The lazy girl’s guide to head covering
By Ellyse Borghi:
It was bound to happen eventually. A work colleague finally gathered up the courage and asked me if my daily extra-wide headbands were a fashion statement or a religious practice. I explained to him that as much as I liked headbands, I certainly wouldn’t be wearing them every day if it wasn’t a religious practice. He went on to ask me if I was Hassidic, which I kind of loved. You see, I’m not Hassidic; more accurately I’m probably on the far fringes of left-wing modern Orthodoxy. Which I suppose then warrants some explanation of my dogged determination to observe head covering.
I’d like to start by noting that that too much discussion of what women wear is demeaning and damaging, particularly for girls. When we discuss women’s dress excessively, we fuel the notion that women’s bodies belong to the public. We feed the (male) gaze and are complicit in determining women’s value by their bodies and not their character. In light of this, I want to use this platform to tell a personal story.
As far as modesty goes, I don’t buy into the ideology. I know that it’s not my responsibility to save lustful men from their lustful ways. I also know that in a patriarchal society there’s a good chance that I’ll be objectified whether I’m wearing a bikini or a burqa. I generally try to dress in a way that encourages people to treat me with respect as an intelligent, competent human being. So I think that it’s fair to conclude that my head covering practice is not designed to save my short red frizzy hair for my husband’s eyes only. Because, despite what our Ketubah might say, he doesn’t own me.
I’d be lying if I told you that Halacha doesn’t factor into my decision. But it also wasn’t the sole factor behind the choice. Pre-marriage, I was aware of the Halachic texts mandating head covering but also of Orthodox opinions that no longer obligate married women’s hair to be covered. I try to live my life according to Halacha, and to understand Halacha as a code that upholds the principles of justice and ethics. However, married women’s head covering may for some people fall into that category of Halachic practice that offends notions of gender equality and female autonomy. I do recognise that when the practice is married (pun intended) with an ideology of modesty that it runs into some serious patriarchal territory.
However, overall, the Halachic texts spoke about it as a practice and its requirements and not its ideological premises. I’m not going to let what other commentators have projected into the practice put me off. Furthermore, I’m not to let the misogynists keep me from a spiritual practice. I love the idea of Jewish feminists reclaiming feminine mitzvot as empowerment without apologetics.
I suppose that this is a story of belonging and identity. A few years ago when I stopped wearing skirts only and transitioned to being a pants-wearing card-carrying Jewish feminist, in some ways I felt liberated. I loved the sneaky thrill of knowing that I looked just like everybody else and that it was harder for people to identify me on my university campus or at the supermarket (a practice affectionately known as Jew-dar or bagelling). I loved the anonymity. But I also missed giving that knowing smile when I walked past a fellow frum yid, the ‘I’m one of you’ nod. A magen david necklace might do the trick but it doesn’t really convey the nuances of my Jewish identity. I missed wearing my frumkeit on my sleeve.
Which brings me to the lazy girl’s guide to head covering. Since my head covering is a nod to my identity, it reflects the generally lenient Halachic practices of that community. I wear extra-wide headbands every day to work and hats or scarves on the weekends. The crown of my head is covered but it has to be very cold for me to cover all of my hair, though sometimes a great big turban can be fun.
Ultimately, if clothing is as expression of identity, when I pull on my jeans and tie my headscarf I feel like my authentic self; a complicated and committed Jewess.
For what other people have to say on this topic, here is a brief reading guide:
Ellyse Borghi is a young lawyer obsessed with cooking, crocheting and Mormons.