Why does religious fundamentalism always seem to wear a potato sack or at least insist its women dress that way?
I ask because of the latest outbreak of fundamentalist fury, this one in a Jewish town in Israel called Beit Shemesh. A few weeks ago, a video went viral of a girl, age 8, now terrified of walking to school because the ultra-Orthodox men in her town spit, scream and swear at her for dressing like a "whore." What kind of outrageous outfits does she wear?
The modest attire of a religious Jewish girl: a skirt and shirt reminiscent of school uniforms here in the states. The other girls at her single-sex school dress the same and face the same gantlet of hate. The angry men want them to wear something more modest, such as a burqa.
The basic idea -- actually, idea is too kind a word, so let's say the basic delusion at work here -- is that any female whose face and form remain recognizable is dressing like a hooker and thus deserves to be harassed and humiliated. This sounds so much like the thinking among the Muslim religious fanatics in Iran and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the whole Taliban thing, that I wondered: Why do ultra-orthodox sects of different religions all seem so obsessed with "modesty"?
"Basically, demanding that women dress more and more modestly is a form of bullying," says Candace Talmadge, Dallas-based author of the "Green Stone of Healing" series of novels, which explores a corrosive theocracy. "Society still has ambivalent feelings about women's role, so it's a great place to start making demands," Talmadge says. If and when those demands are met, the leaders feel emboldened to make further demands, because now they have a "track record" of success.
Though men in religious sects are often required to dress a certain way, too -- think of the Amish with their beards or Hasidic men wearing side curls -- women's dress is bound up with their sexuality, or, more to the point, with hiding it. This could be because when religious men react to women in a way they believe is wrong, they are ashamed. To remove their shame, they remove (or at least disguise) the catalyst: women's bodies. But that's not the end of it. Once they learn to "see" through the wrappings, they may demand even more covering, and more.
And pretty soon, they're calling a third-grader in a skirt a whore.
That kind of outlook seems completely crazy, until you consider that perhaps the provocateurs relish the scorn of the general public. Rules, clothes and actions that seem insulting, if not insane, to the rest of us can be of great use to the folks practicing them. Shocking behavior "is designed, in some ways, to get other people's backs up," says Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the University of London and the author of "Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?" "It's what's called 'creating tension' with the surrounding society. Their tension with you reinforces the boundaries that keep your people in."
In other words, the more that mainstream society maligns a group, the more the group sticks together. It's a siege mentality. And far from shaming the fanatics into changing their ways, it solidifies their belief that they alone find favor in God's eyes. And then they go and spit some more on everyone else.
Especially the females.