Exclusion of Women- feminism as the sad conqueror

8-13/12 is Human Rights week. An article that has to do with Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
(By: Ronit Irshai, Translated: Marilyn Hyman)

One of the frequently repeated claims in the public discourse about respect for women is that there is a "deaf conversation" between the haredi  or "hardali" public and the secular public. One is not interested in women's equality and the other does not see modesty as a value. The one is interested in degrading and the other in elevating. There are goodies and baddies in this story. There are people who darken and people who lighten. The more that we think about it in depth, this saying is altogether unfounded in my opinion but having said that I have no intention in this paper of defending the mad ideas which are becoming more and more respectable amongst the general religious public (unfortunately of nearly all shades) about  treatment of women, for fear of harming the rights to multi-culturalism. On the contrary, I am interested in removing political correctness from the framework of the debate which prevents discussion of the essence of the matter. In my opinion we have to challenge the idea of "a right to multi-culturalism" because this always refers to the right to that culture which was designed by the strong, mainly by the patriarchy. To paraphrase the words of Walter Benjamin who spoke about "the history of the victors", sometimes the right to multi-culturalism is in effect the right of the strong to continue to enforce their opinions, but since this philosophy demands giving equal value to all cultures it does not take note of this basic failure. I am of the opinion that, in the name of the right of multi-culturalism, the lid cannot be put on the possibility of critical discourse.

Accordingly, from the outset I will refer to the religious concept of "modesty", in whose name women are removed to the rear of the bus, somewhere in the back, in whose name hearing a woman's voice has the capacity of being indecent and within which I will comment on the modesty discourse in general and will try to get to its essential roots. On the other side, I request to postpone the assumption by which "the enlightened people", those who does not see any problem with a woman in a minimalistic bikini spread across a billboard in a size which doesn't leave anything to the imagination, do not degrade or exclude. Here the mechanism is simply better hidden-and so the perceptions embodied within it seem a little foggy. It is not an obvious "enemy" like a haredi who degrades or spits, or a soldier who makes a protest because he is forced to hear a woman singing, but it is no less dangerous. The point is that feminism, despite the fact that it is seen by the public as "radical" actually always makes this balanced point, but in a culture, both religious and general, in which the voice of a woman in any case isn't really important, who cares what feminism says.

We will begin with the religious world and concentrate mainly on it because, as I am going to assert, much of the critical content which is turned against it is relevant as well for the general population.

In a recent article in Makor Rishon, Uri Elitsur wrote that:

It is impossible to explain to a liberal secular person that modesty is connected to the sexual difference between men and women and not the gender difference between them, and in spite of this it is not the fear that the man will suddenly be aroused and attack or go crazy but a cultural value (my italics, R.I.) that keeping care of modesty is like keeping cleanliness, or keeping silence or looking after wildflowers. It is a pity to try, it's like explaining to a blind person what is the meaning of the color blue…in their heads all this thing about modesty is degradation of the woman, all the separation between men and women is an expression of  outrageous male superiority.[2]

I absolutely agree about one thing- that modesty is a cultural value, that modesty is more valuable than fine gold. The question is-which kind of modesty? Below, I want to follow Dr Tova Hartman who claims that the current discussion of modesty is totally out of proportion in the way that it is lumped together with the discussion of immodesty- liberal, pornographic- and even widen it.[3] What is all this about? Firstly the discussion of modesty is fashioned above- all from the viewpoint of the man, as someone whose piercing sexual gaze is always there. It is as if it is the woman whom he must protect and cover up, thereby "respecting her " and if she doesn't do so she is collaborating with turning herself  into   a sexual object.

But the assumption- that in every interaction between women and men there is no sex free neutral interface, that the context is meaningless and there is no situation in which to neutralize sexuality so that the woman isn't perceived as a sex object for the man- is not challenged, because "this is sex" in the words of Elitsur, this isn't gender. In other words, in this matter education or other cultural structures will not help, it is a given, natural situation and the woman is requested "just to help" the man to control himself against his uncontrollable sexual impulse/libido. This kind of world-view, which underlies the laws of modesty, degrades the woman very much because it states incidentally that in connection with matters that are not sexual by definition all that the man would see in a woman is only the reduction of her value from a human being to a sexual vessel. However, I do not know whether it degrades the man any less. Does the viewpoint that sees him as someone who is busy all the time and obsessively with sex respect his value as a person? Is it true that men by their nature are comfortable with so much temptation? The equation of course does not balance-it is the woman who is asked to pay for this "natural," biological fact, but the man also does not come out of it so well. Things get even more insulting when rabbis, as people of Torah and spirituality, collaborate with this. Could it be that listening to a lecture by a woman at a scientific conference, who, it should be pointed out, is not dressed in a bathing suit because after all the context is not having fun on the beach, but study and learning, could it be then that all that is understood from her is only sex? That is to say, even if this is not what happens at that moment and it is just a matter of broadcasting the message that modesty is a value, in the words of Elitsur, is it possible to accept this value, in its present version,when such problematic views, which despise and degrade our value as human beings, are wrapped up in it?

This outlook goes even further. It is this that stands as the basis of separation between women and men in the synagogue. The assumption that women cannot take an active part in public worship, saying "sacred words," comes  from this viewpoint exactly. women are "sex" and after all sex is anti-holy. The accepted equation is that women's being in a religious space, in the space in which religious acts are carried out- holy acts- simply profanes holiness. There are modern-orthodox synagogues in which women cannot even speak on the subject of the weekly parsha during the service (something acceptable in many places, between Shaharit and Musaf services.) That is to say, we are not speaking here purely about modesty but about the deep layers which are hidden behind the modesty. Woman=sex=anti-holy. However, the religious politically correct discourse is very careful not to present matters in this way. It is just a formal halakhic matter, those rabbis who at least are disturbed by the question will say, there is no lessening of respect towards the status of the woman. But if you inspect the concealed layers you will discover that in fact the modesty discourse, when it is shaped from that viewpoint, says exactly these words: if nature is such that men see in a woman only, or mostly, "sex" and sex is the anti-thesis of spiritual or holy matters, women, even if they are dressed correctly are unable to give a talk during the religious service (4). And at the moment when the perception is that holiness is supposed to be a wide public area belonging to everyone, obviously it is preferable altogether that the woman is simply not there. Not on the bus and by inference not in the synagogue (or at least so that we, the men, cannot see her) So on the bus she will not be asked to sit at the side, or for example just by another woman, or in front. She will be behind so that we will not see her, so that it is as if she is not there at all. After all, she spoils the pure atmosphere, which basically we try to erect everywhere.  It is clear, if this is so, why in the past and today as well "The king's daughter within the palace is all glorious".  As soon as she goes outside to the synagogue as well as to the bus-something is spoiled, because after all the public space belongs to men and the woman is always only "sex" and the connection between the two is always very poisonous. She is always liable to lose her honor because she cannot flee from the penetrating male gaze [5].  Accordingly, keeping her honor means hiding away from that gaze. When she is not in range or when she is completely covered up she has a lot of "honor".

So, for example, Prof. Eliav Shochtman writes about the possibility that women will read from the Torah on Shabbat in the synagogue:

It seems that we cannot understand these laws except in light of the general perception of Hazal/our Sages, of blessed memory, about the place of the woman in the public system of worshipping God. In the private sphere, every woman is permitted to take part in worshipping God, and there are things that she is even commanded to do, such as prayer. But, in the public sphere, "respect towards the public" requires not involving women actively in prayer arrangements […]this perception […]by which the woman is not involved with men and does not take an active role, in the public sphere, in prayer and blessings, should also be understood against a background of modesty laws. The purpose of separation of the sexes- the distancing and various restrictions- is to prevent obstacles.[6]

It appears that Shochtman does not feel that the explanatory principal that leads him (following Hazal, of course), is one-sided in that it is altogether designed from the male point of view which says "the public sphere does not belong to everyone, it belongs to men alone; in so far as women enter they are likely to disturb us and harm our worship of God".

By the way, from this reasoning it is not at all clear why women were excluded at all from the sphere of public worship.  Why were they not allowed in the days of Hazal to have separate religious worship beside that of the men (after all modesty would also have been observed in this way)? This fact just strengthens the suspicion that what is being talked about here is not just laws of modesty but about "invasion" into a sphere that simply belongs to men. And also if the matter is modesty, then the understanding of it is completely one-sided.

I emphasize purposely the matter of order of public prayers together with the widest concept of "modesty" about the separation in the general public space, because in my eyes the root is the same.  As soon as woman is just "sex" then "sin rests at the door" everywhere: in the synagogue, on the bus, in the clinic (separate clinics are now becoming a common phenomenon in Haredi neighborhoods).

The religious discourse about modesty is one-sided for an additional reason. Let us suppose for one moment that it is correct; that it is natural that a woman cannot be seen through a man's eyes other than through sexual notions and let us say that she needs to "pay" a certain price by covering herself up because of that. Well, all the legal system, and halakha in general, is built upon balance. Why are the needs of the woman or her wishes or the amount she is limited not taken into account? In other words, when halakhic decisors rule that the voice of a woman is certainly indecent do they admit to the heavy price that she pays for silencing her voice ( both the real and the metaphoric)? By excluding her from the public sphere? By pushing her to the margins? Is it fair to exclude women from all public holy matters because of the estimated weakness of men? Doesn't respect for fellow creatures, respect for the woman in this case, needs to be weighed against the estimated loss for men?  After all it is over- simplified apologetics to claim that the man pays the price because formally he is the one who is forbidden. In reality what happens is that simply women are not invited to sing at public events. Take for example the large memorial event which has been organized in the past few years, for the evening of Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and the Victims of Terrorism by the religious Zionist movement. Women do not appear there, period. And that is not by chance. Even though there are those who claim: look, more and more state religious schools refrain from inviting fathers to their daughters' parties and so now they (the fathers) are sectioned off! About that one can only say that in this case even the blind can see the color blue….

I guess that many religious men (and also women) hold on to the cliché that the religious laws of modesty actually prevent turning the woman into a sexual object. Not only do they not see pushing women to sit in the back or prohibiting hearing their singing as debasement but, on the contrary, they are so very certain that by doing this they are honoring her because in this way the religious world expresses more advanced values than those that are acceptable in liberal secular society, which after all is sinking away. As I said I want to argue that every outlook which sees woman as a sexual object, and that is after all the assumption that stands behind the religious laws of modesty, debases by its existence not only those women but also the men! But women pay a dearer price. I also suggest to these men that they do a little mental exercise (as Prof. Amnon Rubinstein suggested in one of the articles which he wrote on this subject). Instead of saying "women sit in the back" we would replace the words with "Jews / blacks / gypsies etc ... sit in the back." Instead of "the voice of Woman is indecent" we would say "the voice of the Jew is indecent." I guess now we are all now wriggling in our chairs, feeling uncomfortable.

I would like to focus more on the humiliation because I think that it is the heart of the matter here and, without going deeply into the matter, let me just say the following:

In the matter of Alice Miller in the Supreme Court, Judge Dorner held that not every violation of equality is humiliating and therefore not every violation of equality violates the right to dignity. For example: a law prohibiting a Knesset member from serving  as a local authority head except for current  incumbents in the current Knesset violates the equality of mayors but does not humiliate the disadvantaged mayors. Conversely, discrimination on the basis of group affiliation is humiliating by its very nature:

At the basis of such discrimination stands the relation of the lower status group to the upper status group which acts outside their differences- biological, racial, religious resulting in inherent features which define their identity, and cannot be changed- and suggests supposedly inferior status. Such discrimination sends a message that members of the group are inferior, and hides within obligatory humiliation towards its victims. [7]

Faithful to this position, Dorner believed that one has to accept Alice Miller's position that she should be accepted for pilot training despite the fact that the military's argument against her joining the course was faithful to the Aristotelian principle of equality. In other words, the army presented a very relevant reason pertaining to the difference between women and men and yet Dorner believed that the policy of locking the gates of the pilots' course to women may be humiliating, even though it does not violate the principle of equality. How can inequality be reasoned if that constitutes humiliation? As stated, without getting down to the roots of the matter, it means only that the problem lies in the nature of reasoning. Is the reasoning relevant, is it convincing or not. The religious reasoning about female difference relies overwhelmingly on essentialist notions, stereotypes about women. One can argue whether women are different from men or how much they are different, as MacKinnon says: "Difference is a nice neutral word and it gives off a whiff of French credibility.

 But firstly, you have to remember that the criterion is again the man by whom difference is measured, and secondly the feeling which results from religious reasoning is that because of that substantial difference (a claim that I do not accept in principle) they are interested in continuing to fix the place of woman in the private home sphere, as one whose mission and purpose are the home and raising children. Such a perception is closely linked to the view of woman as "materialistic", "sexual" and therefore as unworthy to enter the gates of the public sphere - where spiritual matters of paramount concern are  likely to be distracted by her presence, her sexual presence as I have said. The humiliation found in the pro modesty argument is twofold – you are excluded because you are a woman and because you are a woman you are a sexual object in the eyes of the man. As you are a sexual object it is better that you do not to meddle with holy matters (such as public prayer, as mentioned) or matters of spirit, whose place lie in the public sphere. In other words – you are different from us, your job is different, it is just better if you stay at home, or behind the curtain, or the back altogether. Just don't get under our feet.

I am aware that some may argue that nothing can be done about this. "This is the Halakha and we have to submit to it, as religious people. But it is clear that the problem of course is not the Halakha because if there was a desire to reinterpret the law about "a woman's voice," it would have been done long ago. The religious legal mechanisms exist and are acceptable, in Orthodox Judaism as well, to constantly change the face of Halakhic law. For example, the argument of "changed in nature" seems more relevant here and also Rabbi Bigman's analysis shows you can look at the whole issue differently. [8] In other words, it is not Halakhic law itself, but the motivation to actually produce stagnation and especially in relation to issues concerned with women. The question is particularly relevant for the more modern religious community. In this context, it is hard not to wonder why there are rabbis who are not willing to accept at face value the principle of "because of the ways of peace" to allow the treatment of a wounded non-Jew on Shabbat and are not ready to take advantage of varied halakhic tools to allow for greater equality and respect for women in the religious field .But about other issues related to modernity, such as fertilization technology for example, they extract the most advance of rulings. [9]

A very uncomfortable picture emerges by which wherever the religious establishment  has to deal with "others" it can argue strongly that we must submit  ourselves as a sacrifice to the law, but where the  worldview  serves  values that are perceived by it as important, there Halakha can reach  towards modernity or science, almost to the limit of (human) ability.

Should we therefore conclude that modesty is not a value? On the contrary! Modesty is one of the most important values that a society can adopt. It obviously does not concern only the area of proper relationships between the sexes, but since we are talking about this field it should be said that (a kind of) modesty which is not designed just from the male viewpoint and does not perceive the woman as a sexual object has a delicate, difficult, complex task, and I do not think that religious society has succeeded in this any more than liberal secular Western society has. (I say this with pain, as a religious woman). If this had been so, statistics would not point to the phenomena of sexual harassment, pedophilia or rape in the religious population at rates similar to those in the general population.

But as I mentioned, the religious modesty discourse is just the other side of the mirror to the secular undressing discourse. First, I should qualify my words and say that, just as I do not believe that all religious people and even orthodox rabbis "buy" the concept of modesty prevailing in the current discourse of religious society, so not all secular people are happy about the nakedness discourse and lack of modesty that controls the general public arena. There is no doubt that a woman who has been stripped almost completely, especially if completely, becomes a sex object and nothing else. Women who go round exposed to an uncouth extent are demeaned exactly like women who are prevented from singing or who are thrown to the rear of the bus, because the invisible line, which passes like a second thread between the dressed and the naked is an unequivocal statement-from our point of view you are a sex object. However the extreme secular culture, in the name of so-called liberal values of freedom and advancement says" Come on, let's strip off, why not?" "Is it forbidden to enjoy yourself?" And then the religious culture says - let's cover ourselves, so that we will not sin. But both of them sin by objectifying the woman and both I would dare to say, brainwash the woman and attires her in "false consciousness" causing her to co-operate.

I am well aware that talking about "false consciousness” is very problematic in every way, especially for a feminist. There is extreme arrogance involved, there is a lack of respect for the individual and his choices, as if they had not been made with full awareness, and within a Marxist context this is even more serious because the false consciousness was planted in the minds of the governed in order to continue to maximize the control of the upper class. Still, as in any case the term "free choice" is problematic, I dare to jeopardize my soul and argue that both religious women who cooperate with the modesty discourse which excludes them from matters of holiness, excludes  them from making their voices  heard or morning and evening measures the length of their sleeves and their skirts for them and secular women, who are ready to be spread out on any billboard or are prepared for their daughters aged 14 to purse their lips suggestively, in an advertisement for some consumer product, are all of them collaborating with patriarchy. For it is men whose perspective (sexual!) is determining the discourse, which determines the parameters of modesty, as well as of undressing.

What is sad in all this story is that feminism has for many years made this double claim. Actually, on second thoughts, it has been claiming this for many more years about the secular discourse concerning stripping off. Religious feminism has only now made its voice heard

These were strictly secular feminists who tried a daring campaign against the United States pornographic industry. These are secular Israeli feminists who fight against beauty pageants but get booed because they have lost their sense of humor and do not allow others to enjoy life. Secular feminists are those who arrange seminars and protest meetings and countless protest marches against the transformation of women into sexual objects, regardless of the religious world and yet, their ideas do not really trickle down. Why? Maybe because society is still patriarchal even in secular liberal areas and maybe because it is easier to hate obscure religious people and not look critically within. Maybe it is because the phrase "exclusion of women" sounds a little problematic when woman, in all her glory, appears in a bikini on a billboard. In other words, when patriarchy is transparent and its exclusion mechanisms are invisible, it is hard to think that there is something real in the feminist panic.

The point is that feminism, it seems, has some good points here. Its concerns are about true social justice. It is interested in modesty in the deepest, most respectful and mutual sense. It is worth sometimes listening to it in all strata of the population. Both religious and secular.


Dr. Ronit Irshai

The Gender Studies Program, Bar Ilan University

Hartmann Institute, Jerusalem





Address:Beit Hillel, Har Hzofim Campus, Jerusalem , P.O.B. 10502 Jerusalem 91104 ISRAEL, phone: 972-26720321 fax: 972-26730595. email: kolech@kolech.com

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