The Taliban has regained control of Afghanistan. The images are tough to stomach. We watch from afar, waiting helplessly, knowing that we are about to bear witness to inevitable atrocities that will disproportionately devastate girls and women. We are horrified. We shed tears. And then we take a deep breath, grateful for the privilege to be living in a thriving democracy.
The harsh reality is that there is a war being waged against women, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle; It is rooted in patriarchy, toxic masculinity and in rape culture.
This isn’t only happening in faraway places. Variations of the systemic devaluation, discrimination, even oppression of women are widespread throughout varied cultures and societies; indeed they can too often be found right in our own neighborhoods. As a woman, as a mother and as executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, I am gravely concerned by our acceptance and complacency. Some say that I am an alarmist, but I think I am a realist. The harsh reality is that there is a war being waged against women, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle; It is rooted in patriarchy, toxic masculinity and in rape culture.
Those of us who travel alone (which is to say most of us), every time we are in desolate areas, unlit streets and darkened parking lots, we walk nervously, a little faster, fearful for our physical safety.
I say this not because I think we have it as bad as women who are forced to live under tyrannical regimes. On the contrary, unlike what we fear will almost certainly and imminently be coming down the pike in Afghanistan, in every democracy, women are granted basic human rights and protections. Girls and women can leave their homes unaccompanied, children are mandated to attend school and upon reaching a certain age, may test for a driver’s license. Women can pursue the highest level of education and professions. We leave our homes with the expectation that we will safely return.
But, there are competing truths that mark the reality of countless numbers of women. Even though girls are educated at the same rates as boys in American society, they are socialized to perform at less optimal levels than their male counterparts. Unconscious bias in curricula and classroom management, discrepancies in extracurricular activities and inconsistent application of rules and standards between the sexes pave the way for an inequitable future. Violence against women both in our homes and outside of them continues at terrifyingly high rates.
Those of us who travel alone (which is to say most of us), every time we are in desolate areas, unlit streets and darkened parking lots, we walk nervously, a little faster, fearful for our physical safety. Of course, there are still reinforced professional glass ceilings that, despite all the freedoms and opportunities afforded to women in democracies, seem impossible for women to break. Cultural norms still often result in women earning lower wages, being passed over for advancement and dropping out of the workplace to be primary caregivers for their families.
Because of the way our legal and criminal justice systems currently work, it is often difficult to report physical assault.
Lawmakers in several states have enacted varied legislative restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health care, which, in at least one state, opens the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers. Because of the way our legal and criminal justice systems currently work, it is often difficult to report physical assault. Victims undergo grueling and invasive physical examinations and then have to recount those violent memories to law enforcement who may not handle the situation supportively nor compassionately. The end result inhibits or limits prosecution of violence against women. Fear of retribution reduces the ability to ameliorate gender-based harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
In Israel, where religion plays a more public role, there are additional tactics. Men who hide their misogyny behind their own religiously-based justifications, have been filmed vandalizing property which have pictures of women. Billboards are mounted in neighborhoods and religious sites that prescribe “modest” wear for women. Sex segregation also takes place in cemeteries and funerals.
Israeli law prohibits these actions, but police are slow to maintain the laws they are duty-bound to enforce. Printed publications omit or remove women’s images, including those of prominent leaders and elected officials. When it comes to state-sanctioned discrimination against women, there are elected political parties that do not allow women to hold Knesset (Israeli Parliament) seats. This is separate from the Israeli laws, which are rooted in Jewish law, where issues of personal status (Jewishness, marriage, divorce, adoption and and even death) are controlled by the state and too-often negatively impact women (and by extension, their offspring).
The truth remains that throughout the world, women’s bodies are policed and politicized.
The truth remains that throughout the world, women’s bodies are policed and politicized. Whether it is in the name of American law or Jewish law or any other set of laws or cultural norms, power in the hands of extremists always ends badly for women. To be clear, I am aware that the inequities that I am describing are incomparable to the atrocities that have and will continue to occur in other nations. Unbalanced school curricula are not the same as being banned from school. Being afraid to walk to your car is not the same as being subject to state-sanctioned violence. That said, so long as extremism has a seat at the table, we must demand change and act assertively to ensure our protection.
As for the ever-breaking news, we should play what role we can in lifting up the voices of the women of Afghanistan, in demanding the international community use whatever influence it can muster to protect the rights of women and girls in that troubled country and in ensuring the resettlement of those refugees who have fled the tyranny of the Taliban.
While we lament what is happening “over there” we need to take advantage of our freedoms to address what is happening “over here.” We need to be better advocates for ourselves and educate others as well. As for the ever-breaking news, we should play what role we can in lifting up the voices of the women of Afghanistan, in demanding the international community use whatever influence it can muster to protect the rights of women and girls in that troubled country and in ensuring the resettlement of those refugees who have fled the tyranny of the Taliban. Whether our concern is for women in New York, Jerusalem or Kabul, whether the threats are overt or subtle, whether the oppression be by fiat or by legal, economic or social structures, we must remain committed to ensuring that every woman has the right to live peaceably in accordance with her conscience, to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as men and to do so in communities that enshrine justice, equality and the rule of law for all its inhabitants.
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