Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Do Girls Drop Out?

There has been much discussion in the Orthodox Jewish media about young people who drop out of Torah observance, the so called ‘Off the Derech’ problem. But I have to date seen little in the way of discussing gender differences in this phenomenon. Until now.

In a fascinating article by Naomi Seidman we now get some female perspective. She tells us of her odyssey out of Orthodoxy.

Breifly her trek went from being part a community in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood which is almost exclusively Orthodox and in which she attended the ultra-Orthodox Beis Yakov school system… to one of complete rejection of any Mitzvah observance today as an adult.

One of the insights I gained from her article is that the reasons for dropouts between the genders are very different. It seems that the when a boy drops out, it can be attributed to a variety of reasons. These include but are not limited to: learning disabilities, social awkwardness among peers, unanswered - or poorly answered questions of faith, or simply the desire to be free of religious burden. But for girls the assumption is that it almost always about promiscuity. Here is how she puts it:

A boy might conceivably become an apikores, a heretic, but transgression in a girl could only mean something sexual. The first few steps of the Beis Yakov girl gone bad were visible enough: I knew girls who sneaked out of camp to meet boys at pizza stores in the Catskills, who wore their denim skirts over the knee and hung posters of David Cassidy inside their closet doors. They were “bums”.

Ms. Seidman did not go that route. She was a doubter. She had unanswered questions. And she had a yearning to be free of a burden she saw as unnecessary… questioning the very premises of out faith.

It is in fact unfair to generally assign a single cause to women and multiple causes for men. I wonder if there have ever been any studies about gender differences among those who have left the fold.

If one thinks about it, however, there is definitely a basis for the assumption on the part of the religious world as to why girls go off the Derech. The reasons for this assumption might be found in the strict requirements of female dress codes. A large part of the female religious educational experience is the dress codes.

They are taught from the earliest ages that they must not be attracting to boys. In an attempt to achieve that goal dress codes of many religious girls schools go well beyond the necessity of Halachic requirement. This is especially true in Israel but is nonetheless a major factor in the US too. Indeed it is hinted at in Ms. Seidman’s article.

My own jeans were hidden behind the schoolbooks on my shelf; on Sunday afternoons, I perfected the quick-change from skirt to pants, and (less happily) back again

I’m not saying that Beis Yakov’s should start allowing their students to wear pants. But I think this activity reflects a real desire to dress normally and comfortably that is increasingly being limited.

Unreasonable pressures like these dress codes can easily lead to innocent or even not so innocent violations of those dress codes. A denim dress. A brightly colored blouse… a skirt two inches below the knee insead of the school mandated three inches…the slightest infractions can lead to dismissal from a school. Such girls are shunned by other schools as troublemakers or to putt it the way Ms. Seidman does: as bums! This kind of pressure can easily lead to dropping out of observance.

So the truth is that I do think there is validity to the assumption that dropouts have a high correlation to promiscuity. But not in the way it is commonly understood. It’s not that these girls are actually promiscuous. At least they don’t start out that way. Most just want to have a little freedom. Freedom to choose their clothing styles. Styles that are well within the parameters of Halacha.

In the ever increasing world of Chumra piled on top of Chumra… where Beis Yakov schools are tripping all over themsleves to be perceived as the Frummest school in the city, too many girls are given virtually no freedom at all to express themselves. And even those that successfully do conform, do so at a great cost in my view. They are stripped of their individuality… conforming to the ever increasing standards of dress codes that leaves little room personal expression.

True, dress codes are only one factor. Other areas of behavior are factors too and affect both sexes: The ‘Frum Chase’ affects what one can read, what kond of music is appropriate… even if it is Jewish… or any other extra curricular activity. The severe limitations on leisure time activity leaves little available recreational activities. If caught doing them, young people become branded as bums! …a label that is virtually impossible to remove.

I feel badly that someone of such high intelligence as Ms. Seidman has left the fold. But based on her story, I’m not sure we could have prevented her from dropping out. But because of the problems I have outlined, I think that her reasons are not why the majority of young women drop out.

Not because girls are different than boys in the ‘dropout department’. Given similar circumstances the reasons they leave might be identical. But the circumstances are decidedly not identical. Boys are not hammered over the head about dress codes. At least not for reasons of promiscuity. Girls most definitely are.

Definitely food for thought.