A couple of years ago, there were a few posts on Jameel’s blog about Bat-El Gaterer, a young religious Israeli woman who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Tae Kwon Do. Many of the writers in the comments section wrote to praise her hard work and pride in representing Israel at the Olympics.
But a few people sounded more concerned about a religious girl wearing pants than why she was wearing them. I’ve had a few conversations about modesty on my blog, and the push and pull between what is the general practice where I live, what is practical in view of the weather here, and what is comfortable and/or reasonable given the level of activity. It’s an ongoing struggle to get 6-year-old Peach to wear the required three-quarter sleeves to school in hot weather. (Fortunately, school is now out and they’re off to camp in short sleeves.) I myself continue to favor skirts over trousers the majority of the time, though for comfort and warmth in the winter, I still have a couple of pairs of L.L. Bean’s wide-leg jeans.
But this conversation about Bat-El Gaterer, stale though it was, still bothered me. Someone pointed out that women successfully fenced in long skirts. (Now THAT’s a cool sport.) Women also entered archery competitions in full femme-regalia (hoopskirts, corsets, tight-fitting bodices, bustles—the works). But for the majority of sports, long skirts just aren’t practical. Since the essence of many sports is flexibility, skirts get in the way—with speed, skirts make serious drag; and in sports where being upside down is a factor, such as gymnastics … well, you get the idea.
The implication behind the view that religious Jewish females must always wear long skirts is that participating in sports where long skirts are an impediment is unseemly. This attitude of some in the Jewish world troubles me. Girls are already excluded from the rituals of synagogue Jewish life. They cannot become Orthodox rabbis (or at least not in the mainstream of Orthodoxy). And the majority of their functions in Judaism—lighting candles, mikvah, Shabbat and holiday meal orchestration—take place in the privacy of the home or behind closed doors. In converting to Judaism, I accepted this status quo within the framework of Jewish practice. Outside that framework, however, I think a little more flexibility would not be amiss.
Years ago I was doing some Jewish learning with other members of my synagogue community in the US. We were studying some of the interpretations of halacha that govern the design of the worshipers’ areas at the Western Wall, and someone observed that the rabbinate has turned the Western Wall into an Orthodox shul. Another person moaned, “They’ve made the whole country into an Orthodox shul.” I don’t think turning our entire lives into an Orthodox shul is a very good idea, least of all for girls. While we should never abandon our sense of obligation to keep mitzvot and view the human body with respect, we should also bear in mind that giving both boys and girls opportunities to play and participate in sports is important for the promotion of good health, teamwork, sportsmanship, agility and physical development, self esteem, healthy body image, and time management. Adopting the view that girls may not change out of their long skirts into pants, leotards, shorts, shorter skirts, or swimsuits dooms them to inactivity and a sense of modesty so oppressive that it is bound to make them feel ashamed of their own bodies—not, I hope, the goal of the long skirt.
The sense of empowerment and self esteem that dance, soccer, martial arts, and other sports create for girls is essential to a girl’s healthy development. And girls with good self esteem are better prepared to perform well in school, find gainful employment, and cultivate healthy relationships (including marriage).
I did not watch Bat-El compete in Beijing, but I did attend 5-year-old Banana’s Tae Kwon Do exhibition, featuring her kiddie class as well as at least 100 other older kids showcasing what they’ve learned. Boys and girls alike demonstrated their considerable skills in kicks, punches, no-handed cartwheels, and leaps for kvelling parents, siblings, and grandparents. Looking at Banana’s potential, and thinking of the strength, endurance, and joy I’ve received from hiking, swimming, running, soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis, dance, and all the other physical pursuits I enjoyed as a kid and as an adult, I wouldn’t deny those things to any girl, religious or not.
My favorite comment from the thread for “Frum Olympian Girl Who Kicks Boys” was from Benji Lovett, who said, “Hopefully she will inspire other fighters to become religious women.”