I've seen prayer shawls for girls available on the internet e.g. for Bat Mitzvah. I'm not sure what to think of it or if I'm comfortable with it. Can a woman wear a prayer shawl, and if so under what circumstances?
The Torah commands to attach tassels (or "fringes") to the edges of any four-cornered garments we must wear; however this only applies during the day, not night. This makes it a "yes-do" command that's limited in time. The rule of thumb for this category of commandments (which also includes shofar, lulav, and the like) is that women aren't obligated in them; however it would be meritorious for them to choose to do so. Sephardic women do not recite a blessing on such actions, Ashkenazic women do.
When it comes to prayer shawls, however, there was one opinion from the Talmudic era that because it's an item of clothing, it inherently becomes "a man's garb" and prohibited for women to wear. (The Torah prohibits cross-dressing.) We generally don't follow that opinion, but it is a cautionary note. Many are of the opinion, however, that the standard black-and-white model may be problematic as "men's garb", so something more feminine-looking is preferable.
The biggest issues are what we'd call the "meta" concerns. Is a woman wearing this saying "G-d I'm not actually obligated to do this, but I like doing something extra", as part of a well-balanced range of religious activities, or is this a big political statement to show everyone else that there are no differences between men and women?
In short, if a woman wants to wear a prayer shawl:
- Don't make a blessing on it if you're Sephardic.
- A feminine-looking shawl is better than the standard kind.
- Think about how it fits into your general religious life.
- Wearing it in private is probably best; you won't ruffle any feathers that way, and it will challenge you to ask yourself to what extent you're doing this for the sake of being seen by others.
- It would be best to stipulate "I am not pledging to do this on an ongoing basis." (If I establish a regular pattern of meritorious activity, that could be construed as pledging to G-d to continue it, unless I specify otherwise.)
I've shared your reaction in the past. Interestingly enough, it seems that Posekim in the last century (who disapproved of women wearing one at all) preferred that if a woman were to wear one, she wear one that is distinctively feminine in its design.
I cannot pull all the necessary sources at the moment, but the basics are as follows:
The Shulhan 'Aruch writes that:
Women and slaves are exempt [from wearing tzitzit] because it is a time-dependent commandment.
The RaM"A adds:
And if they wish to wrap [in tzitzit] and say the blessing on them it is up to them to do so as with all time-dependent commandments (Tosafot and the Rosh and the Ran, Chapter 2, Rosh Hashanah, First Chapter of Kiddushin). Unless they are doing it to appear more observant than others in which case they may not wear them since they are not required as men are (Agur Section 27).
This point about false piety is taken very seriously by R' Moshe Feinstein, who stated that there are clearly multiple issues at play. Since women are exempt, their decision to adopt the Mitzvah needs to be done for the sake of the Mitzvah, not for the sake of being like a man. In a similar vein, since women are exempt, the very nature of the act of donning a garment for a Mitzvah in which only men are obligated kinda makes that garment a masculine garment by definition. As such, a truly pious woman, who decides to do the Mitzvah for the sake of Heaven, ought to wear only a garment that is clearly feminine in its design.
RM"F comes down strongly against women doing it at all, since most women who did so, by and large, were part of movements pushing women's egalitarianism, while at the same time pushing aside most Torah observance that was actually required; today, I personally still think he would oppose women's performance of the Mitzvah (except, perhaps, in exceedingly rare instances), even among women who keep Halachah, since, again, most women who want to do it are doing so in an effort to push egalitarianism much more than for the sake of the Mitzvah. But, again, if a woman were to do it, he'd require her to wear a feminine-looking garment.
Minhagim, are not halachos, but there are as strict and well guarded as halachos and laws. It's been the minhag for ages for women not to wear tzitzis or talisim, so I and many others cling to the idea that women should not wear talisim. It is not discriminating women. Women have a more special connection with Hashem, and so by wearing tzitzis a women is almost denying her special connection. Women have many other obligations. Hope this helps, -Ezra