Three years ago, a small group of Jewish women in the town of Beit Shemesh, Israel, took to wearing burqas in order to protect their modesty. The practice has since spread to five other towns, worrying Israeli officials because of the burqa’s association with radical Islamic beliefs that reduce women to a mass of body parts. Jewish husbands have also expressed their opposition to the practice: One man went to court to attempt to separate his wife from her burqa.
In an interesting twist, however, rabbis have also stated that by donning burqas, these women are emphasizing their ‘forbidden’ sexuality as much as they are concealing it. That by swathing themselves in yards of black fabric, they are emphasizing the fact that they indeed have something to hide, that their bodies are too tempting to even be covered in the traditional Orthodox Jewish way, with long skirts, long sleeves and headscarves or wigs.
Full disclosure: I’m a Jew, but not Orthodox. I straddle the line between Conservative and Reform, meaning I wear whatever I please. But I understand, somewhat, why the Orthodox consider modesty so important. The Torah says sex is a mitzvah, but it means sex between a married couple (the man has to please the woman – a nice addition). To the Orthodox, a woman preserves her modesty, so to speak, in order to save her body specifically for her husband (or wife, though I am not familiar with Orthodox treatment of gay couples). Though donning a burqa is an extreme measure, I doubt these women meant to subvert traditional Orthodox views and appear sexier than before.
Perhaps these rabbis are bringing up this idea of hidden sexuality in a sort of reverse psychology move to discourage the women from wearing burqas to protect their modesty. But this approach might only serve to make these women retreat further into their billowing armor. The burqa and what it represents contradicts Jewish views of women – that women are objects. To Jews, women are equals. Just ask any woman in the Israeli Army. Making the burqa the new sexy contradicts these views, and will only serve to anger this small, ultra-conservative contingent. Though Israeli rabbis want to please both these women and their husbands, I think they need to try a more rational approach.