In my eyes, tznius is not only a beautiful mitzvah- it’s a tool used by countless Chareidi institutions to oppress and control women and girls. Just because I, personally, believe that dressing and acting modestly is right and proper, this doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the warped actions of numerous individuals and sects, and it doesn’t mean I support it. On the contrary, I’ve almost become frightened to utter the word ‘tznius’, out of fear for the backlash I’ll receive, the people I’ll be associated with. Self-proclaimed ‘tznius ladies’ are pushy and infuriating, but, perhaps thankfully, few and far between. Instead, there’s a much bigger problem in the form of the ‘vaad haTznius’- the groups of rabbonim, and lone rabbonim also- attempting to redefine and enforce standards of tznius. Women- and families- who break the rules are ostracised, and sometimes worse, as in the case of a famous incident in Kiryas Joel, in which a woman who was guilty of wearing long shaytelach had her windows smashed and car spray-painted. There’s no excuse for behaviour like this, but sadly, it’s the new norm.
If these groups were enforcing the basic laws of tznius- covering collarbones, elbows, and knees- I would be outraged. It is not up to them to control the masses. But the reality is even worse. These committees- often frighteningly sophisticated and brutally powerful- are creating their own laws. No long shaytelach. No bright colours. No eyeshadow. Women who disobey- breaking these minor laws found nowhere in Jewish scripture (and, in fact, the Gemoro states that it is an ‘expected custom’ for women to paint their eyes in preperation for shabbes or a yontiff) are subjected to abuse on a wide scale. And it’s not just them, it’s their children, too- expelled from school because of their mother’s shaytelach, or the fact she was seen driving a car.
Expelling one’s children from school sounds like no big deal. Surely they can find another? Or they can leave the community, if they don’t want to follow the rules, can’t they? Sadly not. The scarily insular nature of Chareidi communities means that nearly all members are unprepared for life outside the community. Few speak English. Nearly none have qualifications. They have no idea how non-Chareidi people live, and find it almost impossible to integrate. So they cycle continues. The men create rules, and the women follow them. Simply put, they don’t have any other choice.