Are Orthodox women oppressed like Iranian woman?

Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman, was arrested on September 15th. She was 22 years old and detained in Tehran while on vacation for not fully covering her hair. Let me make that clear- she was covering her hair but it wasn’t fully covered, so she was arrested by the “morality police”. There is no debate that the morality police are not police in the way we understand that word, and most certainly another way of saying the Islamic Republic. They beat her terribly and the next day, she died in the hospital (still in their custody). To say she died is not even an accurate statement because in truth, she was killed. In case you have not been following the news, her death ignited a movement as Iranian women across the country began to cut their hair in public, removing their hijabs and burning them while yelling for the removal of Iranian religious dictatorship and calling death to their dictator.

This movement might be, dare I predict, the beginning of the end of oppression for Iranian women. I hope, I pray. These women, from the age of 7, must have their heads always covered, even when they sleep. They are restricted from all angles of life; they can’t sing publicly, they can’t dance, they can’t play sports, ride bicycles and the only way to be accepted (best case scenario) and not get arrested (worst case scenario) is by abiding to the Islamic laws.  If you want to know more about this, there are plenty of incredible pieces to read out there (and Podcasts to listen to), but I am not here today to teach you about what is going on in Iran. I am here to ask a question.

As I am crying for these women, and for Mahsa Amini and so many others like her, I can’t help but think: Hold on! I too am told to cover my hair, not to sing/dance publicly, told what I can and can’t eat, when I can and can’t be with my husband, what to wear, how to speak, how to act and my life is also “dictated” by law. Are my religious authorities not a regime of sorts? Am I also oppressed? How are orthodox Jewish women any different than these women in Iran?

Obviously, the major difference is they are forced, and we are not. But is this true? I couldn’t stop thinking about this point: Are our lives, as orthodox women, dictated and forced by the Rabbis or do we have choices? Are we required to do what is preached by orthodox leaders with consequence if we do not obey or is it all in my hands what I do and don’t do?

Recently, I have been in an ongoing discussion with two friends about whether or not Jewish Orthodoxy is restricting its women and dictating their lives. One friend is pondering whether she believes that we have been brought up in a “cult” and are not given choices. We are told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and if we do not listen, we are kicked out of schools, we lose the respect of our neighbors and our kids don’t get good marriage matches, otherwise known as shiduchim.  I happen to think “dictating” is a very strong word. I think, if I dare say, there are forced “regimes” of thought within Judaism (dare I say Neturi Karta? Berland supporters?) However, I don’t think the communities of Monsey, Lakewood, Bnei Braq and Meah Shearim are being dictated and threatened under forced religion. I do think they are partially damaged communities in some sense (over time, by their own people), and perhaps mere reflections of what the core and root of this religion once was and what was intended to be. I believe Torah and Judaism is a religion, a way of life and it takes on many forms and cultures…and it’s up to each person to decide if it’s for them. 

The biggest mistake that orthodox Jews make is one size fits all and that every flavor and color of Judaism thinks their way is the right way or the only way. The most orthodox people in the world are ones that hold each Jew as gold no matter their yarmulka or if they are even wearing one. No matter their kissai rosh (married women’s head covering) or even if they are wearing one. The orthodox community is too magnanimous, too established, too respected, and too cherished to be called a cult or dictatorship or regime forcing its people to act, talk, dress, and be a certain way. Jewish orthodoxy is a group of people who follow their ancestors, a book of law they believe is divinely written and they feel attached to tradition, habit, and comfort. Even if they are naïve and sheltered, anyone and everyone has the ability to go on the internet today (even if they have to sneak it) and see what’s out there and choose a different path. I truly believe each person must do what is right for them. Like shoes or clothes, it needs to be the right size and fit so the person feels comfortable. But to say that orthodox Judaism is a totalitarian authority where there are consequences if one does not follow its ways (in this world at least), seems like it stems from anger and hurt feelings by someone’s personal narrative. Go ahead, say all the things you hate and despise about the Jewish orthodox world, but every person has a choice. And if someone says, “You are wrong, I don’t have a choice” then my response is enough people who left orthodoxy have proven him/her wrong. Everyone has a choice, and anyone can choose to live their life how they choose. No one has to live the same life of their upbringing, parent’s education, or community. But every person has to be the best person they can be in the world and either orthodox Jewry is their size, and it fits them, or not. And both are ok. People just need to learn to live and let live.

After following and listening to Masih Alinejad, a journalist and activist for Iranian women who spends her days and nights fighting against the Iranian regime and fighting for freedom of her people, the women of Iran, I have come to a clear discrepancy between these women and Jewish orthodox women. It might seem obvious to you, but for me, I had to walk through this question after listening to her speak. These women are told they must or else, and that it is not a choice. As much as people might believe (inside the Jewish orthodox community and outside) that orthodox women are oppressed and dictated how to dress with consequences if they don’t abide, the bottom line is these women (at least from a certain independent age) can choose their lifestyle. It is up to the community not to shun those who choose differently. And it is up to the parents, teachers, rabbis and communities not to turn their backs on those who choose to “take off their hijab”- because true Judaism is love for every Jew. 

There are those that will argue that within the ultra-religious communities, the pressure to abide by community standards is so strong (with community consequences, like being outcasted etc.) that it is a kind of dictatorship. I hear these people. Whether they are speaking from experience of judgment, they have a point. I am sure there are stories of Chasidic women being punished, publicly embarrassed and ashamed by their communities for not following the laws. There are certainly people who left their communities knowing that they could never go home again. But at the end of the day- orthodox women are not arrested, jailed, tortured and killed for showing some hair. 

My conclusion: we, as orthodox Jewish women, are in a radically different situation than these Iranian women- even if we feel there are common denominators.

My heart goes out to these women, and I pray for a better future in Iran. 

About the Author
Sarah Bechor is a freelance writer in addition to her full-time job at United Hatzalah. She made Aliyah in 2007 and now lives with her husband and children in Gush Etzion.