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The harem of violated women in Megillat Esther

A call to action from Ahasuerus's palace to help those who now need to heal from sexual abuse, harassment, or rape
Queen Esther, as painted by Edwin Long. (Zereshk, Wikimedia Commons)
Queen Esther, as painted by Edwin Long. (Zereshk, Wikimedia Commons)

The Rabbis disagree in the Talmud about whether Ahasuerus was a foolish king or a wise king (b. Meg 12a). It is clear to me, though, that when it comes to his treatment of women, Ahasuerus was indisputably wicked.

There are three women in the book of Esther that we all know: Esther, the heroine; Haman’s wife, the evil Zeresh; and Vashti, the first queen, who refuses Ahasuerus’s order to present her beauty in public. But these are not the women I want to write about. Rather, the king has a multitude of other, anonymous victims, extras to the main plot. After he does away with Vashti, Ahasuerus needs a new queen, and so his servants collect all the beautiful maidens from the entire empire. The narrator tells us what became of every single one of these maidens:

When each girl’s turn came to go to King Ahasuerus at the end of the 12 months’ treatment prescribed for women, for that was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics. After that, the girl would go to the king, and whatever she asked for would be given to her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.

She would go in the evening and leave in the morning for a second harem in charge of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the concubines. She would not go again to the king unless the king wanted her, when she would be summoned by name. (Esther 2:12-14)

First, there is an elaborate preparation process: six months in myrrh oil and six months in perfumes. Before her turn with the king, each maiden prepares herself with whatever clothing or jewelry she asks for, and in the evening, she is brought before him. The king sleeps with her, and in the morning, she is transferred to the house of concubines. She never comes before the king again, unless he calls for her.

I have read these verses so many times, but the true meaning of them had never really sunk in before. The king has just emptied his entire empire of all the pretty teenagers of marriageable age. Each one is groomed and perfumed; the king has her for one night, takes away her virginity, and she is locked up in the palace forever. The king’s only basis for deciding whether a young woman suits him is by sleeping with her. Every single one. Once he decides that she is not fit to be queen, she is not released, but now belongs to him forever. He gets to decide if he ever wants to see her, that is, sleep with her, again. The premise for Esther’s selection is not only the objectification of Vashti, but the sexual abuse and exploitation of every single maiden from India to Ethiopia.

Ahasuerus is extravagant. His feast was extravagant, and his sexual abuse is extravagant. But rape and sexual abuse are not only a part of Ahasuerus’s world; unfortunately, they are part of our reality as well. Rape exists in all segments of the population, in developed and developing countries. Ahasuerus is not alone in targeting young maidens. One of my best friends, in 21st century Israel, was raped in her youth. The Torah tells us that being raped is like being murdered, “for just as a man rises and murders his fellow, so too is this” (Deut 22:26). Unlike a murder victim, the rape victim needs to continue living after the assault has technically ended. However, the aftermath of the assault never really ends.

* * *

I met Marva Zohar a little more than 15 years ago. I was just out of high school and Marva was two years younger. We learned together at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. We connected right away, and by the end of the first week of midrasha, we had become close friends. We had so much in common. We loved learning Torah, we loved davening and spirituality, and we were staunch feminists, both navigating what all of that meant to us. Together, we struggled with questions of religious feminism, and humanism, and Torah. And together, we laughed and we sang. But I didn’t realize that while we were struggling together with these religious and intellectual issues, Marva was struggling with another burden too heavy to bear.

I knew that Marva suffered from severe insomnia. It was more severe than anything I’d heard of. What I could not articulate, and could not grasp, was that Marva was suffering from PTSD.

Marva and I were close friends during our year together at midrasha, and we stayed close for several years afterwards. For these formative years of my life, Marva was one of my best friends. I confided in her. She helped me in times of difficulty. We learned together and talked about the big issues of life.

I went on to pursue a career in Talmud, and Marva went on to pursue a career in women’s health. She became a midwife, and worked with Native Americans, and with women in Africa, where she helped establish a feminist birthing center for women scarred from wars, genocide, and domestic violence. She also established a community clinic in Jaffa, where she lived for several years. While doing all of that, she managed to be a social activist and find the time to complete an interdisciplinary BA in biology, humanities, and gender studies, as well as an MFA in creative writing, in all of which she excelled.

Once, when I was 19, Marva told me with much pain and difficulty, that she had been sexually attacked in her youth, but she didn’t say too much more. I tried to console her, but there was no way that I could ease her pain. Several years ago, Marva’s trauma surfaced. We weren’t as close by then, and I only heard about it after the fact, over the past few weeks, through her stories and poems.

At that time, Marva’s insomnia got worse. Her attempts to hurt herself did, too. I cannot even imagine what it must be like living in a body that had been violently attacked, with the constant flashbacks to the trauma itself. After 21 sleepless nights, and several suicide attempts, she sought help from what she thought was a developed country with a good medical system, and infrastructure in place to help people who need it.

First, the women’s crisis hotlines were busy. For three full days. After finally getting through, she found out that because then-president Katsav had just been convicted of rape, a flood of women were seeking help, because they were all having flashbacks. The volunteer gave her some breathing exercises. She was told that a support group might start in half a year. She was put on the waitlist for one year of therapy, but the waiting time itself was one to three years, depending on where one lived. Without other options, Marva checked herself into a psychiatric hospital.

Little did she know that Israeli psychiatric wards are not equipped to care for women who want to heal from the trauma of rape. Most psychiatric wards are coed, and Marva was hospitalized together with men. The ward was not a safe space for her or other women like her. Worse, many of the men hospitalized with them were sex offenders. She tells of many incidents of harassment, assault, and even rape. Marva herself was sexually assaulted by a male physician.

Marva corroborates recent media attention and reports of violent treatment protocols in psychiatric hospitals. She and other patients were tied down for long periods of time, drugged, threatened, and punished with isolation. They were forbidden to talk about the rape or sexual violence that had brought them to the hospital to begin with, and that muzzling caused them additional suffering. Marva’s pain, along with the pain of all the other patients she had come to know, was being silenced.

After suffering rape or sexual violence, after courageously seeking help and being hospitalized, and suffering there all over again, many women, realizing that no place offers the healing they need to overcome what they have suffered, lose hope, and commit suicide. Marva attended funeral after funeral. After the seventh one, she vowed to create a place of healing for women who need it. It would provide the best female psychiatrists and psychologists, the best therapists and the best alternative medicine. It would be a safe space, where women would be able to talk about their traumas, and heal from them. It sounds so basic, yet it does not exist. It is so needed that Marva’s vision goes beyond a safe space where women can heal from rape, to a center for all aspects of women’s health.

The main project of the organization Marva established, “Ohela,” literally, “her tent,” is to create a “Land Where Women Heal.” In Hebrew, the acronym is “Amen” — Admat Marpeh Nashit. She embarked on a fundraising campaign, and has been travelling throughout Israel telling her story and her friends’ stories. The organization currently depends entirely on volunteers.

I think of Marva’s story and her friends’ stories, I read her poems, and I think about all the times that I hitchhiked as a teenager — as so many teenagers do in Israel — and how any one of those times could have ended in disaster. Some were close calls. Many times, I was attacked, or harassed, or solicited, as almost every woman has been. I listen to Marva’s story, and remember the lecture my high school gave, about how to jump out of a moving car and roll on the road, and how to clutch our keys in our fists, as last resorts in the face of danger. I can’t really say that these tips made me feel any safer. I realize that my own safety is a fleeting reality. My future daughters’ safety is, too.

Marva and her friends say that they tried to end their lives not because of the rape itself, but because of the inability to cope on their own with the PTSD. They felt shunned by society, which does not want to hear about their trauma, and has yet to create a place for them to heal from it.

Marva’s organization needs our help, but the truth is that we all need Marva. As women, as people, as a society. We need to stop losing the lives of talented women (and men) who have managed to live through tremendous violence and violation, and on whom the trauma takes its toll.

This Purim, I ask you, when you think of Esther and of Vashti, think also of the multitude of maidens, all gathered to the palace, groomed, violated for one night, and locked up forever in the harem. Think of women and girls today, who were sexually abused, harassed, violated, and need help to heal from their pain and suffering. And I urge you to take part in helping create a place for women to heal.

* * *

The crowdfunding campaignMarva will be travelling to the US and Canada during April and May, and she is seeking volunteers to help with her campaign. If you can help coordinate, organize, or host a benefit event, please contact lwwh.amen@gmail.com


One of Marva’s poems:

The doctor wants to know What trauma/

his eyes move through your body slowly/

the way curious drivers pass by wreckage

on the opposite lane/ you say rape/

he wants to know/ What were you wearing?

you say what you always say/ nothing/

they took off all your clothes/ he points at

the bed/ the blood pressure cuff grabs

your arm/ closing in on your bone/

the thermometer is pushed too deep into your

throat/ What were you wearing?

a pink bathing suit with red strawberries

What were you wearing?

a field of red strawberries/ four plows

about to penetrate the virgin soil/

What were you wearing?/ my human costume/

stripped/ What were you wearing?

the human skin God had sown for me

What were you wearing?

i was a pile of empty clothes on the floor

an eye watching from the peeling

paint in the ceiling

he tells you to lift your shirt/ touches

the cold metal of the stethoscope to your skin/

he does not listen to the beatings of your

heart/ his hand reaches for your breast/ he

is not wearing a glove/ he is checking

your resistance reflex/ you say nothing/

your expression does not change/ the skies

of your eyes are covered in smog

Yedidah Koren is pursuing a PhD in Talmud at Tel Aviv University and is a lecturer at Bar Ilan University.

About the Author
Yedidah Koren is pursuing a PhD in Talmud at Tel Aviv University and is a lecturer at Bar Ilan University.
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