Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Culture of Patriarchal Oppression: My Bad Hattitude

It is almost a cliche that men's clothing is designed for function while women's clothing is...not.

There are ongoing debates about "dress codes" and "slut-shaming" and other related issues, but fundamentally the problem is that human bodies and their coverings are still defined by the CPO.  When men dress up for work, they have comfortable shoes, pants with pockets, full coverage in layers, and no expectation of new outfits.  When men go to formal parties, they wear very similarly-shaped garments to what they wear normally.  And when men win major awards, they are still wearing the same comfortable outfits, maybe with a different shape of necktie or jacket.

And in real life, what do I suggest that my female students wear to win their academic awards?  It pains me that these girls have to choose either a sexy dress or the fate of looking uncool, while their male friends have the choice to look both professional and fashionable with little effort.  I had given up a long time ago on party clothes having any kind of parity in this vein, but I also spent many sad minutes looking at googled images of Nobel Prize winners to find the same issue prevalent.  With the exception of some "ethnic" dress, there was no fancy, formal option for these brilliant, accomplished women that would approach the comfort and non-sexualization of the men's options.

I'm not saying that women shouldn't look sexy or wear revealing clothes if they want to - it just shouldn't be a prerequisite for dressing "up" - any more than it is for men.  To believe otherwise is to accept that men are the normal, functional humans, whereas women are decorative or sexualized in all contexts.  Women are not truly equal, even if they win Nobel Prizes, until they have equal fashion expectations to those of their male counterparts.

Well, at least in secular USAmerica, it's only fashion expectations.  No one is explicitly giving offensive instructions to women.  Not so in the religious world!  And there are so many, many examples of this.  But in this post, I want to examine one tiny facet - hair-covering for Jewish women.  As a religious Jewish woman, the norm would be for me to cover my hair/head, perhaps always, but certainly when attending synagogue.

I am in open rebellion against this expectation.

First of all, Jewish men of all ages are considered functional humans - as an effect of this, religious Jewish men are required to wear a head-covering in the course of their ongoing relationship with Gd.  Grossly offensively, women, even spiritually-engaged Orthodox women, are not considered important enough - perhaps not considered human enough - to be in this same conversation.  This is why despite many years of attempts at change, it is still unusual for women to wear kippot as a daily fashion.  To do so would be unusual socially, and certainly discouraged religiously.  It will surprise no one that I reject the usual explanatory apologetics about how women are in a "different relationship" with Gd based on their gender.

Rather than our relationship with Gd, our relationship with men is supposed to determine headgear for religious women.  In particular, the reason that "married women wear hats" is that their hair has become the sexual property of their husbands.  Single women, in the modern Orthodox Jewish tradition, do not have to cover their hair/heads.  So it's not as though there is any sense of hair as immodest (side note - I also take issue when things are defined as "immodest," but I will fight that CPO battle another time).

It is bad enough that synagogue communities sometimes ostracize singles and treat adults differentially based on family status.  It is awful when they state different rules for married adults (e.g. tallis, hat, and so forth).  I spoke recently to an Orthodox man who described nonchalantly how his elderly [single] male friend was disappointed that he was excluded from a "Married Men's Shiur" (*).  I asked him, was the content sexual?  He was uncomfortable with the question, but I guess the answer was probably, yes.

But it's beyond the pale that our culture somehow accepts the idea that a part of Person A's body, which was once free for her to show as she pleased even within that same religious tradition - will be forever concealed now except if Person B wishes to see it.  Of course, with zero reciprocity of any kind.  This odious sexual ownership has no place in a feminist's life.  It gets even worse.  According to some rabbinical opinions, a divorcee/widow must keep covering her hair - to indicate, presumably, her "used" status sexually.

I used to wear a hat to shul.  When I was a little girl, it was just assumed and expected that when you get married, you start wearing a hat to shul.  I remember davening in the summer just before our wedding, and feeling the sun on my head and thinking, "I guess that's that."  But I cannot be complicit in such an offensive practice.  So for a while, I went bare-headed.  And that did not seem sensible either - my husband and sons all wear kippot, so why would I be bare-headed?  But I wasn't going to wear a kippah, because, well, it seemed too weird for me.  And then I commissioned "New Hat" as pictured in the last post, from a lovely artist on Etsy.com.  I didn't exactly want a kippah, but I certainly wanted more of a kippah than a shul hat.  And I wear it to daven, not because of my family status.  I don't expect that every woman will find that same compromise, but it works for me.  Sometimes I wear a fascinator instead, and yes they are too still in fashion. :)

And thus I paused emotionally, when I read the "hats for married women" requirement to attend a recent simcha.  I was fine with requirements for "all adults" to cover their heads in synagogue.  I was fine with requirements for "all adults who come to the bima" to wear a head-covering as well.  I was even fine with accommodating certain aspects of prayer, such as a different liturgy or variation in shabbat practice, when going to simchas that were held by those in different Jewish traditions than mine.  But it gives me legitimate pause when people start expecting me to be complicit in my own lack of sexual autonomy.  That, I think, goes beyond Pluralism.

I'm still waiting for a Truth-in-Advertising take on a shul's sign, maybe something like this:

(*)  Good luck to anyone trying to exclude the unmarried, or the unmale, from an internet download:
Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5753 Open Q&A -for married men only: Makkas Nida; Shaking woman's hand; Using doctor of opposite gender; Going to mikva during day; Gedolim story books in bedroom; Staying in room with a lot of seforim; A man shaving the hair of the nose, ears and between the eyes; Is hair an erva when a woman is a nidda; Is there a set time for hachana for tevila; Shaving private area; Zman for moch dachuk; Delaying zman tevila; Wearing tzizis when playing sports; Woman going to mikva with no one in the room; Being machmir on certain nights to avoid tashmish; Tashmish b'yom; Calculating l'el tevila in Alaska; Boys and girls swimming together; Negia on a koruv

Monday, November 24, 2014

Alt-Neu Hat

It's b'nei-mitzvah season!

My seventh-grader has a wonderful cadre of pluralistic Jewish friends, and one of the nicest things is how everyone shares bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations.  Because there are observances all over the religious map, each family sends an instructional email.  There are a lot of comments about headgear.  Which reminded me of a certain book....  Thanks to the bar-mitzvah boy's brother, Mr. Old Hat, for help with the pictures!

Friday, January 3, 2014


I saw an irritating commercial for health insurance the other day.  There was an adorable shot of two people holding hands, while the voice-over intoned, "Do you need to know the hundreds of muscles involved in how two hands connect?"  A second rhetorical question asked whether one needs to understand light's refraction to enjoy a rainbow.  The ostensible message of the commercial is that you don't really need to know science or understand things, but that it's better just to enjoy life.  In particular, I suppose, that you should go ahead and rely blindly on this health-insurance company.

Smart people know that understanding vs. appreciation is a false dichotomy.  In contrast, people have more capacity to appreciate aesthetics when they have background knowledge.  Non-controversial examples of this are architectural tours explaining history and structure of cathedrals, or the recent cookbook trend with lots of food science included.

In contrast, that annoying commercial relied on people fearing that others with unshared background knowledge might make them feel left out - as sometimes happens when nerdy-physics-types like me aren't careful to self-censor.  :)  The fabulous CBS comedy Big Bang Theory relies on set-ups like this for much of its content.

In college, I took a great seminar on "Humor".  My then-BF (now DH) teased me that it was "How to kill a joke".  But actually, just as understanding poetic structure helps people appreciate Shakespeare, and just as understanding physics helps viewers of the health insurance commercial appreciate that rainbow, understanding the nature of jokes definitely made them even more funny to the kids in the class.

Specifically, I did my seminar project on "in-humor," which is humor within a sub-group of people who enjoy it more because it relies on shared understanding.  This can be a joke specifically geared toward a sub-culture:

cartoon courtesy of Crown Prince - thanks, Akiva!!  For explanation:  yekke definition

Or in-humor can be my favorite type, i.e. where the jokester subtly sets up shared understanding among his/her listeners.  The best recent example of this that I saw was in vlogbrother's "50 more jokes in four minutes" - he sets it up for the well-known set of Elephant Jokes (link goes to the relevant part, at 1:34).

Aside from these jokes' whimsicality, and their charming background (elephant jokes were developed among children who found ways of controlling the large, uncontrollable forces in their lives by embodying them in foolishly-behaving elephants), these jokes are my favorite because they are clean and funny and build community connection among joke participants.

Of course, the best elephant joke for a physics nerd would have to be the following:

cartoon courtesy of Crown Prince - thanks, Akiva!!