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El Pais, Spain

Cover Up, Ladies!

By Begoña Gómez Urzaiz

Rules for sartorial decorum in women are far from a thing of the past: Brooklyn’s Hasidic community is the latest to cause controversy with its code of modesty for women.

Translated By James Johnson

6 February 2013

Edited by Daye Lee

Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)

Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A group of men in traditional, ultra-Orthodox Jewish dress enter a shoe store and threaten the owner. "Do you want to carry on selling those shoes? Well you had better speak with your daughter. The skirt she is wearing almost comes up to her knee and violates the community’s dress code. It would be such a shame if your display windows were to break, wouldn’t it?"*

According to reports from various American sources, including an article published in the New York Times just a few days ago, “modesty mafias” obsessed with maintaining moral standards enforce dress codes for women in the Hasidic community. These women normally dress extremely conservatively, covering their heads with hairpieces and hats or handkerchiefs, and pairing dark clothing and stockings with long-sleeved, high-necked blouses that cover the wrists.

The New York Times article also recounts the testimony of a shopkeeper on Lee Avenue — the shopping epicenter of the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood — who received a threatening call about his mannequins. It seems that they were too sexy and might get the men of the area hot under the collar. “Do the neighborhood a favor and take it out of the window. We’re trying to safeguard our community,” they told him.

Similar details emerged in the recent trial of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community who, among other things, acted as a “modesty consultant” and contributed to determining what does and does not square with the community’s strict code of conduct. A young girl gave evidence at the trial, telling of how a group of masked men, who called itself a modesty committee, broke into her bedroom and forcibly took her cell phone, an item considered impure. Other witnesses told similar stories about iPads and computers. It was also revealed during the hearing that the shadowy committee blackmailed a married man engaging in an affair, demanding money to keep quiet. In the end, Weberman was jailed for 103 years for sexually abusing a minor who had been sent to him for therapy, but the trial also served to uncover many of these religious extremists’ other dubious practices, which almost always revolve around women and the female body.

Of course, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is not the only one suffering from this type of obsession. In Iran, the so-called morality police have been active for over five years. This is a group that, among other things, assumes the responsibility of reprimanding (or even arresting, as is seen in a chilling video from 2007) women who do not wear their veil correctly. In Saudi Arabia, there has recently been a controversy following the remarks of the cleric Abdullah Daoud who, in an interview with Al-Majd TV, advocated requiring babies to wear the Islamic veil. The measure, he claims, would serve to protect young girls from possible sexual assault. Many Saudis used Twitter to decry the cleric’s words, affirming that they defamed the true laws of Islam.

Returning to the U.S., a group of Mormon women organized a "Wear Pants to Church" day on Dec. 16 as a way of demanding greater autonomy and relevance inside the faith, which has a conservative history. In the '80s and '90s, the Church of Latter Day Saints very publicly excommunicated many self-proclaimed feminist Mormons, as a warning to other troublemakers who might have liberal ideas. But in recent years, the movement has seen a resurgence through blogs such as Feminist Mormon Housewives. "Wear Pants to Church" became a global event through social media, and many Mormon women posted photos in their Sunday (trouser) suit, while others expressed their sorrow at not being able to join for fear of admonishment from their pastors or husbands. The co-founder and promoter of the initiative, 26-year-old Salt Lake City resident Stephanie Lauritzen, received a number of anonymous threats.

But you don’t have to be Mormon to be reprimanded by the church. Last summer, the young Solsona bishop Xavier Novell, considered one of the most media-friendly faces of Spanish Catholicism — so much so that he appeared on Spanish comedian Andreu Buenafuente’s La Sexta show in 2011 and was interviewed by Karmentxu Marín in El País last year — called attention to three women present at his confirmation mass in the town of Palau d’Anglesola because they were wearing miniskirts. The bishop himself explained the incident on his Facebook page. “I said it out loud at the end of the service to correct them and to remind the faithful that they must avoid dressing inappropriately in church.” He added, “Many people congratulated me on my words, because they too considered the girls’ dress to be scandalous.”**

* Editor's Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified.
** Editor's Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified.



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