On arriving in Jerusalem, I knew I was coming to a religious and conservative place where modesty was expected. My boring and practical clothes weren’t exactly revealing or cutting-edge flamboyant so I didn’t think it would be too much of an issue. What took me by surprise however, was how much my clothes would speak a language of identity I’d never considered before.
In a city full of divisions, clothes are the ‘uniform’ which show which camp you’re in and it’s almost impossible not to be judged for what you are wearing. Your clothes are the billboard from which people feel entitled to assume your religion, your first language, your political views and much more.
This isn’t necessarily as sinister as it sounds. I was fascinated to learn that in traditional Palestinian dress, women’s best dresses ‘thobes’ are intricately embroidered with symbols representing their village, their marital status, the number of children they have, their faith and more. This culture of telling a history through embroidery is called tatreez with dresses often being passed down through the generations. Largely dresses like this are reserved for special occasions these days but I suspect the habit of reading the clothes lives on.
Since moving to East Jerusalem, I have also spent an unexpectedly large amount of time pondering hair. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules, but Muslim people will generally wear a headscarf, many Jewish people, and especially Orthodox Jews will either wear a headscarf or a beautiful glossy wig and Christians tend to leave their hair uncovered.
All of this means that the judgements about who you are start from the top of your head. I’ve never thought of hair as being powerful before, but I’m also Western and therefore immodest by default (in many people’s eyes). And I defend my right to show my hair and wear shorts if I want to. I guess the difference in Jerusalem is that the whole city feels like a religious setting. I’ve not tried it myself, but I hear you can get a better price in the souq if you cover your head!
The most interesting explanation that I’ve stumbled across on the Jewish requirement for covering hair, quotes the Jewish text the Talmud: ‘Your hair is like a flock of goats’. I’m not sure it would work as a pick-up line today, and my flock is pretty unruly, but I love the sentiment all the same.
I most struggled with explaining modesty on the school run one day, when my 5 year old innocently asked, ‘mum, why can’t that lady see?’. She was covered head to toe in black with lace covering her face. The Veiled Women of the Holy Land exhibition at the Israel Museum gave a really interesting insight into this. It compared Christian nuns, Haredi veiled women and Muslim’s in the niqab to show the similarities rather than the differences.
I left with a deep sense of respect for the different choices people make. Not least because the veiled women are often wearing up to 8 layers of material in scorching heat and are continually vilified for looking different. Their sacrifice is real.
My conclusion is wear and let wear, with only one exception: guns are not a casual accessory. Seeing them in a kid’s play area is a frequent sight in East Jerusalem and I will never be ok with this.
Do you feel judged for what you wear? Has living in Jerusalem changed your view on clothes and identity? I would love to hear about your experiences!