Is Hyper-Modesty about Female Empowerment?

NRG published a story about a pamphlet distributed to homes in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, urging women to wear shalim, or cloaks. If you have a copy of the pamphlet, please let me know.

According to the pamphlet, the purpose of wearing a shal is “to cover the outline and shape of the body and hide the color of the clothing . . . the purpose of this embellishment is for the woman to honor her husband, and it isn’t modest for the whole neighborhood to know what clothing she chose to wear on the Sabbath.”

According to the article, “The pamphlet goes on to bring long and detailed explanations of the halachic obligation, according to the writers, to wear the shal, along with quotes from researchers around the world, who maintain that haredi women covered, in previous eras, ‘their heads, necks, and bodies with several items of clothing, until no man could identify them.'”

The pamphlet lets you know what to do should people laugh, advising: “The most important thing is not to inform your parents, on either side. Because it’s known, that if the couple wants to become stronger in tzniut (modesty), [the parents] immediately cry out in protest, as is the way of the evil inclination.”

NRG entitles the article, Haredi Campaign: Dress Like Taliban Women. (One haredi objected to the title because the campaign is by a fringe group and does not reflect mainstream haredi Judaism.) The article opens by retelling the case of Bruria Keren, known in the press as “Mother Taliban. Keren covers her face with a veil and is currently serving a 4-year jail term for child abuse.

Two Distinct Groups with Similar Goals

Currently, there are two more or less distinct groups of hyper-modest women that the article lumps together:

    • Women who wear shalim. Most of the women who wear them have been influenced by the books of Michael Uri Sofer, a rabbi from Bnei Brak. His wife wears neither a veil nor a shal, and I did not see shalim when I visited the clothing store that operates in his house. Sofer prohibits exposing the neck, wearing high heels, and talking on cellphones (all for women, of course). While the book doesn’t advocate shalim, it praises them and recommends layers. It’s likely that most of the pamphlet’s quotes and arguments come from Sofer’s books.  Shalim are already common in certain parts of the country. I haven’t seen any pashkevilim condemning shalim, although I know many husbands don’t like them.
    • Women who cover their faces with veils, wear shalim, and and have taken on additional practices that are in contradiction to Jewish law. These include not bathing more than one body part at a time, not using soap, not breastfeeding, and limiting sexual relations to fertile times (not during pregnancy, for example).

The two groups come from the same population, use similar language, and  have similar motives and resources. They both proselytize via pamphlets and even home visits, and there may be easy passage from the first group to the second. But the veil-wearers have become a full-fledged cult with all that it entails. Perhaps the shal-wearers are headed in that direction.

While it may be hard for outsiders to see the difference, the two groups view themselves as distinct from one another. The veil-wearing families from Ramat Beit Shemesh wanted a separate school  for their sons because they disapproved of teachers whose wives exposed their faces.

Is Hyper-Tzniut a Feminist Movement?

Many, like the blogger Benjamin of Tudela, have suggested a twisted feminist leaning behind this movement. I understand the sentiment, but I like thet theory less and less. The first group, the shal wearers, has adopted more stringent dress and behavior—there’s nothing feminist about that.

What about the second group, the veil-wearers? While they have made up some new halachot and ignored others, they aren’t “pushing the envelope” in the feminist sense. Wearing more layers isn’t feminist. Avoiding baths has nothing to do with controlling men, nor does rejection of breastfeeding. All of their practices have one thing in common—refusal to expose the body in any way, even for legitimate reasons like sex, bathing, and feeding babies.

The concept of tzniut has been drummed into the heads of these women with a hammer since they were children: tzniut is the most important commandment for women, it will bring the messiah, and so on. Both groups have taken the concept of tzniut (modesty) to its logical conclusion.  Now the established community will try to stop a moving train that has long ago left the station.

Thanks to Hadassah Levy for her comments on the draft.


  1. I think you misunderstood what people mean when they say this is about empowering women. They don’t mean that it is feminist, nor do they mean that it is, in fact, empowering in the broader social sense. Rather, they mean that subconsciously it is a way for women who have very little control over the course of their lives and their bodies to seize more control from the men who dictate their behavior.

    You want us to dress a certain way – we’ll take it to an extreme you don’t like. You want us to be nuns on the street and at your sexual beck and call at home (at least for half the month) – we’ll give you only the bare minimum. Etc. And we’ll justify all of it by appealing to the same kinds of sources you use to justify forbidding us from wearing nude colored stockings. You want to control our bodies – we will take control of the last bit of autonomy left by doing more than you want us to.

    Does this clarify it?

    • I hear what you are saying, but it’s hard to demonstrate subconscious desires one way or the other.

    • I think Ari has my position right. In my post I stated that the burqa cult was actually quite a radical feminist movement. I never intended to claim that they were empowering women – but rather I was trying to make the point that by taking the halach into their own hands they were actually showing a fair amount of Independence.

      However – and I’ll say this point with some hesitation – I’m not sure your argument that a burqa can not be a tool of empowerment is valid. I do not think you can a-priori decide that wearing a veil or burqa is automatically a tool of repression. I also pointed out that their “radicalism” has taken on a Haredi viewpoint – where to be radical you have to be even stricter then everyone else.

      • Benjamin, I added a link to your blog.
        I have spoken to women who feel that shalim are empowering because they don’t have to think about what they are wearing, they aren’t seen as sex objects, etc.

    • Could be. If that is the case, then my husband would lay the blame squarely on the men’s shoulders – if they were doing what they should be, and had more self-control, then these women would not feel the need to act this way.

      I am not sure I agree with either Ari or my husband (gasp!), but maybe.
      On the other hand, it could just be a group of mentally ill women who are drawing others in. Either way, it is a bad thing that needs to be stopped.

  2. The chareidi subculture is so new* to Judaism, and this newer version of adopting goyish customs claiming they’re holier than standard practice is dangerous.

    *Yes, it is new and only possible in modern affluence. Chazal worked. Faux monks (no army, no work etc, but yes to sex) aren’t based on Jewish ideals.

    The muslim dress-code for females isn’t even fully accepted by them, and most of the women have tight jeans and slinky tops under their long coats. They wear lots of make-up, too.

    Rabbis shouldn’t let the burqa crowd push them around. Proclaim the actual halacha.

  3. Is it feminist? No not really. Is it women’s empowerment? Possibly. I can see a side where it would be. Especially given the “go back to washing dishes” phrase from the pashkveil against them. Its driven by women, spread by women, with the ultimate hope of what… that women will bring the Mashiah. I can see, in a certain sense, where within the modern hareidi movement questions such as, “Are we educating our women too much?” are being touted around, with the implicit answer of being, “yes”. That this would be a women’s empowerment movement. At least possibly.
    The reason I say possibly, is because the other real possibility, is by far more horrifying. Which would be that, in some sense, these women have taken onboard fully and completely, that they are little more than walking wombs that can cook and do the laundry. They have nothing worthwhile to say, so they say nothing(taanit dibur), the feminine charms and physical needs serve only to distract their husbands from Torah, and thus delay the Mashiah, so they forgo them except in the absolute minimum to fulfill the mitzvah of pru u’vru ect… Yes I think this is also a possible reason, but I think many of us don’t want to consider it. It makes us far too uncomfortable, because it would imply that we have allowed our culture, and some who would be our leaders, to do serious emotional and mental harm to part of our populace. It would also be far more terrifying in that it would mean that these women, now few in number, are portents of things to come.
    Which is it? You would probably need a serious psychological survey to figure that out. Personally I’m not sure. I hope for the former, while I fear its the latter.

    • I fear the latter, but it is more than that–that it has become a cult of disturbed women. I fear for their children.

      • I think explaining it by some psychological disturbance might be accurate in cases from the second category. But what if the women in the first category are your plain vanilla hareidim who simply want to go an extra step in their observance? I think this is the scary part, when normal people start doing abnormal things and taking ideas to the extreme. Because currently the message is that one cannot be too tznius. Well, somebody has to step in and say that a women can indeed take tznius to an unhealthy, chalahically, philosophically and morally undesirable degree. If rabbonim would speak out more against this trend and we would still see it growing, then the case for mental disturbance/perverted feminism would be easier to make.

  4. It’s “feminist” in the sense that it is coming from women themselves. Men don’t have any say in this. If anything, they are held hostage to this behavior. Rabbis were not consulted, not to mention learned rebbetzins.

    It shows, very clearly, what women can do to each other in their attempt to outdo each other and create social norms.

    Evil. We should speak out against it in every possible way.

  5. Nurse Yachne says

    It’s “empowering” in the same sense that anorexia is “empowering”.

    • I think that anorexia comparison is spot on.

      It’s an attempt to take control, even if it results in self-harm.

      Oddly enough, the aversion to breastfeeding is something that I’ve seen elsewhere with sexual abuse survivors. I’m wondering if that’s a factor with these women?

      • The anorexia comparison may be incredibly apt, though not in the manner which you are speaking. The best research, and conversely the best treatment modalities, for anorexia see it as form of gradual suicide. The affected person feels that they have no right to occupy space, and thus seek to decrease the amount of space they occupy, until a very unfortunate end. So there are some extreme self esteem issues.
        Again it is hard to say, without an extensive study done into the psychology, but it is quite possible that those same essential issues are manifesting themselves here in an only slightly less destructive manner. Again where the women have come to a powerful internal conclusion that they have no right to be seen or heard, and thus essentially attempt to disappear in plain sight.
        Even if this is the case, it makes more questions than it answers.

        • Nurse Yachne says

          ” The affected person feels that they have no right to occupy space, and thus seek to decrease the amount of space they occupy”

          Yes, I’ve been there. And the same urges that found anxiety relief in little eating obsessions whisper to me that tzniut, or rather, the larger issues of self-presentaton, would be so much *simpler* in a burkha. But that would be abdicating what Hashem wants me to do in the world, so I don’t let myself go there. I give myself reinforcement for turning a pleasant, attractive face to the world as an ovedet Hashem.

          But I can imagine the pull towards self-obliteration under layers and layers of cloth had I internalized a certain twist on tzniut. Particularly if one were a victim of sexual abuse.

      • Cynthia, it’s scary to think that so many of these women might have been abused sexually. Well, we know that Keren was at least physically abused.

        • Statistically speaking 1 in 4 women have been sexually abused. Unfortunately there is nothing to indicate that that figure would be any less in Religious Jewish circles. It may be less frequently reported, but there is nothing to indicate that it would be less frequent in occurrence.

          • A friend of ours, a professional who works with the haredi population, recently attended a haredi conference on sexual abuse. He said the incidence is twice as high.

          • I have to ask. Is this data form an official study or is it gathered anecdotal observation? If it is from an actual study, I would be interested in reading it as well as any followups. Sexual predation of any sort, but especially against minors is a rather serious psychological disorder with rather high recidivism rates(they are actually continuing to climb as researchers are finding better ways of measuring actual instance), so the question really becomes a matter of whether Hareidi society is for some reason turning out higher numbers of sexual predators, or if predators are allowed greater range of predation on account of lack of reporting to the authorities.
            If its not based on an actual study, then the possibilities are more numerous. Last time I was at an actual Nefesh Conference(admittedly a few years ago) they were fairly convinced that the numbers were running about average with rampant under-reporting and under-treatment taking place. Admittedly I haven’t actually stayed current.

    • Yes, there is some kind of abnormal psychology going on here.

  6. I am seriously worried that wearing burqas or shals or whatever will become a norm for our daughters. While I abhor the practice, which is designed not for modesty, but to make women invisible, it is taking the tznius to its logical conclusion, that the best thing for a woman is not to be seen at all outside of her house. I think we need to find a way to convey to our girls that being tzanua is about dignity, not about becoming invisible to men.

  7. I recommend wearing a cardboard box over one’s shawl. I have seen some shawls on women and in store windows that could be called pretty. It is no one’s business what color a woman’s shawl is and most of the shawls can still reveal the vague size and shape of a woman’s body. If anyone needs assistance with this practice, I will be selling boxes from my home which leave a hole for the head, yet cover the neck and any additional chins. They are available in black, brown, and “Pampers” pattern. They are also excellent to help avoid hugging family members or nursing children.

  8. 1- I respectfully disagree with your assertion that this cannot be a feminist movement.
    Feminism is also about standing up to men, and that, women with shalim are certainly doing. You mentioned some are doing this against the wishes of their own husbands. This would seem self-empowering to me.
    2- I’m surprised Rabbi Sofer’s wife doesn’t wear one. I’d suggest having anyone who wears a shal go visit the home – they might change over time.
    3- Have you ever read “Modesty: An Adornment for Life”? It is quite popular here in Brooklyn, I guess our version of this movement. I personally enjoyed it immensely – others were very irritated by it – but he is very clear that his “recommendations” are not halacha. He is able to synthesize tznius into a very compelling worldview (although people from more modern backgrounds really don’t find it compelling, in my experience.)

    • TW,
      1. I think they are following some other authority.
      2. Could be.
      3. I may have read it a long time ago. What is compelling about it?.

      • 1. Yes, but they are choosing whom to listen to.
        3. It’s by Rabbi Falk, and you would remember reading it, it’s about 2 inches thick and aimed at women. People either love it or hate it. He portrays an entire worldview of tznius, and gets into the nitty-gritty details of clothing, singing, yichud, etc, which aren’t deeply covered in schools. He was/is a teacher in Gateshead seminary so it’s their customs.
        It has become semi-compulsory at a lot of Chassidish schools in Boro Park over the past few years. Girls study it together in their spare time.
        I’ve always enjoyed reading about tznius, so it’s unsurprising I liked the book. However, I disagree with some of his assertions, such as that black tights are not tznius, or that floor length skirts are less modest than mid-calf length. Many of my friends who are either BTs or from more modern backgrounds complain that he talks down to women and perhaps feel threatened by his high standards becoming the general rule. I really don’t see it; the reason the book became so popular in BP is partly because of its friendly but authoritative tone, he’s very clear when he “recommends” something vs. mandatory halacha, and everything mandatory is thoroughly sourced.

        It would be great if you could read it and definitely worth a blog post.

        • Nurse Yachne says

          “However, I disagree with some of his assertions, such as that black tights are not tznius, or that floor length skirts are less modest than mid-calf length. ”

          As well you might. Does the Rabbi give any proof of these un-intuitive and illogical assertions? This and the anti-denim stance are just political groupthink.

    • 3) Rabbi Falk’s recommendations are mostly common-sense. For instance, tight clothing and the like. Today, so many frum Jewish women have fallen into the fashion of wearing tight layering shells, which did not exist years ago. The tight layering shells are like adding another layer to your skin and when women wear them as outer clothing defeats the purpose of modesty because they are showing off their curves.

      Many of the rules are not recommendations, but halachos, pertaining to what is a torso defined by Das Moshe, and what needs to be covered.

      I’ve written articles based on the kosher fit, compiled from Jewish sources and supported by non-Jewish sources.

      Wearing tight clothing is also a problem in public schools.

  9. I find the theory of feminist empowerment compelling.

  10. I have been reading your thread on this matter for a number of years with growing alarm. I personally believe this tznius issue is changing the face of non-modern orthodoxy. It is not unusual to see women in New York walking outdoors wearing black raincoats over their clothing even in summer. I would put money on the fact that I will be required to wear a suit jacket over my clothing when entering my children’s school before my youngest (now 1) enters high school. It may not be a shal, but the idea will become the norm, IMHO.

  11. See my next post. Amazing how these things turn out to be so much worse than they appear at first. I think that the claim of female empowerment is an attempt to transfer our values onto a culture that doesn’t even recognize them.

  12. I heard a story about a man or bochur that went over to one of these shawled, veiled woman and said to her, “Hey, you have nice eyes!!”.