As the mother of two teenage girls, I live out (in real time) the challenges of balancing Halakha, school rules, societal norms, and building self-esteem. As the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), I field numerous calls and sit in round-table discussions — usually with only other female thought leaders — about the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that condition girls, shape their feelings about themselves, how they interact with others, about their place in the Orthodox community and how they move in the world. My follow-up question has always felt rhetorical because to me it is so obvious that people should be asking it. But today the question is no longer rhetorical. I’m asking it out loud.
What. Are. They. Telling. The. Boys.
“They tell us how (not) to sit. They scrutinize what we wear. They stare at our changing bodies.” And what are they telling the boys?
“They tell us not to walk alone at night. They tell us not to drink because we could get raped if we are drunk. They tell us to be aware of our surroundings. They tell us to carry a whistle to scare off a potential attacker.” And what are they telling the boys?
“They tell us how to behave. They tell us not to be too loud or too aggressive. They tell us not to be overconfident.” And what are they telling the boys?
“They tell us to smile. They tell us to act more feminine or ladylike.” And what are they telling the boys?
“They don’t tell us about conscious and unconscious bias or about institutional sexism.” And what aren’t they telling the boys?
These comments, which were shared with me by my daughters, their friends, and others, were made by formal and informal educators, family members, and other adults in influential positions. Most of these messages make me cringe because the responsibility is placed on girls, often to prevent victimization. They also usually happen in gender segregated spaces. Which begs the question: What. Are. They. Telling. The. Boys? (Relatedly, I would also like to know if men are hearing these concerns and asking questions of their own.)
This is an era where dressing in traditional religiously adhering loose-fitting garb that leaves little skin exposed is as much an expression of feminism and empowerment as wearing the bare-minimum, tightest fitting clothing is. We live at a time when traditional gender roles are being deconstructed. We are seeing incremental advances on pay-equity, and are reaching new milestones that shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.
And yet. The problems we face are far from resolved. October is a month that is dedicated to raising awareness about, and putting an end to, domestic violence. The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) exists as a necessary tool to protect women. (Thanks to a generous grant from the OVW, JCADA and JOFA are working together to reach segments of the Jewish community, most notably, those in the Orthodox community in the Greater Washington area.) Today, with rapid succession, women’s bodily autonomy and access to reproductive care are being challenged in legislatures and the judicial system across the United States (while too many of our male Orthodox leadership sit in silence). Thanks to dedicated organizations and individuals, this community is increasingly aware of incidents of get abuse, but have yet to enact widespread solutions that create systemic change. It is important to note that by and large it is women who are leading the charge. Yet men should be demanding what we are teaching and advocating for, too.
When it comes to safety and gender equity, the scales are tipped with women being disadvantaged. Of course, there are women who knowingly and unknowingly uphold patriarchal systems that perpetuate misogynist actions and attitudes. A healthy conversation about safety and gender equity must take place among all members of our community.
Each of us are stakeholders and have a role to play as good citizens in our communities. Each of us need to talk to our schools, our rabbis, our youth groups, and community leaders about the messages — explicit and implicit — that are transmitted to girls AND boys. Ask them to address everyone in the community when they teach about these issues. If we want a just society, if we want to continue advocating for vibrant and equitable Orthodox communities, we need to be working with girls and boys, women and men to talk about safety and respect. When our religious authorities talk about shmirat haguf (safeguarding one’s body), it must be a conversation that encompasses so much more than how we (really, girls and women) present ourselves. It must be about how each of us interact with and safeguard one another. It is about shifting the message that places the onus directly and solely on girls. It is about developing healthy relationships, internalizing the importance of consent, and maintaining safe boundaries while building mutual respect.