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Sexual Fetish or Sack of Potatoes: Jewish Women in Burka Get the Same Flak That We Do

Zeba Khan

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Jewish BurkaJust in case you thought the world was always picking on modest Muslim women, here’s news – they’re picking on modest Jewish women, too. A group of approximately 100 Jewish burka-wearing women in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh will shortly be receiving news of a ban.  The Eda Charedit rabbinic organization will be issuing the equivalent of a fatwa against their modest fashion sense, likening the burka to, of all things – a sexual fetish.

Or, a sack of potatoes.

“We have got a Torah and we have got a tradition and these things were never allowed or demanded,” said Shlomo Pappenheim, a senior member of the management committees of the Eda Charedit. “Cover the body, fine, but you would think them a sack of potatoes.”

“The Eda Charedit is very against it [burka] and sees in it a real danger that by exaggerating you are doing the opposite of what is intended – severe transgressions in sexual matters.”

It is interesting to note that while France has just banned the niqab and burka for reasons related to “the dignity of the person and equality between sexes,” Israel is attacking the burqa for being too sexual.  The French senate passed the ban less than a week ago (Source: CNN) by a vote of 246 to 1, with about 100 abstentions, calling the burqa “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil.”

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So what is the real issuse?  Sexual fetish or slavery?  These two issues are closely intertwined when it comes to women, particularly because so much mistreatment and trafficking of women revolves around the sex trade.  Young women, and young girls, are stolen, sold, and used by the hundreds of thousands every year, but interestingly enough, I don’t think any of them are made to wear burkas.    So perhaps if France wants to put its foot down and take a stand, and issue a ban on an article of clothing that symbolizes the enslavement and sexual degradation of women in its republic, they might want to go after the miniskirt.

(Or maybe t-shirts that read ‘I’ve been forced into slavery and all I got was this lousy t-shirt,’ but I don’t think they make many of those.)

In the case of the Israeli ban,  I deeply sympathize with those women who are trying to protect their modesty.  As a Muslim and a woman who has been wearing an abaya (the burqa’s more stylish cousin) for over ten years, I have had many long conversations with other modest young woman – like the Jehovah’s witness who lamented how difficult it was to find a full-length skirt in the mall or a pair of jeans that didn’t have ‘Juicy’ printed across the backside.  Living in Northside Chicago, I traded shopping tips with ultra-orthodox Jewish friends and when the fashion industry failed to meet my requirements, my Mormon mother taught me how to sew.

While each of our religions are tremendously different in many respects, modesty is a common thread that runs throughout all three of them. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women are all advised to cover their heads and be modest (1 Cor. 11:4-16), and yet, here we have an ultra-orthodox rabbinical council in Israel accusing the women of sexual fetishism.

Now, last I checked, sexual arousal in human beings was closely tied to a ‘less is more’ approach in clothing – fewer clothes equals more arousal. One could argue that a partially-dressed woman is more alluring than a nearly naked one, but most dirty magazines are not full of women in capris pants and t-shirts. And they’re certainly not full of women in burkas.

(On a side note, if the defining factor for the acceptability of clothing is how closely the wearer resembles a sack of potatoes, then we should expect a ban on judges’ robes, nuns’ habits, Hawaiian mu-mus, and those silly robes that we graduate in.)

If niqabis were to pull a fast one and start wearing Kabuki masks instead, would a French Kabuki-Ban follow?

Nuns cover, ultra-orthodox Jewish women cover, Amish and Mennonite women cover, but none of them use the burka. And, if French women were to pull a fast one and start wearing kabuki masks instead of niqabs, I doubt a ban on kabuki masks would follow. I believe that the real issue is not modesty, but identity. The burka – a symbol of Muslim modesty and identity –  is under fire the world over, and if Jews can wear it, and if Christians should decide to wear it, then what basis remains for saying that Muslims can’t wear it?

If the women of Beit Shemesh were to create their own modest garment – give the fabric a different cut, give the design a Hebrew name, and make its outward appearance unmistakably Jewish, then they would probably be lauded by the ultra-orthodox community instead of facing such insults as “smelly Arab.” They might even be seen as upholding or reviving important fundamentals of Jewish belief – adherence to scripture and pride in their identity as modest Jewish women. The mistake they’ve made is not one of fashion sense, but political sense. They’re blurring the line between us and them and that makes it harder for us to persecute them.

In order to maintain conflict, it is crucial that your opponent be seen as having differences irreconcilable through any other means. This is why, on a smaller scale, when one village is mortal enemies with another, “they” do things this way, and “we” do things this way, and these differences are made prominent even to the extent that the men from this village will only part their hair this way and the women will never cook fish on Thursdays, because only they cook fish on Thursdays. Both villages part hair and eat fish, but not like they do. If you want people to fight, tell them how different they are, because if they realize they’re both the same, then you’re in danger of losing support for your war.

Fighting to reinforce the differences between Muslims, Christians, and Jews is the strongest way to maintain animosity, and by saying that the women of Beit Shemesh can dress modestly and cover their heads in anything but a burka is perfectly in keeping with this strategy.  In a kinder world, a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman could find a talking point in something as simple as ‘Hey, nice burka!’ but in this world, a Jewish woman in a burka is stopped at checkpoints, insulted by her neighbors, and harassed by Israeli security to prove she is Jewish. Perhaps, Jewish women in burkas present a difficult question – if you all look alike, how do we know who to persecute?

Say: “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah.” If then they turn back, say you: “Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah’s Will).”  Quran 3.64

I salute the women of Beit Shemesh for their courage and their determination to fulfill what they believe are their religious duties as women, and for my French sisters, I ask that Allah make righteousness easy for them.  It’s hard to fight for your modesty in a world that insists you give everything away, may Allah increase us all in courage and faith, and guide all of us to truth, and eventually, peace.

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Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org and the producer of the newly launched Muslimmatters Podcast, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Avatar

    just me

    August 9, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    salaam, what a fantastic article.

  2. Avatar

    Siraaj

    August 9, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    From the quoted article:

    “At first, I just wore a wig,” one burka-wearing woman told the Haaretz newspaper. “Now when I see a woman with a wig, I pray to God to forgive her for wearing that thing on her head.”

    Since donning the burka, the woman said she had been taunted by neighbours who called her a “smelly Arab” and that Israeli soldiers had asked to see her identification papers to prove she was not a Muslim. They backed down, she said, when she showed them that her children were clearly Jewish.

    The trend has also caused tensions in family life. One man went to a rabbinical court in an attempt to get a ruling to force his wife to stop wearing the burka.

    The plan backfired, however. The court ruled that that woman’s behaviour was so “extreme” that it ordered the couple to undergo an immediate religious divorce.

    It’s interesting, the women know in some sense that something is wrong with the way the men have been interpreting modesty from their religious texts – a game is being played by saying one’s hair is covered “technically” if they’re wearing wigs, neglecting the purpose of such a covering.

    Siraaj

  3. Avatar

    Megan

    September 21, 2010 at 1:11 AM

    hmm…. what a thought provoking article. Interesting indeed….

  4. Avatar

    Justin

    September 21, 2010 at 7:18 AM

    Interesting, we never hear much about the Jewish side of things. Thanks for the article!

    May Allah help us all fulfill the characteristics of modesty and chastity, but without harshness or disrespect towards women.

    Daily Hadith Online

  5. Avatar

    Rawdah

    September 21, 2010 at 7:37 AM

    Fabulous article !

  6. Avatar

    AbdulRahman Arif

    September 21, 2010 at 4:51 PM

    We should talk to them about Islam :)

  7. Avatar

    Olivia

    September 21, 2010 at 8:26 PM

    Nice article and nicely written. A photo of one of them would have been nice.

    • Avatar

      abez

      September 22, 2010 at 1:12 AM

      That was one of them in the car being arrested by Israeli police!

  8. Avatar

    Sharon

    September 21, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    “A woman’s dress is her personal matter. If she wants, she can wear a burqa. If she so desires, she should be able to go fully naked. Everyone including Sarkozy, rabbis, mullahs, etc should butt out of it.”

    I agree entirely : )

  9. Avatar

    Olivia

    September 21, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    Check out this quote from one of Israeli’s Burqa wearers:

    “The full body, or full face covering that people think is only part of the Arab world actually started with Jewish women,” said a woman who asked to be identified by her first initial, M.

    “Muslim women are imitating Jews to try to gain God’s favour with modesty. The truth is that the women of Israel are lessening in God’s eyes because the Arabs are more modest in dress. If the Jews want to conquer the Arabs in this land they must enhance their modesty,” added M, who covered her face for over a year, but currently wears just a loose cloak over her garments.

  10. Avatar

    Esmeen

    September 21, 2010 at 10:35 PM

    Assalamualaikum, I have a question here… we’re talking about how the Israelis are trying to reinforce the differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism… but doesn’t the Quran (and Hadith) itself mention in many places to not follow their traditions so as to be separate from them? For e.g., having the suhoor to differentiate our fasts from Lent?

    • Avatar

      abez

      September 22, 2010 at 1:10 PM

      We know that we have differences, but Allah tells us to come terms on what is common, because we have righteousness in common, and that should be the standard of behavior, InshaAllah :)

      • Avatar

        Olivia

        September 22, 2010 at 2:00 PM

        The only unfortunate thing about it though is that the sentiment of the wearers is that they are using it to gain God’s favor to “conquer the Arabs in this land,” as my quote says. It seems these women do not appreciate the commonality as a means of bridging a gap but are rather using it as “spiritual ammunition” against the Palestinians.

        • Avatar

          abez

          September 23, 2010 at 3:13 AM

          Very true and very sad that the Jewish woman would acknowledge God’s favor to Muslims through modesty, and instead of hating Muslims less, reply with spiritual moves to conquer instead of unite. AllahuAalim

          • Avatar

            elham

            September 23, 2010 at 7:50 PM

            That is because it is the Orthodox Jewish belief that the humiliation of having a ”lower” people .i.e Arabs to be raised above them for centuries,was due to them neglecting their faith etc.

            They believe to be superior because they come from the offspring of Sarah the first wife of Prophet Ibraheem (pbuh) whereas Arabs descend from the offspring of Hajrah who was a maidservant offered by Sarah to Ibrahim (pbuh).

            Because of this they rejected Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) to be a Prophet as he was an Arab and Prophets,as they thought,only came from Bani Isra’il.

            Wallhu ‘Alam

  11. Avatar

    HassanAdnan

    September 22, 2010 at 12:26 AM

    JazakAllah, Alhumdulilah added greatly to my knowledge.

  12. Avatar

    Hannan

    September 22, 2010 at 6:30 PM

    A wonderful article, JazakAllahu Khairan. I enjoyed your side notes thorougly.

  13. Avatar

    fatima

    September 24, 2010 at 6:19 PM

    good if they are realizing modesty then they shouldcome towards islaam.
    Now i only wish that many of our own muslim women would cover their hairs, subhnaallaah.

  14. Avatar

    Abu Ibraheem

    September 24, 2010 at 6:56 PM

    salaamu-alay-kum

    A wonderful thought-provoking article! May Allah reward you for sharing these insights!

  15. Avatar

    Abu Zainab

    September 29, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    “It’s hard to fight for your modesty in a world that insists you give everything away…” Eloquently put, and only too true. Thanks for a great article!

  16. Avatar

    Aideh

    October 5, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    jazakillah kheira. I wonder if the Israeli ban on burka affects only Israeli women or Palestinian women who wear the burka/niqab too, especially those not living in the West bank? I guess I’ll find out next time I visit!

    • Avatar

      Aideh

      October 5, 2010 at 10:11 AM

      then again, if they want to keep the barrier between Muslims and Jews then I would think Arab Israeli women would be left as the exception to that law.

      I told my dad about the courts reaction against these Jewish women. Before I could get another word out, he quickly put the puzzle piece together, “its not about modesty, its about them being like the Muslim women.”

      I never thought I’d see the day when the burka/niqab would be banned in a state like Israel. SubhanAllah.

  17. Avatar

    Ahuvah

    January 27, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    I am an Orthodox Jewish woman of Beit Shemesh. The issue is not the burka per se, it’s that these women have other self-afflicting issues that the rabbis want to say is not in the name of HaShem. The head woman of the group was found to be severly abusing her children. We want to say that this self imposed punishment is not in the spirit of Judaism. My family is from Baghdad and Tripoli, Libya. My grandmothers wore hijabs because that was the culture of where they were. I dress modestly wearing long skirts and a head scarf. Most Sephardic (from Arab countries) Jewish women wear head scarfs. I speak fluent Arabic, eat Arabic foods, have an Arabic last name, and have often been told “salaam alekum” by women thinking I am a Muslim. I don’t want to “differentiate” myself from Muslims and contrary to what most Muslims think, I don’t hate or want any harm to come to Palestinians. I want a resolution to the conflict so that there are no more widows and grieving mothers. Salaam, Shalom.

    • Amad

      Amad

      January 27, 2011 at 1:07 PM

      Thank you for your comment. I found it very sincere and heartwarming

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