Tag Archives: feminism

confessions of an orthodox feminist

28 Oct

Some musings of mine published recently on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, which I haven’t written for for quite a while.

These thoughts were triggered after the whole shul (synagogue)-going binge over the high holidays, during which I came to the (disquieting) realisation that I, the supposed feminist, still feel a bit too at home in not very feminist-friendly shul settings.

Was pleased to see the article prompted a good flurry of comments, some of which attacked me for my complacency in this sphere.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the piece – click here for a link to the full article (and comments):

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Confessions of an Orthodox Feminist

By Rebecca S

Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.

Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?

Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.

This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long

A feminist victory…on “America’s Next Top Model”?

26 Sep
My latest offering just published on The Sisterhood Blog, on the Jewish Daily Forward website:
September 26, 2010, 5:31pm

A Feminist Victory … on ‘America’s Next Top Model’

By Rebecca S

A shameful admission from a proud feminist: I’ve been watching the latest season of the reality show competition “America’s Next Top Model.” I know, I know, I ought to be ashamed of myself, but there’s something about this show that is so far removed from day-to-day life that I just can’t help myself.

Of course I try to assuage my guilty conscience by providing a running feminist commentary as I’m watching, but I can’t deny the blatantly obvious: I’m still one of the consumers who’s caught up in this warped perception of feminine beauty.

And yet, there is a small feminist victory in all this — and it has nothing to do with the inclusion this season of a Modern Orthodox contestant.

In last week’s episode, host, and former supermodel Tyra Banks, and her panel of judges, actually scored a big thumbs-up from me for choosing to eliminate the contestant Anamaria, for the explicit reason that she looked emaciated. As Banks put it: “We are concerned about the message that your body type might send to young girls.”

(Just to describe this young girl to any non-ANTM viewers out there: This is someone whose ribs stuck out further than her breasts, who almost disappeared in her sideways-on photo-shoot, who said she likes looking in the mirror and seeing her “abs.”)

Now obviously you can argue that this is mere lip service/hypocrisy on the part of Banks and her fashionista cohorts — seeing as they are part of the whole fashion machine that perpetuates this unrealistic, stick-like body image for women in the first place. And we should not forget that they accepted Anamaria to appear in the show in the first place.

But, I would argue that Banks is clearly taking seriously her responsibility to all the impressionable young women who watch the show by explicitly criticizing this contestant for her unhealthy body image. As she tells Anamaria:

You might be the healthiest girl in the world, but it might not hurt to eat some avocado and a little bit of bread with some butter on it, so that you can book jobs and project an image that doesn’t feel as if you’re hurting your body.

Go Tyra! Not just bread, but bread with butter? Who would have thought that deliciously forbidden word “butter” would ever even be uttered on a show like ANTM?

In fact, Banks herself projects the exact image she’s encouraging this misguided young woman to build. Granted, she’s tall and thin, but she looks thin and healthy — a far cry from the waif-like, skeletal body shape she is criticizing.

It is a small feminist triumph, from an unlikely source.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/131602/

the debate on feminism vs cultural relativism rumbles on

6 Jul

Interesting to see that my previous post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the thorny issues surrounding condemning women’s oppression in cultures other than our own, republished in the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Sisterhood blog, has now sparked off an insightful response by Elana Sztokman -see this link.

Sztokman is quite emphatic in her response to my feminist quandary:

Rebecca S… had an argument in her own head about these issues, which she shared here on The Sisterhood. She had just read one of my favorite authors and real-life heroines, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who has one of the most powerful voices on behalf of protecting women from violence and harm.

Rebecca found herself stumbling over these issues of cultural relativism. “What is the right answer?” she asks. “[H]ow do the rest of us square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

I would like to say to you, Rebecca, that you should stick you to your guns! Your initial reaction, which is to condemn the mistreatment of women outside of your own culture, is the right one. The voice of “cultural relativism” is a smokescreen. It is the argument put forward by people who really do not want feminist interference. And who would that be? It’s not the women who are suffering from genital mutilation or honor killings who are asking you to butt out. It’s not the women who face violence, polygamy, and corporal punishment for showing ankles and wrists who are demanding that you step aside in the name of some abstract, twisted notion of intellectual consistency. The ones asking feminists to be quiet are the ones who want to continue harming women. And those are voices that do not deserve to be heeded.

Her arguments are compelling, persuasive. But there’s still a part of me that’s wavering. Here’s an initial comment I wrote underneath Sztokman’s post:

Hi Elana – thank you for your response to my blog post about my feminism vs cultural relativism dilemma. I find your arguments insightful and I’m glad that my post enabled this debate to be opened up!
The thing I’m still worried about is that although you say that women who suffer from various forms of oppression within religious groups are not the ones telling western feminists to butt out, I’m not sure if this is always the case.
There are many women within Islam who will passionately advocate their ‘right’ to cover themselves from head to toe with a burka or niqab, just as there are many women within communities in Africa who may still passionately encourage their female offspring to be circumcised, even in this day and age.
It is these women – who we claim are oppressed, but who themselves argue that these forms of oppression are actually a form of religious freedom, that I worry about when I feel the urge to give a blanket condemnation.

I also wanted to quote a response from a well-informed friend who questioned my wisdom in citing Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the first place. Here’s what she has to say:

She [Hirsi Ali] is, I guess, the most well known face of the common cause formed by (absolutely well-meaning but ignorant) western feminists and islamophobes. I can’t really see her as brave. Megalomaniac and self-promoting and full of righteous zeal, yes. But don’t forget she has an awful lot of adoration and support from the right wing (and the pretty far right wing in Holland).

More questions to consider. Can someone like Hirsi Ali be trusted in her condemnation of the oppression of her fellow Muslim women, or does her cosying up with the European right discredit her? Is there anyone who can be considered a trustworthy and neutral (I use these qualifiers with caution) enough feminist, whose credentials are such, that s/he can stand up and condemn oppression against women in ANY culture and not have an underlying agenda?

A version of this blog post was republished on The Sisterhood blog on the Jewish Daily Forward’s website. See: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129308/

a feminist quandary

22 Jun

Thinking back on my last two posts condemning the prohibition on women drivers in some parts of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, I realized that ever since, I’ve had a strangely guilty conscience for having voiced my opinions on this issue.

There’s a small, persistent voice in me that’s saying: Maybe it’s their culture, their tradition, maybe I just don’t have the right to criticize and impose my feminist objections on them.

But then my more dominant voice argues back: No, of course, as a woman, I DO have the right to criticize and demand change for my fellow women denied a basic human right – the right to drive a motorized vehicle. We’re talking about a basic and very real injustice against women, which should override any cultural sensitivities.

And then, by chance I came across Nomad, a new memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali campaigner, feminist and outspoken critic of Islam, who raises these very questions when discussing the muted response of Western feminists to issues of female circumcision, honour killings and other injustices to women that are most commonly associated (but, by no means, exclusively) with the Muslim world:

When I read about honor killings, I am haunted by the certitude that something, many things, could have been done…Is there an urgent need to try to recognize this pattern and prevent these killings? Yes. Are we talking about how to do this? No.

Why not? Why the hell not?

When Muslim women face not just oppression but violent death, why aren’t the feminists out protesting these abuses? Where are the great European and American campaigners who powered the contemporary movement for women’s equality in the West? Where, to take just one example, is Germaine Greer, author of such classics of Western feminism as The Female Eunuch? Greer believes the genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context. Trying to stop it, she has written, would be ‘an attack on cultural identity’.

It is unconscionable for her to refrain from speaking out against honor killings because it would be “tricky” to challenge the culture that condones it.

Hirsi Ali is furious at the failure of Western feminists to openly condemn these forms of women’s oppression in the Muslim/developing world she has left behind. She goes on:

Because Western feminists manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture, the situation of Muslim women creates a huge philosophical problem for them.

So what’s the right answer here? What’s it to be – cultural relativism/multicultural tolerance or a purist, non-hypocritical brand of feminism? It’s clear which the powerful Hirsi Ali advocates, but how do the rest of us mortal feminists square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

This post was republished on The Jewish Daily Forward website, in The Sisterhood blog – see: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129050/

Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

6 Jun

Still mulling over my previous post about Jewish women not being allowed to drive in two hasidic communities in upstate New York, I decided to look to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia for inspiration, they having “successfully” upheld a nationwide ban on women driving for the last 20 years.

I found out that the official ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia came about in 1990 in the aftermath of an audacious protest by a group of prominent Saudi women:

That was the day when 49 Saudi women from affluent families, grouped in 15 cars, took hold of the steering wheels in a silent protest for women’s rights. They drove on the streets of Riyadh until the local and religious police spotted them. Putting a stop to the audacity of these women proved a lot easier for the authorities than explaining what, exactly, they had done wrong.                  (source: Fahad Faruqui, guardian.co.uk)

What’s interesting to see is the wording of the ban:

The government announcement, carried on Saudi television, said that the ban on women driving was for “preserving sanctities and to prevent portents of evil, because it has been juridically proven that reasons for woman’s degeneration or for exposing her to temptation should be prevented.” (quoted in same article)

I smell a rat. Unlikely as it may sound, I’m starting to suspect strongly that the Jewish clerical leaders of New Square and Monroe in up-state New York are in cahoots with the Saudi Muslim clergy with the express aim of keeping their womenfolk down. A dubious kind of inter-faith unity. This prohibition on women driving is all to do with my Jewish and Muslim brothers’ joint fixation on the need to protect their sisters from slipping down that infamous slippery slope that leads straight to a life of harlotry and degeneration.

Well now that we’ve got that one sorted, here’s what I’d like to say to my Jewish brothers: You could do well to draw inspiration from the Saudis as to the intricacies of the ban. Think outside the box. Use your imagination. Don’t forget there are many kinds of vehicles you can ban women from driving other than the obvious automobile:

Saudi driving ban on women extends to golf carts

While we’re at it, I’d like to throw in my own suggestion too: I would argue that it would be wise to ban women from pushing shopping trolleys too. After all trolleys have four wheels and move licentiously fast. Plus they can lead women straight past inappropriate sections of a supermarket (e.g. where they sell immodest clothing, non-kosher food etc). No doubt there’s potential for a great deal of temptation and immorality in this the action of trolley-pushing. It would certainly be infinitely preferable for men to do any shopping that involved the use of this four-wheeled vehicle.

Well maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I confess that I’ve omitted to mention that the article I quoted above does read that the Saudis are now seriously considering lifting the ban on women drivers. So come on Satmar and New Square, surely if the Saudis are considering lifting the ban, you can too? What’s the worst that can happen? Your wives will drive to their places of work? To pick up your children from school? To run their errands? How bad can it really get?

What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?

31 May

Mitzva no. 614 of the Torah (negative commandment)

  1. It is forbidden for a Jewish woman to drive a car for behold, it is stated that it is immodest for a Jewish woman to show herself in public in the driving seat of a four-wheeled motorized vehicle.
  2. If she is married, she may travel as a passenger in her husband’s car. However, she may not sit next to him in the front for this is deemed immodest. Instead, she must travel in the back seat (whether or not there are any other passengers in the car).
  3. A woman may travel in her father’s car, but only in the back seat.
  4. If a woman needs to get from Point A to Point B, she may take a taxi, where she should sit in the back seat. However our sages do not deem it problematic if the taxi driver is a male, whether Jewish or not.

Puzzled? Yes, so was I when I first heard that women in two hasidic (ultra-orthodox) communities in upstate New York are forbidden from driving cars.

At first I thought I must have misheard. What, are you trying to tell me that there are women in 21st-Century, post-feminist American society who live in such closeted, fettered communities where their ‘modesty’ is called into question in such a dramatic way that they aren’t even allowed to drive a car, I asked in a state of near panic?

Yes indeed is the answer. In both Monroe, where a large Satmar community lives, and New Square, home to the Squarer hasidim (who famously have separate sides of the street for members of each sex to walk on), women are not permitted to drive.

I found this out through a frum relative of mine (let’s call her Tania) who is secretly teaching a wayward Satmar colleague of hers how to drive. She tells me that her colleague (let’s call her Suri) has slowly been coming to the mind-blowing realization that you can be a frum, halachic Jewish woman like Tania and also drive a car.

Let’s make things very clear: Suri still wants to lead an orthodox Jewish life. She covers her hair (but does not shave it) as halacha requires, she keeps Shabbat and kosher, she keeps all the laws of family purity, etc etc. Yet, as an apparently intelligent young woman, she’s realized that her community has extended Torah prohibition into the realm of pure societal customs and restrictions. And it is against these customs that she is now secretly waging her own personal war.

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Oh and a final word on Suri which really made me sink into despair. Apparently the hairband she’s been wearing on her sheitel (wig) which is two inches wide, as opposed to the standard community practice of four inches, is really rubbing people up the wrong way. Her mother reportedly called her up and asked her, in all seriousness: “Where have I gone wrong with you?”

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