Social media has been rife with the #metoo campaign, where women share their experiences of sexual harassment, demonstrating how widespread sexual harassment of women is. Somewhere across my newsfeed, women’s experiences of being made to feel uncomfortable by mikvah-ladies came up — and were immediately dismissed as being non-sexual.
First of all, if a woman feels sexually violated by the way someone –including another woman — is touching or commenting on her naked body, that is harassment, even if the person doing the touching didn’t mean it as such. The mikvah-lady, acting as the emissary of the male Orthodox rabbinic establishment, holds the power in the room. She stands, fully clothed, with the permission to refuse the naked woman entry to the mikvah, or to declare her mikvah immersion invalid.
Second of all, it is extremely heteronormative (as well as bi erasure) to assume that just because someone Orthodox is married to a man they have no feelings of sexual attraction towards women.
That being said, I think it is a safe assumption that most mikvah-ladies are not sexually objectifying the mivkah visitors — not because I assume they’re straight, but because I assume they’re good people.
Nevertheless, there is a real question about whether the way mikvah is currently practiced forces many Orthodox women to feel violated on a monthly basis. Mikvah laws are predicated on a mistrust of women, a denial of their agency, and an objectification of their body: Mikvahs are only open at night, because women are not trusted to immerse during the day, even though, according to the letter of the law, it is permissible to do so. In a mikvah, the individual woman does not get to decide if her body is barrier-free and ready for immersion, or if her body is properly dunked in the water — instead, it is an emissary of the male rabbinic establishment who must police her body, looking it over to deem it ready for immersion, and then, to declare whether her dunk in the mikvah was valid. The system of demanding that a woman stand naked in front of a stranger once a month, to have her body examined by that stranger, is arguably a form of assault, even if no physical contact occurs, and even if that stranger is a woman.
Furthermore, the laws about making sure there is no barrier between one’s body and the mikvah waters, as they are strictly interpreted and carried out, ask women to objectify their own bodies, in the obsessive scrub and search of every inch, inside and out, lest a fleck of dirt remain. The primary relationship to one’s own body during this process, is as an object that might have dirt that needs to be removed. This objectification is then repeated in the mikvah ritual itself, where another woman relates to your body primarily as an object, which must be classified into the dirty/clean dichotomy when determining whether immersion is permitted, and then, into the impure/pure dichotomy when determining whether the immersion is valid.
Mikvah can be difficult for women with healthy body images and healthy marriages. For women with body image issues, or who have mixed feelings about the sex that often comes after mikvah, the experience can be even worse. Furthermore, for women who suffer from the trauma of sexual assault, being forced to be naked before a stranger can be triggering.
Perhaps the moment has come for Orthodox society to do serious introspection, not about the laws of mikvah, but about how those laws are carried out, as well as how much of current practice is chumrah and how much is requirement.
So I will say now. Me too, when it comes to mikvah:
Me too, when sometimes I cry for half an hour after my pre-mikvah bath; me too, when I have looked at my feet and thought, “Good enough for me, but let me clean some more in case the mikvah lady turns me away.”; me too, for getting comments about my dandruff and having a towel forcibly put on my head when I say the bracha; me too for being pressured into shaking mikvah ladies’ hands to give them a segulah; me too for waiting half an hour in a locked bathroom, buzzing constantly to be let out, having no idea what was going on, and wondering if they’d call the police if I walked into the mikvah lobby in a towel.
One of my favorite thinkers, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, saw morality and religion as inherent contradictions: The moral person acts according to her will, based on her own ethical values. The religious person is bound by the will of God, even when that violates her own ethical values. Every month, I feel I am participating in a system that violates my values, by immersing in mikvah — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Because I believe that God is truly “Merciful and Gracious…Full of Kindness”, I believe that the laws He gave us are the same – if we are willing to look hard enough. But in order to do so, first, we must take women’s experiences seriously: That’s a large part of what the #metoo campaign is about.