As the clash between modernity and fundamentalism grows more intense worldwide, women's bodies are a key battleground. Last month, ultra-Orthodox Israelis spat on an 8-year-old girl as she walked to school, calling her a whore. In all three major Western religions, the voices demanding "modesty" and concealment for women are growing louder and more aggressive.
But to say that this is a straightforward struggle between religion and women's rights doesn't tell the whole story. Some religious leaders are pushing back against the ever more pugnacious modesty police. To that end, there's "sing it from the rooftops" piece in today's New York Times written by an Orthodox Rabbi and yeshiva dean Dov Linzer. The op-ed is a powerful denunciation of the myth of male weakness and the perversion of religious texts to support enforced modesty codes for women. Rabbi Linzer writes:
At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man's sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, "She was asking for it."
So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.
All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law.
But it's actually a complete perversion. The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men's sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.
The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze - the way men look at women - that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don't see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men's — and only men's — control.
Rabbi Linzer's message is entirely congruent with that of the SlutWalk movement that spread around the globe last year. Created in response to Toronto police officer's suggestion that women could best prevent rape by wearing less revealing clothing, the SlutWalks spread the simple message that no matter what wears, no woman is "asking for it." Women are not the gatekeepers of civilized behavior. Men are not so weak that they can be tempted to rape or cheat merely by the sight of bare skin. It is a misunderstanding of both biology and psychology to suggest otherwise.
Rabbi Linzer rightly points out that the Talmud makes it clear that men — and men alone — are responsible for their lustful thoughts. It's worth adding in a Christian perspective as well. Though the New Testament does call for "modesty", that modesty (the koine Greek word is kosmios) refers only to avoiding flashy displays of wealth. The most explicit statement about women's dress in the Christian Scriptures comes in 1 Timothy:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
In a New Testament context, modesty is only about not arousing envy of your wealth. It has nothing to do with arousing sexual desire.
Rabbi Linzer reminds us of a simple truth: Pushing back against the most misogynistic impulses of religious fundamentalism doesn't require the rejection of faith. In many instances, particularly around issues of modesty, women's bodies, and the myth of male weakness, pushing back involves reminding the modern modesty peddlers that they have distorted the original meaning of the term. They have outsourced men's self-control and empathy to women, and in doing so have given wives, sisters, and daughters a burden that is not theirs to carry. Men are not as weak as we imagine, and perversions of the Talmud and misunderstandings of testosterone cannot be allowed to obscure that basic truth.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.
Image via Asaf Eliason/Shutterstock.