Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tzniut and Street Harassment

As a female who lives in New York City, I’ve received my share of unwanted looks from guys. However, I’ve never really been the victim of anything worse than a creepy stare. Ever since I learned about the existence of the term street harassment, I’ve tried to figure out why I’m an exception to the nearly 100% of women who have been harassed on the street. The only (weak) reason I could think of is because I’m an Orthodox Jew who mostly adheres to the laws of tzniut (modesty) in dress, meaning that I only wear skirts past the knee, sleeves that at least touch the elbow, and nothing low-cut or too tight.

If we accept my assumption for why I have never really been street harassed as true, one could argue that the solution to street harassment is for women dress according to tzniut. However, this solution would be unfair and ineffective for several reasons.

First of all, a woman’s mode of dress doesn’t always influence a would-be harasser. A few weeks ago, I began discussing street harassment with a group of my friends, who were unfamiliar with the term. After I described what constitutes street harassment, one of my friends - someone who also dresses according to tzniut - shared how she had been groped and stalked for several days while going to and coming home from school when she was in ninth grade. Hearing this friend’s story helped me realize that although it’s possible that how a woman is dressed may sometimes impact a man’s words or actions towards her, it isn’t the definitive cause for street harassment.

Another reason is because it’s women’s right as human beings to walk down the street, whether in a foreign country our own neighborhoods, without being harassed. We can’t blame the victim and tell women that it’s their job to protect themselves from street harassment; instead, we have to tell the perpetrators not to harass women on the street. Although I have chosen to dress in the manner of tzniut, and perhaps it has spared me from being victimized by street harassment, I strongly discourage women from dressing in a certain manner just to avoid street harassment. They’re our streets too, and we have every right to walk down them undisturbed. 


  1. I lived in NYC about a decade ago and also do not remember much more than mildest forms of street harassment. I didn't dress specifically tznius. I've wondered, too, since learning about the phenomenon of street harassment, what made me an exception. I've wondered if it's because I was kind of small breasted, and also not particularly slender...but I think the harassment occurs to females of all body types, just as it happens to girls and women in every level of modest dress. It's sick how not receiving violent misogyny in public makes me automatically evaluate my level of attractiveness, as though being singled out for abuse from a stranger is some sort of compliment or affirmation of feminine appeal.
    I did feel the need to duck into a school building that required a student ID one time, to lose a guy who I suspected was following me. I had to think a long time before I remembered that incident. I wonder how many of these kind of things are so normalized that, even those of us who get "lucky" still experience blatant threats that we hardly even notice.

  2. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts, Yafa! I couldn't agree more.