Sunday, September 14, 2014

Dress Codes and the Objectification of Women

Elena Maryles  Sztokman
Although I am not a feminist in the mold of my cousin Elana Maryles Sztokman, I understand where she is coming from. Here is what she said recently in response to the  dress code controversy in the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a coed Orthodox Yeshiva high school: 
The focus on Orthodox girls’ attire treats women like sex objects rather than people. 
The truth is that the focus on Tznius in women’s clothing does seem to indicate that woman are seen as sex objects. But only if they present themselves that way. If you think about it, those dress codes are designed to eliminate or at least minimize the natural male response to sexual stimuli. When a man sees a sexually provocative image of a woman he will naturally be prone to be aroused, unless he is pre-occupied  with something else. The Halachos of Tznius in clothing are designed to eliminate those stimuli from the public square. The less skin that shows, the less chance of being aroused.

But does Judaism really see a woman as a sex object?  No. Judaism requires men to see women as fellow human beings.  Even when they dress in a provocative fashion. That is what civilized people do. We control our impulses. We behave ourselves. The natural male response to sexual stimuli requires men to have Shmiras Einayim - to ‘guard our eyes’. In other words, the onus is upon us to ‘not gaze’ at a woman at all for purposes of pleasure. We are supposed to go to great lengths to avoid that.

I believe that Judaism’s attitude about modesty in dress shows great concern for the dignity of the woman. And to prevent seeing them as sex objects.  

So why the dress codes? Because Judaism recognizes human nature. And the nature of the male is to be aroused by erotic images. So when women are asked to help us see them as dignified human beings by minimizing their sexuality in public, I see nothing wrong with that. Just because men are obligated not to see women as sex objects, doesn’t mean that women should be free to test our resolve by dressing as provocatively as they wish. That in my view is plain common sense.

So I support Yeshiva of Flatbush in their resolve to enforce modesty standards in clothing.

The question arises, what constitutes provocative clothing? That is a very grey area that is strongly influenced by culture in which one lives. Do the standards dictated by Halacha equal those of western culture? Hardly. Nor do they reflect the standards of Muslim culture. It’s all about what one is used to seeing on a daily basis.

In Muslim countries where Burkas are the norm, a female walking in the street wearing anything less modest might be sexually arousing to the typical male of that culture.

By contrast, in western culture, a woman wearing a loose fitting top with short sleeves and a pair of slacks would not raise an eyebrow… even to someone learning in Lakewood. This typical look for an American woman nevertheless does not conform to Orthodox concepts of modesty. Those standards do not allow for slacks or short sleeves.

So, what is a Modern Orthodox school like Yeshiva of Flatbush do? They have no choice but to follow Halacha. If they are suddenly focusing on the letter of the law, I suspect that there have been violations that have entered into the realm of being sexually provocative even by American cultural standards. The last thing a coed highs school needs is their female students dressing in a provocative manner.

Now I’m sure most students never did that – even if they did not follow the letter of the law. But I would not be surprised if there were a number of students that did dress provocatively - pushing the envelop in a manner to attract boys.  Had they not, then I submit the school would not have cracked down in this way.

It’s really a shame that this is being seen as objectifying their female students. By insisting that their students dress appropriately it should be seen as a way of de-objectifying them.