What does it mean to be a strong woman, what does it take? We tell our girls to be strong, to stand up for themselves, but at the same time we are taught to be doves, graceful like swans, to be elegant, delicate. Men are raised with the idea of being strong as well, but they are told to be like lions, wolves, to conquer. So what does it really mean to be a strong and empowered woman?
The role of the Jewish woman is to be the strong backbone of the household, as we’re taught through ׳׳כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה׳׳, the idea that every woman is a princess whose beauty lies within. This phrase was interpreted by the Rambam to mean that a woman should not leave the home more than once a month. But due to societal changes, we now take it to mean that her beauty is to attract her husband, and “within” is to emphasize “within the household.” But how is she meant to be the backbone of anything, if she is not given the same opportunities to speak up? The Torah is full of strong female characters, the daughters of Zelophehad for example, spoke out against injustice and the Torah praises them for it to this day. They came to Moshe demanding that their family legacy should not be thrown away because their father had no sons. They fought for equality, and yet in today’s world our women are told to constantly be quiet, not to raise our voices, that’s unladylike. But be strong. Be empowered. Speak your mind, but not too much because then you come off as annoying.
It seems like all these ideals are so warped, riddled with hypocrisy that we have no idea where to turn. Women are hypersexualized on billboards and magazines, or just completely taken out of the publications all together regardless of how they are presented due to the freshly warped idea of ׳׳שמירת עיניים׳׳, guarding one’s eyes to keep from sin. They always told us that the color red was too provocative, that women should wear more mild, natural colors in their makeup, if any at all. But Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka herself wore red lipstick and she was an icon, the face of modesty within the Jewish world for decades. Women are constantly watched, warned to never step “out of line”, surpass what many call the “boundaries” because they have been taught in a way that it becomes almost like chains. When you force someone into a box and convince them that “this is the only way you will be safe,” it becomes a harsh boundary. But if you teach them the beauty behind the concept, the beauty behind modesty in this case, then it becomes a choice.
Cut to today, a time that is plagued with cases of sexual misconduct and assault. Where a woman is afraid to speak out against the man who attacked her, who stole something from her. Survivors quickly become victims when told to be quiet, shoved aside and berated with the narrative that “it can never be fully the fault of the man,” “it takes two to tango.” Does it mean that when we are being put down, we need to sit aside and allow those in power to belittle our experiences? Does it mean that as women, we will God forbid have to sit aside while the community leaders and Rabbonim put out statements supporting the abuser, saying that because of the concept of not standing in the way of a fellow Jew being able to do proper Teshuva, we as a community are not able to punish him, and in some cases even have to shelter him from prison. Why is it considered acceptable for men to behave this way, and get away with it? It is a tale as old as time that has convinced generations of little girls that if a boy pulls their ponytail on the playground, they should be flattered because it means that the boy likes them. It is because of concepts like these that men like Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman behind a bar, are given six months of jail time and three years probation (and eventually be released from prison three months early). It is as simple as using the defense that he was a “good Christian boy,” who could never have done something so wrong. He was a star athlete, a warrior. It all had to be the fault of the scantily clad girl, because if she dresses in such a way, her morals must be loose. But humor me a moment, how could it be the fault of the girl who was too intoxicated? Who could not consent, let alone fight her attacker. “Well it is not ladylike to drink,” I am sorry ladies and gentlemen, but that is not an excuse.
Let’s go back to the playground concept. A boy pulls a girls hair and the girls are told that they should be flattered. But if the roles are reversed, they are told that they should stay away from the “bad girl,” the “weird one.” They say be proud of your body, be comfortable in your own skin, do not be ashamed. But do not wear anything too tight, because that is just tempting a man, tempting fate. And if you tempt the man, then the avera is your own, because ׳׳ולפני עור, לא תתן מכשול׳׳, “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It is so incredibly far-fetched to be saying that if you break the “norms” of modesty, you are at fault. Men are beings of their own agency, and should be able to have self control, not shun you for walking on the street. It is not like the Torah just simply puts all these highly sexist restraints on women, as we see in Seder Nezakim; ׳׳אדם מועד לעולם׳׳. Men are accountable as well, regardless of the scenario, or at least they should be. An example of this is ׳׳קול אישה׳׳, the concept in which it is the man’s responsibility not to listen to a woman sing. If a woman wants to sing in her own home it is up to the man to leave. But that has been distorted and warped into the now widespread narrative of women needing to put themselves in check in order to make sure they are not being heard by a man. But nonetheless we should be confident, right?
I guess you could say that my “feminist awakening” really began in high school, when one of my best friends began to be very vocal with her opinions on everything from food to politics. It was not until then that I understood all my years of hearing the word “feminist” as a dirty word were so grossly incorrect. Why is “feminist” synonymous for “crazy?” Why were people so up in arms about the idea that women should be paid the same wages for the same labor? If a woman is to disagree with a man about her political opinion, she is called crazy, told that it is “stupidity like that which proves women should not be able to vote in the first place.” As soon as my opinion does not align with that of a man, my intelligence is called into question.They talk about putting women in positions of power, lifting them up. But if a woman wants to become a Rabbanit, to be able to give input on the Halachot pertaining specifically and exclusively to women, they are shamed and shunned in some circles. Within those same circles, curious women are still meant to sit and take notes while the Rabbanim, the men, sit and dictate. The narrative needs to be switched. We are told that women need their own publications, but all Halachic concepts are dedicated to the authors by men. Heaven forbid a woman ever be able to figure out Halachot pertaining to her body on her own, right?
We saw the same pattern in the secular world, with the Women’s Rights Movement and the revolutionary book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” This book was popularized in 1970, and is still considered revolutionary because of its content. It was the first book about women’s health and sexualtiy, composed by women for women. It was first published in the late ‘60’s, and included topics like reproductive rights, a concept that was nearly unheard of back then. It encouraged the move towards rejecting the “standard ideal” of women having to be passive, docile even, while men are to be far more active and aggressive in sexual relationships. But how can there even be room for such inequality in a marriage? Why are we still, today, taught to serve our husbands? Why is it still “man and wife”, a man and his property? Why not a woman who has made the conscious choice to allow someone into her life who she loves and trusts enough to create a future, a life with. Marriage is a partnership between two people who have decided to build a future with one another.
Love is supposed to be a choice, not a contract. King Solomon comprised an entire song for the ׳׳אשת חיל׳׳, the “Woman of Valor.” Every Friday night, a husband sings to his wife a song of praise, to the woman whose value “far exceeds that of gems.” It took me eight years to truly understand what a woman’s role in Judaism should be, that the verses that my teachers had taught me to be oppressive and harsh were truly beautiful. My teachers taught me to be ashamed of my body, hide it behind the curtain of what they called “modesty”, but when I stepped away from their lens I found the beauty in it all. When they said that I needed to mold myself into a mild-mannered, well behaved girl by sitting in silence and being passive in every regard, I believed them. So many still do. They tell us that in order to get a good Shidduch, you need to live your life in a very particular way, and if you don’t then good luck finding anyone. But do not meet anyone on your own, that is just scandalous and wrong. There are so many young women like myself who are being taught about modesty and marriage this way, but not all are lucky enough to have experienced anything outside of this narrative. But still, the system works.
Modesty is an incredible thing. There truly is something so beautiful about being able to choose who you love and why, to make decisions for yourself and to take pride in your body, dress in colors and fabrics that expresses your comfort in your own skin. To see clothing as art, not as restraints. To have confidence in yourself and your own voice. To be curious, and learn more about the topics that fascinate and inspire us. But not all Jewish women are as fortunate to have been raised as I was. Our women are our future, they are the ones building and shaping the next generation of young Jewish minds. And yet, many of our women are discouraged from going to University, receiving any form of education past high school. An old teacher of mine one compared going to University to becoming a “Sheigetz.” For those who are not familiar, the politically correct translation of the word “Sheigetz” is a non-religious young person. She had taken the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, telling one young woman that college was not her particular path, something that was aimed at the few, and tried making it applicable to the many. These were never rules, these are all twisted ideas turned into rules that are creating a lot of damage to our future.
So should I be proud of the woman I am now, and own my narrative? Or should I become the אשת חיל I was trained to be?
Modesty is a difficult thing, a beautifully twisted concept, especially in this day and age. We have a duty to ourselves and our future to raise the next generation of empowered women. Modesty is the woman’s journey, a concept that if taught correctly, can be seen as beautiful rather than restrictive. Take Audrey Hepburn for example, her high collars and full skirts did not make her any less of a beautiful woman, or style icon. There is no shame in being well educated, well dressed, and well spoken. When we jump to levels of excess we lose the beauty behind it, the subtle nuances that make it the artform that it is. So if we expect our women to raise the future generations, we should not be hindering their abilities right out of the gate by warping these fundamental topics when we give them over.