The issue of erasing and silencing women is still an issue and I’m among those trying to raise awareness of it. I admit that there are times when I’m not sure if it will come to anything. Or I’m not paying attention and I miss something. Or I’m just not sure what I can do that will actually work. But I’m not giving up.
However, in the course of my writing about this, I’ve encountered a whole bunch of excuses.
One excuse of the practice itself is that “the men just want to keep their thoughts pure.” My answer is twofold. First, they’re aiming for an impossibly high standard that no one is capable of achieving. They’re only human and some impure thoughts are just going to be there. Second, if they want to do this, then it’s THEIR responsibility to work on that and they have no right to fob it off on us women.
Another excuse is that when we say that erasing women means losing out on positive role models for our children, we don’t need to worry about that because we never had photos of our Imahot and other biblical heroines and we did just fine. Plus, our children have their mothers and grandmothers. My first answer is that we didn’t have photos of our Avot or other male biblical heroes either. My second answer is that we don’t hold our Nashim Tzidkoniot up as role models for nothing. Women like Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis (my personal favorite), Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, and so many others are wonderful examples of Torah and mitzvot, including tzniut. Why should we NOT have them as role models? But when we don’t have the visual representation, we lose out.
Another excuse is just dismissal. We’re just “feminists” who are bellyaching. My answer is that I most definitely am a feminist. It comes with being a Torah Jew. Our Torah never hid our women and neither did our history. Quite the opposite: women who took a stand for Torah and mitzvot became heroines. Our Nashim Tzidkoniot were never invisible. Even if we never reach the ranks of those ladies, none of us deserve to be invisible.
Another excuse, and probably the most used one, is that it’s about tzniut. Women are supposed to not show themselves off. My answer is that there’s a huge difference between showing themselves off vs allowing our unique selves to be seen. There’s NOTHING un-tzniut about the latter especially when the woman is covered appropriately. What is un-tzniut is when women are turned into objects by taking away the personhood shown in our faces. And if the mere sight of a woman is so provocative, that means that she’s a sexual object. There’s nothing tzniut about that. True tzniut is about being seen as a real person.
When it comes to not trying to do anything about it, the most used excuse is “I don’t want to get into a fight.” My answer there is that you don’t have to get into a fight. Not everyone is a writer or speaker at all, let alone on this issue, and that’s OK. Just make clear that you won’t support it. If you regularly purchase publications that don’t use women’s faces, then just stop buying them and let them know why. If you receive a fundraising notice for a group that won’t show the faces of women, just send them a letter about why you won’t be donating to them. If you see a notice about an event featuring male and female presenters but there are only photos of the men and not the women, let them know why you won’t be going or contributing.
Another excuse is “this isn’t really as bad as you make it out to be/you’re making mountains out of molehills.” My answer is to ask if this is what you want for your children. Do you want your daughters to be nothing but objects and not be seen as real people? Do you want them to lose out on parnassah because they can’t use their faces for advertising? Remember that I’m talking about faces, not bodies. Do you want them to see only the anorexically thin and half-dressed women that are on display and use those as role models? Do you want them to lose out on real role models of health and tzniut? Do you want your sons to grow up thinking that they’ll never be mentschen who can control themselves?
An extension of this excuse is “it’s not as though we women are expected to wear burkas.” My answer is that NOW we aren’t but that slippery slope is there. If the men are anxious about having impure thoughts and they try to eliminate them by erasing women’s faces from print, it won’t work and the anxiety won’t go away, so they’ll likely take it further and yes, we may wind up in burkas.
Yet another excuse is “this is about their community, not ours.” My answer here is also twofold. First, if you see someone in danger and there’s something you can do, do you really care if that person is from your community or from a different one? We’re all Jews and we’re supposed to look out for each other. Erasing women is harmful and dangerous in so many ways and we need to do what we can to combat it. Second, many of those publications that don’t use photos of women do have a market among more “modern” Orthodox Jews. Plus, those who support the practice are trying to expand it. I write for a local paper that does use photos of women and they have had to resist pressure to erase women. The fact that they have to resist pressure means that the pressure is there. Plus, it’s reached the point where even a “Modern Orthodox” group can advertise a shiur with a title comparing women to cows (I wish I was kidding about that one but I’m not).
I think the most common excuse is “why can’t we just live and let live?” My answer is that that applies to practices that are different but otherwise harmless. Erasing women is harmful and dangerous for many reasons. It twists and corrupts a beautiful mitzvah and turns it against women. It turns women into sexual objects that are provocative no matter what we do. It deprives us of healthy role models. It erases part of our history (we have enemies trying to do that and we do NOT need to help them). It diminishes a woman’s parnassah by limiting her advertising. It creates a Chillul Hashem by perpetuating the myth that Judaism is sexist/biased against women. It demeans our men and boys by implying that they’re incapable of being mentschen and controlling themselves.
We are constantly told in advertisements that “if you see something, say something.” Now, it’s time to remember that “if you DON’T see something, say something.”