True Jewish Modesty Can Protect Against Sexual Harassment
For a long time, I’ve heard people preaching the importance of dressing with tzniut (modesty) and telling girls that it’s important to cover up so that they don’t give the boys any reason to stare at them. And I’ve never been comfortable with that idea.
But then I started reading some wonderful books and articles about tzniut that emphasized the truth about it. I realized that while the reasoning of not giving boys a reason to stare is still wrong, there are good and smart ideas behind tzniut.
Recently we’ve had the Harvey Weinstein scandal (along with many others) and people are coming forward with their experiences of harassment, rape, and abuse. The #MeToo campaign on social media has not only raised awareness of how widespread these problems are, but it has also allowed so many victims and survivors to know that they’re not alone.
Of course, there’s going to be talk in Orthodox circles about how tzniut can protect us from these things. And of course, there’s going to be the response that this is just one more way of blaming the victims. Yes, it is victim blaming and it’s 100% wrong, but there’s another problem with it.
The idea that covering up more will protect women and girls from harassment and rape is based on a fallacy. People who say this believe that harassment and rape are about sex. That the men who do this are just desperate for sex and the gratification that goes with it. But if it’s just a matter of the men wanting sex, they have ways to get it without forcing anyone or violating anyone’s personal boundaries.
Harassment and rape are about power and control. The people who do these things want to control someone else. Sex is simply the weapon used. If you understand it this way, you understand why it is that the amount of clothing or how you cover yourself does not matter. Perpetrators don’t care if you’re wearing turtlenecks or six layers. If you fit into their fantasy somehow, then you’re a target.
Note: I said target, not victim. That’s because nearly everyone will be a target for harassment or rape, but not everyone will be a victim.
When we teach our girls that they should dress modestly and cover up so that the boys/men won’t stare at them, we’re doing them a terrible disservice. Not only will it not stop them from being targets, but also it’s just this idea that prevents them from coming forward.
The girls and women are much more likely to blame themselves, thinking that maybe their skirts weren’t long enough or that their necklines weren’t high enough. This is so wrong. And this mindset is so preventable.
Another idea tied to this argument is that because tzniut is such an important mitzvah, if we’re careful with it, we’ll earn merits to prevent bad things from happening to us. I remember reading once about an idea that the second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed because Jewish women used eye makeup.
One of my teachers said it best: “Torah and mitzvot are not a quid-pro-quo arrangement.” Of course, we earn merit and rewards for keeping mitzvot, but we don’t know the specifics.
So can tzniut help with the issues of harassment and rape? Yes, but ONLY if we know the truth about tzniut.
First, tzniut is just as incumbent on men and boys as it is on women and girls. And we have to teach our girls AND our boys about it.
Second, while dress is the most obvious aspect of tzniut, it’s far from the only guideline there is. Among other things, tzniut encompasses behavior. And we need to teach our boys and girls that they need to respect other people’s personal space and boundaries. To violate those boundaries is to violate tzniut.
One common excuse is, “Boys will be boys.” Wrong. Boys will be whatever we teach them to be.
If we teach them true tzniut and how it applies to behavior and personal space, then they’ll know how to behave like gentlemen. They’ll also be better equipped to protect themselves. Yes, there are plenty of boys and men who are victims of harassment and rape, but if they’re taught true tzniut, they won’t have to feel as if they’re to blame.
Third, while tzniut also encompasses speech and words, we have to stop taking real words and making them into taboo words just because they refer to private issues. While there are certain words that we should not use, either because they show a lack of refinement or they’re just plain offensive, there are others that we must use, such as the actual names of body parts.
How can we expect our children to tell us about inappropriate touch if they can’t use the words breast, penis, vagina, or rectum? Those words do refer to private parts, but our children have to know what those parts are and the importance of not allowing anyone to touch them. A lot of child victims are silenced when they’re told that it’s not tzniut to talk about these things. But even if it’s true, remember that pikuach nefesh, which is an endangerment to life and safety, always trumps tzniut.
Then we have the overall concept of tzniut. It’s about who you really are and how you feel about yourself and your relationship with G-d. Bottom line: you’re a human being who was created in the image of G-d. That, all by itself, gives you an inherent dignity. And that dignity can give you the strength and confidence and courage needed if you ever experience harassment or rape.
It’s that confidence that allows you to come forward, get the help you need, and become stronger. It will stop those who try to shame you into silence.
Of course, tzniut can help with the problems of harassment and rape. But it can only help if it’s used in its truest sense. And I hope we, as a society, can do that.
Meira E. Schneider-Atik is a wardrobe organizer, personal shopper, jewelry designer, and fashion writer and speaker. She helps women look great while saving time, effort, and money, all within tzniut. And she’ll add custom-designed jewelry to the whole thing. She also has the YouTube channel “Look Your Best in Mitpachot,” where she does headwrapping tutorials and she is available for private demonstrations. She can be reached at MESAtik@gmail.com.