Tales of Sex and Judgment – Women’s Clothing Culture in Jerusalem
April 9, 2015
Originally published in Chicago Now, this piece was a contribution to a series on gender politics and rape culture called 30 Days of Bodyshaming, designed to give a voice to the many different experiences of girls and women.
When I moved to Israel 10 years ago (or "ascended to" Israel, as it translates into Hebrew.... conceited much, Israelis?) I was thinking about the salary disparity, the petrifying realization that I had to immerse myself in a foreign language and culture, the distinct lack of Target or any Target-like reproductions. I was not lamenting sacrificing my flower-ladened, flowy hippie skirts or the occasional bad-hair-day bandana.
The relocation from Milwaukee to Jerusalem, however (by way of Boston, San Francisco and New York - I get itchy feet) changed more than my mindset and my paycheck, which I expected.
It changed my wardrobe, which I did not.
While I didn't move into a religious neighborhood, Jerusalem feels like God is watching, whether you're a believer or not. And if God isn't watching, certainly everybody else is. Peering. Categorizing. Demonizing. Dismissing.
Although we are lucky to avoid the "rape culture" well-entrenched in the United States, women's clothing here, although categorically denied, is still all about sex and judgment. A quick visitor's guide to the female uniforms of Jerusalem:
Flowy pants/headband/kerchief: keeps the basic rules of Shabbat and kashrut, will swear behind closed doors, drinks at parties, 3 or 4 children
Jeans/T-shirt: Shabbat/kashrut status is flexible, her kids know the word "fuck" and how to use it properly in context, 2 or 3 children
A-line skirt just below the knee/wig: keeps the rules of Shabbat and kashrut strictly, prays daily, will not drink alcohol in mixed company, 4-6 children
Skirt to the floor/big brightly colored head wrap/bangs showing: Keeps the rules of Shabbat and kashrut strictly, might smoke weed (and if she doesn’t her husband probably does,) 5-8 children
Shapeless skirt to the calf with stockings/sfog under her headscarf (shown below,) keeps rules of Shabbat and kashrut to the upmost standard and most likely only mingles with women who are wearing exactly the same thing as she
Miniskirt: Russian, frecha, whore or all of the above, persona non grata
What a woman here wears, both on her body and on her head, dictates everything about her. How she votes, methods of birth control she'll consider, vocabulary she's comfortable using, whether or not she'll chuckle at a Simpsons reference, schools she'll send her kids to, people she'll turn her back on.
It’s not supposed to be about sex. It’s supposed to be about modesty and self-respect. And although Tel Aviv and likely the rest of Israel abides by more Western rules, the unspoken female dress code of Jerusalem is pervasive.
So when I showed up in Jerusalem, childless, donning a floor-length skirt coupled with a tank top and a bandana to keep the Middle Eastern sun off my Sephardi hair, I wasn't categorizable. And non-categorizable is threatening. The last thing you want to be, in a new place, in addition to friendless and illiterate (which I already was) is threatening. I learned very quickly that wearing a long skirt and a hair bandana announced my label as not only married, but also observant and regularly attending an egalitarian synagogue.
The only part of that summary holding truth was the marital status. So, I adapted. I stashed the hippie skirts in the back of my closet, and couldn't take them out again until I left Jerusalem, six years later, for a moshav in the middle of the mountains. We got ducks, and I got freedom.
Even today, when I have client meetings in Jerusalem, dress pants are my go-to, and I benefit greatly from the Israeli norm that “nice jeans” are considered business attire. If I were to wear a skirt, I would be immediately projecting expectations of an observant lifestyle and as far as I’m concerned, it’s misleading. So I avoid it. Strangely enough, clients in Tel Aviv don’t even notice (much less second guess) a skirt. It’s simply considered fashion.
Ultimately, even though rape culture does not display obvious dominance here, as a woman in Jerusalem I often feel just as judged and belittled based on my attire. Plus, we still don’t have Target.