By Amanda Ly
It’s hard to imagine why a woman would want to cover her hair if she doesn’t have to. In secular western society, our most valued ideal is freedom — a practice and belief that excluded women not too long ago.
The women’s’ rights movement bravely fought to reclaim what was always ours and at the forefront of the battlefield was the female body. The intent was to liberate the female body from the tyranny of the patriarchal male gaze, but something got lost in translation.
Hemlines got shorter, lingerie became acceptable outerwear, skin became in vogue in winter — everything that was taboo for a woman was transformed to challenge old norms. Women now dress how they please and take pride in the choices they make and that they can make these choices without getting stoned to death.
Men who say otherwise are barbaric, backward, buffoons, right? A secular society is better than a religious one because religion is controlling and conforming, right? As enlightened, progressive, liberal westerners, it’s our job to liberate our sisters who cover themselves, right?
Rebecca Dykopf’s golden brown hair is held back by a red headband which matches her red hoodie. Her face is bare and she can get away with it because her skin is in pristine porcelain condition.
Her legs are covered in grey tights worn under a knee-length denim skirt that’s not too tight, the neckline of her shirt doesn’t expose her chest, and the sleeves cover her elbow. Dykopf, 21 is following orthodox Jewish modesty laws that state a woman must dress conservatively, however these laws can be interpreted loosely or stringently depending on community and geography.
Dykopf, nochalantly says her hair isn’t a big deal to her, but her thick, bouncy, wavy hair is what shampoo commercials are made of and it’s what girls dream about.
“I have a love, hate relationship with my hair. Sometimes I like it, but it’s usually a big mess,” she says.
Dykopf is engaged so she doesn’t have to cover her hair. However, after her wedding she will cover it. In orthodox Judaism, married women must cover their hair. Covering the hair is a law and is different from cutting the hair which is a custom practiced mainly by Hasidic Jewish women.
Hair covering isn’t a commandment in the Torah, but it’s alluded to in oral tradition and has become law over time. Dykopf’s mother doesn’t cover her hair and though they attend an orthodox synagogue, her family is “borderline orthodox,” she says.
They are observant about some laws and negligent with others. In western law, if one commits a transgression against the legal system, that person is usually punished in some way. When you break Jewish law, nothing really happens. No one in the community ever judged Dykopf’s mom for not covering her hair, she wasn’t reprimanded by her husband, nor were there any lengthy diatribes that questioned her modesty and morality by her rabbi.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Dykopf says.
However she is aware that others do judge a woman on how Jewish she is, based on whether she covers her hair.
But rabbi Yakov Wohlgelernter says it’s not kosher for people to condemn others.
“The Torah prohibits judgement on others. If a woman isn’t ready or comfortable with covering her hair, then that’s ok. It just means she’s on a different level of commitment and she’ll come to the decision when she’s ready. Or maybe she’ll never be ready, but that’s ok. I don’t judge others and no one ever should,” Wohlgelernter says.
In orthodox Judaism as in secular western society, a woman’s hair is understood as a sensuous and erotic commodity. To preserve a woman’s modesty, the hair is covered because something so powerful should only be shared with a woman’s husband. A woman can either cover her hair with a bandanna, scarf or wig.
Depending on the interpretation, all of the hair must be covered or some of the hair must be covered. A married woman must wear it in public and in the company of other men who aren’t her husband or immediate family.
Dykopf hasn’t decided how she’ll cover her hair, but she plans on discussing it with her future husband to get his opinion on what would make her look most prettiest, she says.
“Nowhere does it say in the religion that a woman can’t look pretty. If she wants to wear a wig because it makes her feel beautiful, then that’s ok,” Wohlgelernter says.
“The wig isn’t a part of the woman so if other men are attracted to the woman because of her wig, it doesn’t mean he’s attracted to her.”
Women have told Wohlgelernter that when they wear a wig, it’s a constant reminder of who they are and how to act. When the wig is worn, they’re protecting who they are from outsiders.
When other men project their desires onto them, it’s for the wig and not the woman. At night when the wig is taken off, the insults and everyday hardships of being a woman in a secular society are absorbed or deflected by the wig. Like a piece of armour, her modesty and status as a respectable married Jewish is protected.
As Dykopf becomes more mature, she’s taking her religion more seriously; it’s also teaching her how to take herself more seriously.
“If my religion says it’s something I should do, then I’m going to do it. I’ll definitely feel like I’m doing something right,” she says.
The same women who are glorified for dancing around in their bikini and wildly swinging their hair, also get degraded and judged. Because she is more exposed and visible, doesn’t mean she’s more liberated and respected.
A secular society doesn’t always offer a woman more freedom than a religious society that requires her to cover her hair and body. With the merging of secular and religious, competing values dance in tension. For Dykopf, covering her hair will be a source of pride — a declaration of her status as a married Jewish woman and a symbol of her strength and commitment to herself and her religion.
However, this celebration has been hijacked by western feminists who understand it as a repressive measure against women. Though a western lens, it’s easy to see that.
As much as western feminism aims to challenge patriarchy, it has also absorbed patriarchal ideals in trying to liberate everyone who doesn’t share the same practices and ideologies as the west. So when a married Jewish woman covers her hair, that’s her secret that she knows and you don’t. That is how she expresses her freedom.