The frum community’s problem with women

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I have grown up and been educated in the Orthodox, and predominantly Chareidi communities since I was a child. These are known to the people in them as the frum community, from the Yiddish word pious. As an adult, I have begun to notice a very problematic trend in this community.

The frum community has a problem with women. It claims to be fair and just to women, with women being treated as appropriate in the 21st century, with some apologists claiming that the frum community treats women better than the secular world. But the root issue that the frum community has with women is that it blames women for everything.

When looking to understand a community such as the frum one, its rabbis and publications are a good way to have one’s fingers on the pulse of the community. Mishpacha Magazine is one of the most widely read magazines in the Chareidi community, both in Israel and the rest of the world. The policies and views espoused in this magazine reflect the general views of the community and its gedolim (rabbinic leaders). Mishpacha magazine has been called out repeatedly for its problematic views and willingness to shove the community’s dirty laundry under the rug. But it is probably most well known for its refusal to print pictures of women or even girls above the age of 6.

When asked why Mishpacha magazine doesn’t print faces of women, usually claims are made that it is not tznius (modest) to show pictures of women. However, this doesn’t hold up to halachic requirements, as tznius rules do not require hiding women’s faces- women are allowed according to all standards of halacha, no matter how strict, to show our faces and hands in public. We do not wear a niqab or burka, and rabbanim have come out against the small extremist sects in the Chareidi community who have decided to hide women like that.

Discussions about why women’s and girls’ faces are not allowed in Mishpacha and other frum magazines such as Bina, Ami, and more, are examples of the problem that this piece will expound on. Answers given range slightly, but have the same theme. Men might see these pictures of women and get aroused. Even the women’s sections and kids’ sections of the aforementioned magazines are free from women’s pictures because of the chance that a man might read such a magazine, see a picture of a woman, and get aroused.

If a man gets aroused by a woman’s face, or by a female child above the age of 6, there is a problem with that. Faces of women should not be sexualized, and especially not faces of children. For those that consider men’s arousal to be halachically problematic, they are conveniently taking any responsibility away from the men and placing the blame squarely on women and girls. If a man decides that his piety involves avoiding seeing even the faces of women and girls, it is his responsibility to avoid looking at pictures of them. But instead, the community tells women that their faces are the problem, not these men’s decisions to look at their pictures.

This is de facto stance of the frum community. Women and girls are taught that the halachos of tznius, modest women’s dress, are in existence so that they can protect men from sin and improper thoughts. Again, women being responsible for men. Married women are told that they must be available to have sex with their husbands whenever their husbands desire it, because if not, their husbands may please themselves sexually, considered a sin in frum circles, or they may cheat and look for sexual fulfillment elsewhere. Again, placing the blame solely on women. A woman who does not have sex with her husband is called a moredet (rebellious wife) in halacha, and is allowed to be divorced without further cause and without the compensation required in the ketuba (not that women ever get it, but that’s a topic for another post). We have a theme here- women are held responsible for everything a man does.

Women are also given many messages that they solely are responsible for their marriage, for shalom bayit (marital harmony), and for their husband’s mitzva observance. They are told the following messages throughout their Jewish education, both as children and as adults. “Chochmas nashim bonsa beisa vi’iveles biyadeha teharsena.” “The wisdom of women builds a home and a wicked woman with her hands destroys it.” Men’s responsibility here? Absent. “Nashim bimeh zachyan?” “Where does a woman get her heavenly rewards from? By sending her husband and children off to learn Torah.” Again, she’s the one responsible for their learning Torah or not, and even worse, her reward is supposedly based on his actions only. A double punch there. “Eizo hi isha kisheira, ha’osa ritzon baala”. “Who is a kosher woman? The one who does the will of her husband.”  Women are told that their dressing untznius is the reason for the ills of the world. They’re told everything is their fault.

With these messages being inculcated in our women from when they are children, is it a wonder that frum women feel entirely responsible for everything that happens in their marriage? They become easy prey for classes and books telling them that they are solely responsible for the state of their marriage. Any problems with the marriage are ones that they, alone, need to fix. Books like Laura Doyle’s The Surrendered Wife that teach women that they can improve their marriage only by changing their own actions are really popular in the frum community- I know women that have a “chavrusa” to learn this book together and implement it in their lives. Popular authors Sara Yoheved Rigler’s Kesher Wive’s Club and Chany Rosengarten’s Wife Heal Your Life courses, are very popular in the frum community, and they are based off of the same ideas as the Surrendered Wife, that a woman, by changing herself, can change a bad marriage into a good one, and according to Rosengarten, even stop her husband from abusing her. Where is the man’s responsibility in their marriage? It’s absent in this discussion.

The frum community likes to talk about insulating from the secular community and secular ideas, but certain ideas from the secular community, such as rape culture and victim-blaming and toxic masculinity are just as rife in the chareidi community, and they are often taught as “religious values”. This blaming women for everything is just an extension of rape culture.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Mishpacha Magazine two weeks ago published an article that completely twisted and made up false statistics about abuse in marriage. It was written with an agenda to show that men are the ones being hurt by abuse in the frum community, with ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims that men are more likely to be the recipient of physical abuse than women — “16 percent of the women reported being the victims of physical abuse, compared with 22 percent of men.”

Organizations that work with victims of domestic violence and many concerned individuals such as myself wrote multiple and often detailed letters to Mishpacha, with reliable and reputable statistics to counter the false claims from the article, including mine that not only included multiple statistics on domestic violence, showing that women are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men, but also quotes from experts on abuse that mention how abusive men very often blame their wives for the husbands’ abuse. I also included multiple stories of women I know who were abused whose husbands claimed that they, in fact, were the abused ones.

Mishpacha Magazine, thus far, published none of these informative and educational letters. Instead, as of today, two weeks later, they published two mostly parve and slightly critical short letters and included a few long letters praising them for their article, encouraging them to write more on this topic.

While I and many others are enraged about this egregious omission in the magazine, which makes it seem that few people objected to the article, making it seem that the frum community has no problem with the stance in the article, none of us should be surprised. This is par for the course with the magazine’s stance on erasing women’s faces because of what men might do if they saw them, and the frum community’s stance, in general, that women are the ones to blame for nearly everything.

The frum community has a problem with women. A problem of putting all responsibility and blame on women. A problem in which the ills of the world are solely the fault of the women. These issues are rampant and need to be addressed. The women and children of the frum community deserve better than this.

About the Author
Adara Peskin is a non conformist chareidi feminist single mother of 4 living in Kochav Yaakov, activist for mental health awareness, blogger at PennilessParenting.com about living a life with mindful spending, and foraging instructor, attempting to make a kiddush Hashem every day via her interactions with others.
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