An Orthodox woman’s level of observance is often determined by the way that she dresses. But is the Orthodox dress code really as clear-cut as people make it out to be?
In my local Jewish community, people just look the other way when a woman wears a skirt that is a little too short or a little too tight; however, when a woman wears pants, she is automatically ostracized by the community. Both are instances of women flaunting the dress code, but only one incurs a traumatizing penalty. Unclear standards just add to the frustration of being judged for how one dresses.
Can wearing pants really show how religious you are?
While one might think that some communities are so strict about women wearing pants because pants are halachically forbidden, as a matter of fact the issues about women wearing pants are not so clear. According to halacha, women must cover their knees at all times. The Gemara in Brachot 24b says that the ‘Shok ‘ – defined by many poskim as the thigh – cannot be uncovered. Therefore, skirts must reach the knee to fully cover the shok. Moreover, unlike the upper arms, which women can cover tightly, the thighs or knees must be covered loosely such that their shape is not shown. Because of this prohibition, some poskim say that you may not wear pants because they immodestly show the shape of the thigh (Yaskil Avdi 5 YD20). On the other hand, Rabbi Yehudah Henkin quotes his grandfather, who said, “there is no prohibition against women wearing loose pants. In fact, the opposite is true; loose pants are particularly modest.” In that case, one may wear loose pants such as sweat pants or gauchos. In the middle of these two extremes, several poskim say that while pants are not the most tzniut article of clothing, they are sometimes better than a skirt. Rav Ovadia Yosef, among others, says that you can wear pants for a specific reason like going skiing, when a skirt would be immodest and impractical to wear. Based on these various views, it is fair to conclude that it is not halachically obvious that it is always forbidden to wear pants.
If this is so, then why are many strictly Orthodox communities so opposed to women wearing pants? Why do women wearing tight, barely long enough skirts face less opposition than women wearing loose fitting pants? If there is room to be lenient, is it a good policy to be so strict about this?
The halacha might not be so clear, but there are non-halachic reasons which could explain why communities feel the need to be strict about women wearing pants. One reason could be that women in the community took it upon themselves not to wear any pants, even baggy ones. Another possible reason is the belief that Jewish communities, like armies, schools, and other organized groups, have a set uniform that you must follow. Just like soldiers or employees are assumed to meet a standard of behavior when they dress in uniform, so too young women, it is thought, will better follow community standards when they wear the community uniform. A third possibility is that the purpose in wearing only skirts is to differentiate between Jewish women and their non Jewish counterparts. By wearing a skirt all the time, a woman demonstrates her commitment to Judaism, and she will feel the difference between herself and a non-Jew.
Although there might be validity to these suggestions, one can still question the advisability of creating such policies. Is placing all of these restrictions doing more harm than good? By making a mandatory dress code which goes beyond halacha, communities are adding restrictions. Is this causing people to feel that Judaism is too restrictive and suffocating?
I asked several young women how they feel about the dress code in my local community. I wanted to know if I was the only one who felt this way about dress codes.
I always felt that many people would judge my religiosity by the way I was dressed. If I were seen wearing pants, they would automatically assume that I was not religious. It always bothered me that that people would base their opinion of me through something as mundane as my clothing. I asked some of the women I interviewed whether they had similar experiences.“Definitely…little children call out ‘goy’ to any girl in pants,” one of the girls said. These kinds of comments can impact the way a young girl thinks about herself. “Just because a girl is less modest than the others, [that] doesn’t make her bad.”
Excessive negative feelings and superficial judgments can make people frustrated. As for myself, I know that those would make me give up trying to keep halacha in general: why should I try to be good if everyone thinks I am bad just because of the way I dress?
Psychologically, if someone believes that others are thinking they are doing something good, then they will try and make sure they do it. The flipside is also true. As one girl said, “If [people are] being accused of doing things they didn’t do, they usually end up doing them because they’re being blamed anyway.”
Perhaps some teens stray from the community because they are casually ostracized for doing fairly benign things, such as wearing pants. They feel like they they do not belong when they are rejected for being mildly different, so they are pushed further away and end up rejecting even more of their community’s standards. It is particularly sad that teens are being disenfranchised over the enforcement of a standard that is not even halachically required. Communities should instead focus on a more positive approach, by encouraging teens to continue doing what they are doing correctly.
Communities should not create overly restrictive rules that go beyond halacha. The dress code guidelines enforced by the community are very restricting. Are these policies which vilify pants really effective at maintaining standards of behavior? These rules might produce the opposite effect of their intention: instead of helping keep people on the path, these rules might be pushing more people away.
One girl echoed these sentiments. “Such tight control is not good for anybody. Each person needs [his or her] individuality and independence. And like we’ve seen so much in the past, oppressed people rebel. And this might be why there are so many teens and adults today who are throwing away religion, the good parts and the bad.”
Maybe it’s finally time for us to reconsider our policies and see what these strict rules are really accomplishing.