As Jews, we believe that we are continuing important traditions that have been paved for us by our ancestors over thousands of years of history. In many cases, we’re right. However, in some cases, new trends and behaviours emerge, that if unchecked, can quickly and easily slip into the norm. In some cases, like with a style of dress or a turn of phrase, this is harmless. In other cases, not so much.
Increasingly, Jewish publications and organizations are removing women from the picture, quite literally. This is done by creating policies where ladies are not allowed to be included in photographs, by censoring the language we use around female issues, and by redacting places where we would normally find women a’plenty.
You might have noticed this trend, and have your fingers crossed that it’s just a phase, or it isn’t going to happen in your backyard. You might have heard talk about this issue, and have shrugged your shoulders, putting it down to extreme levels of modesty, or thinking that it’s not as big a deal as people are making out. Think again.
Refusing to Print Photos of Women
Some ultra-orthodox publications have policies in place where they will not publish photographs of women. It doesn’t matter how modestly they are dressed, it doesn’t matter how old they are, it’s a blanket rule against all women being photographed for publication. Extreme examples I’ve seen in practice include a London-based newspaper photoshopping out a cardboard cut-out in the background of an all-male line-up to celebrate the opening of a new retail store. Who was the woman in the cut -out, you ask? Mrs Butterworth, everyone’s favourite maple syrup pancake mascot.
You can laugh at these examples, we all do. You can even roll your eyes and say, ‘who cares, just don’t read those magazines’ but this trend has a damaging effect on the whole community. When women are taken out of these publications, and the very image of a woman is somehow seen as harmful to the spirituality of the reader, we’re creating a reality where we’re are not seeing women as part of the community at all, ever.
The photo below shows a family home, a mantlepiece full of joyous family photos that show the lifecycle of a family. The presentation of a child’s first chumash, graduation, a new child… all of these events, and yet not a female face to be seen.
This example shows an engagement announcement in a Jewish newspaper in America. Instead of the bride and groom happily smiling out at the readers, the publication chooses to print a photo of the groom and his future father in law, as if there is something inherently wrong with seeing an engaged couple.
How can we expect our children to be healthy around relationships and marriage, if the very idea of seeing a man and a woman printed next to one another is treated as something immoral or wrong?
Removing any Female Content Whatsoever
For anyone who still feels like the erasure of women in publications is coming from a good (if extreme) place, the following example should have you convinced that we’re talking about a lot more than simple modesty. The photos below show the same advert in two separate magazines, one which felt the need to remove the Playmobil toy character of the woman from the Shabbat table. Would the women be removed from the game itself if it ended up in the homes of the readership? We’re building a reality where boys and girls are not seeing women as an essential and valued part of the home, or even a part of their lives.
Creating Indecency Around Women’s Health
Let’s look at the darker side of this trend, the way that women are spoken to in these magazines and newspapers, not just the way that they are portrayed, or more accurately not portrayed. Here, you can see an advert that is supposed to be alerting women to the importance of checking their breasts for cancer. Unfortunately, many people would never be able to decipher that message from the advert itself.
Women are not lettuce leaves. There is nothing immodest about using the words breast cancer, discussing the warning signs, or speaking openly with girls and women about the health risks that they need to be aware of. And yet, this is unfortunately not a one off event. Some publications won’t use the word breast, so describe breast cancer as “the cancer which pertains to women” despite that being medically inaccurate. If the media refuses to have these conversations, or even use the right language, what will happen if young women aren’t being provided with the right education at home?
Sexualizing Girls in the Name of Modesty
The erasure of women is both harmful and offensive, but the erasure of young girls is far more sinister. What are we saying to children when we refuse to include their photos in magazines, or blur out their faces as soon as they age past toddlerhood? We’re saying that a 3 year old girl cannot be sexual, but a 5 year old can be. We’re telling them that men will be looking at their faces in a lustful way, so it’s better to not include them, or to leave their bodies intact but make sure their faces cannot be recognized. That men will come to sin by their very images, or that there is something wrong with them being seen.
Can you think of one legitimate reason why these photos don’t contain girls faces? This is nothing short of rape culture. It’s victim-blaming before these children can even understand what that means. It’s creating a community where adults are told it’s okay to be turned on by children, and that it’s the girls’ responsibility to make sure you never see their faces, and are never brought towards temptation.
Coming up in the Rear-view Mirror
There is a well-known idea that life imitates art, that we see trends in the media, in film and television, in music and culture before we see them around us. The erasure of women in extreme fringes of Judaism is becoming more mainstream. This isn’t a problem that is confined to the far reaches of ultra-orthodoxy anymore. It’s in the papers that your modern orthodox neighbors are reading and talking about, it’s in the cross-communal synagogue newsletters that come through your door, and in the local Jewish youth center that is trying to be open to everyone.
These ideas and actions aren’t something to be ‘open’ to. Not when they are causing harm to every person in the Jewish community, both emotionally and physically.
One organization is fighting against these issues head on. In its own words, “Chochmat Nashim works towards a healthier Jewish society by raising awareness of damaging trends and policies and presenting possible alternatives. Because Judaism is better when women are heard.” From the chained wife whose husband refuses to give her a get, to the woman with cancer who has never even heard of the disease, Chochmat Nashim is fighting to make a change.
This week, Chochmat Nashim are raising funds for their important work with a crowdfunding campaign, 2 days for people to give as generously as possible. Get involved why don’t you? The time for excuses and crossed fingers are over.