#14: Dress as Barriers

When the Boro Park group was doing their presentation, they brought up an interesting concept of clothing as barriers. When walking around the district, they felt out of place simply by their style of dress. Most of the people they saw were wearing the traditional clothing of Orthodox Jews. Their differences in clothing distinguished them from each other, setting up a boundary between them. This interested me very much, and I’m considering exploring this topic for my final project, but before I make that decision, I wanted to do some basic research. While doing this, I realized many similarities amongst traditional religious clothing for women. These types of clothing set these women apart from the typical street clothing of young woman today (let along a young New Yorker). For each major ¬†traditional religious group (Hasidic Jews, Mennonite Christians, and Saudi Arabian Muslims), I will explore their similarities and how they are set apart from the ordinary woman.

Hasidic Jewish Women

The first similarity I noticed amongst these groups was their covering of the head and overall goal of modesty. Both men and women are not supposed to dress in a way to draw attention to themselves, for physical appearance should not distract from the inner soul of the person. When in public, the married woman must wear a head-covering scarf, called a tichel, or wig, called a sheitel, or a combination of the two, called a shpitzel to cover her natural hair. To encourage modesty, a woman must also wear skirts that fall below her knees and shirts with sleeves that go past her elbows. Many women also wear stockings and closed-toe shoes and oppose brightly colored clothing, though this varies between communities. A woman is not allowed to expose too much skin, for this goes against the principles of modesty and humility, called Tzniut.

Christian Mennonite Women

Mennonites are derived from the Anabaptist Christian faith, as are the Amish, though the groups do differ (Mennonites are open to modern technology such as electricity and live in integrated communities). Mennonites do not require a dress code, but the following guidelines are frequently followed. Like the Hassidic Jews, Mennonite woman must cover their hair. A woman must wear a head-covering that looks somewhat like a bonnet, hiding her tied up or short hair. Fabrics are usually simple or plain prints, also encouraging modest. The skirts must fall at most just above the ankles, and black stockings and closed-toed shoes are usually worn. To cover the bosom, a shawl, cape, or apron is worn. So as not to attract attention (like Hassidic Jews), Mennonite women are discouraged from wearing makeup and flashy jewelry. The long skirts, head-coverings, simplicity, and minimal show of skin also reflect the modesty values held by Hassidic Jews.

Saudi Arabian Muslim Woman

Although any sect of Islam strictly requires certain dress, many Islamic countries dictate the clothing a woman can wear. Saudi Arabia is one of these countries and has some of the strictest rules in comparison to other countries. Women’s clothing is not to show off her body or frame, so she must wear thick, loose clothing at all times, typically a black cloak called an abaya. A Saudi women always covers her head with a head covering, a hijab, and typically covers her face with a veil as well. The niqab shows the eyes while the burqa covers the eyes with a layer of mesh, so no part of the woman’s face is visible. Religious police will often tell women that they must cover their hair or faces, if they aren’t doing so already. Though Saudi women are denied many rights, Westerners tend to focus on their dress, which isn’t actually a prime issue for the Saudi women. The Saudi dress code reflects the values of modesty and covering as seen in Hasidic Judaism and Mennonite Christianity. They all typically involve the covering of the hair and legs.

All these types of religious dress set these women apart from what we believe to be the “typical” modern woman. By wearing these particular styles of clothing, these women are setting themselves apart from these typical women. These women do not show skin or curves, wear bright colored clothing, or do anything that could attract attention to their appearance instead of their inner soul. In this sense, these modest values can be easily respected. Some may see it as oppression, limiting the freedom of expression, but the women wearing the clothing tend to take pride in it and see it as a way of showing their values of modesty and displaying their seriousness for their religion. Of course, men have their own traditional types of clothing as well, which limit them as well. Whether or not restricted dress codes are a social inequality is up to you, but we can be certain that it serves as a barrier between the secular and the deeply religious.


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