When I was 13 years old, my family took our first trip to Israel. We were not the least bit observant in those days. It was the first time I ate kosher food for a sustained period (by default), the first time I saw a mechitzah (divider) when we when to the Kotel, and the first time I was around a LOT of religious Jews.
I didn’t actually exchange any words with these people. My first conversation with an Orthodox Jew didn’t occur until I was 16. But I walked passed a bunch, including on our trip to the Old City of Jerusalem. Around all of Israel we had worn clothing that was typical for secular women in hot temperatures, but our tour guide had warned us to wear pants and covered shoulders in the Old City to be respectful of the religious populaiton. (It should be noted that because of the skin gap, women are expected to show more skin in most social settings than men are which is a serious gender inequality that much of the world just accepts as “normal” while Orthodox Judaism believes in equality in this space.)
As we walked through the Old City, a couple of Orthodox men passed us by, removed their hats and covered their faces to block us from their line of vision. I was mortified. I felt so belittled. So disrespected. Why did they have to make such a show of what they were doing? The memory is still upsetting.
Now I’m sure these men never considered the affect that their behavior had on me and the other women they did this to, but the Torah expects us to consider how our actions affect other people and we have to work to be as sensitive as possible.
Flash forward to just a few years after that encounter, I began my journey to observance. I started eating kosher on purpose, going only to shuls with mechitzahs, and seeking out Orthodox Jews to hang out with. I began to dress modestly not because I got it, but because I was trying to be consistent in my practice, and in doing so I discovered how positive a force modest dress and behavior was in my life. Because while the men averting their eyes in a very obvious way was embarrassing to me, the men that ogled me and made me feel like a piece of meat was just as upsetting and belittling.
I think modest dress can afford women the chance to take ownership of their bodies and can be such an empowering practice. I think that shmiras anayim – men guarding their eyes to save them only for their wife’s body – also has the potential to benefit women (and ultimately benefit the men who love those women as the practice can make their wives feel absolutely cherished).
Far too often, if a woman feels self-conscious when her husband has wandering eyes she is told: “Stop being so sensitive.” “Stop being so insecure.” or “I can look as long as I don’t touch.” Far too often women are told that their feelings don’t matter. That they should “just get over it.” That men can’t control themselves. I find all of those reasons to be weak and insensitive and, yes, disrespectful to women. I find that some women have to pretend that they don’t care about this issue altogether because they can’t fathom having a man in their life who would be committed enough to honor them in this way.
So for any man that is careful in guarding his eyes – I truly applaud him. But he must, must, must be just as careful in the mitzvah of busha b’rabim (avoiding causing public embarrassment). Look down, look to the side. Do your act of modesty in a modest way.