at church are directly associated with male dominance over women.

In the New Testament’s Corinthians I, a divine hierarchy is asserted that places men subordinate to God and women subordinate to men. It goes on to imply that women should cover their heads when praying as a sign of their subordination to men, and therefore to God.

It once was common practice for Christian women to cover their heads in church, but most Christian women have abandoned this tradition over time.

According to the Rev. E. Lee Hancock, a Presbyterian minister and dean of New York City’s Auburn Theological Seminary, in the 1950s and 1960s the United States thought of itself as a Christian nation. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants did not feel a need for religious expression because they assumed most people were WASPs and that they had more power than other religious groups.

In a new book, "A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America," Jenna Weismann Joselit argues that from the 1890s to the 1930s fashion increasingly was presented as a unifying force in America: Anyone could blend in if he or she was wearing the right clothes.

However, dressing gradually became a celebration of self-expression and individualism, Joselit said at a recent panel discussion with Zlochower, Sayeed and Hancock at the Manhattan JCC.

Today, in a culture where many young women parade around in next to nothing, religious women struggle to balance modesty and aesthetics.

"Socially, there’s a pendulum swinging between social control/modesty and sexual expression/degradation," Hancock says. "Hopefully it will go toward a balance."

Since feminism came into vogue, Orthodox Jewish women have grappled with a larger culture that promotes female self-expression and a religious tradition that has sought to protect men from the lures of female sexuality.

Zlochower, for her part, tries to both honor the Jewish tradition and question it.

While Zlochower and Sayeed say they express their spirituality through their dress, Hancock takes a different approach.

"Christians are all admonished to wear the law in our hearts," she says, "not in the expression of dress."

However, she adds, she envies the clarity of identity that clothes can portray in other religions.

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