Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Splitting Hairs

Admittedly, I've struggled with making time to post lately. My apologize to whatever three or four loyal readers I have who actually check this site periodically. And mad props to people like Josh who manage to write every day. So without further ado...

The following post is excerpted (and slightly modified) from an email I sent to an Orthodox Jewish female friend of mine struggling with her interpretation of the halachic commandment that a woman cover her hair. After a few weeks of engagement, my friend was having a difficult time finding a wig that matched her dark hair color exactly.

Maybe it's Hashem's way of telling you to wear a tichel (head scarf)... or change your hair color. I think if I had to cover my hair I would totally play with it. I could see you looking really cute with dark brown hair that had some solid red undertones/highlights in it.

While I cannot relate to the challenges of undertaking this mitzvah, I can certainly understand that it must be very difficult. We as women spend a great deal of our lives managing our hair and it's an extremely personal part of who we are. How we choose to wear our hair says a great deal about us and how we want to portray ourselves to the world. Plus, there are all the implications of what it means to be covered and that our bodies can be imbued with such erotic power - whether real or imagined.

Also, what you choose to do with your hair and the extent to which you choose to cover it is a fluid thing. I know women who wear a sheitel (wig) and then switch to a hat/fall/tichel or do the baseball cap thing. Don't look at this as a permanent, set-in-stone mitzvah like not killing people. Take it as something that you will still have to work out the parameters that work best for you. And that, I guess is THE most important thing - you have to do what works for YOU, not anyone else. If you hate it, then you and your husband will work it out to whatever works best.

What always strikes me most about this mitzvah is that it places so much of the burden on the woman, arguing her modesty shows allegiance to her husband and makes her less an object of erotic interest than a woman who doesn't cover her hair. Unfortunately, the reality on both sides of this argument is that Orthodox women still cheat on their husbands (sometimes with women, but that's a subject for another post) AND that women of all levels of religous observance are still raped.
Why don't we place some of the burden of modesty on Orthodox men? I mean, they don't even wear wedding rings as a general rule.
Besides, real hair looks bad some days. Real hair often looks a lot worse than wig hair... so why is a sheitel more modest?
Finally, as I've mentioned before, women and the ways they relate to their hair can have political ramifications. In the black community, a woman who chooses to relax her hair can be seen as trying to "pass" in American society whereas one with dreadlocs may be seen as more "savage" or "dangerous." So when that argument is placed in this context - what does it mean when Jewish women are covering up entirely, and with another person's hair at that?!


Shoshana said...

You know how I feel about this topic, and I'm not sure I could have written such a measured response, so great job on that. However, the issues of modesty and hair covering are different ones. Hair covering is more to signify marriage and the place of a woman within her home as an outward signal of her being married than it is a matter of modesty. Modesty is a whole separate ball of wax, which is why single women are also bound by it. As for the fact that people transgress despite modesty and hair covering, well, there are people who murder as well. I totally agree with you though, that men should be held accountable for some level of respecting women without them needing to be covered from head to toe, and I think that they should take offense to the suggestion that they can't be trusted to do so without such covering. But that's just me ;)

Rebecca said...

Shoshana - you bring up some very good points, so thanks for posting them. When I really think about what in the rules of tzniut irks me the most, it is largely the presumption that women have to be protected from men's advances.
Our society as a whole (not just the Jewish or Orthodox communities) has to focus on raising our boys with respect and dignity just as much as it focuses on teaching women to guard themselves. My hunch is that men don't pass around email forwards about how not to rape women nearly as much as women send those around telling us how not to get raped.

A Living Nadneyda said...

I'm not sure the idea is to protect women from men's advances, per se, but to set up social boundaries and appropriate expectations on both sides. It takes two to tango (and here I am not, of course, including pathological situations such as rape).

I would offer your friend this thought: It's much more comfortable to start out by covering less, and later decide to cover more (or not), than the opposite. For that reason alone, I would tell a woman who's debating what to do, to do the minimum she feels comfortable doing right now.

My reasoning? Once you've created a certain status quo for yourself, the people around you (including your family) tend to identify that as your standard -- for better or for worse -- and any change that could be interpreted as "lowering" your standard comes with a significant social price. These decisions can be difficult enough, and personal enough, without having to feel burdened by the judgments of those around you.

And there's the irony of women's modesty issues... Why, when they are meant to help us protect our privacy, are they addressed, announced, supported and repudiated, so darn publicly? Go figure....