The Purim story is one of triumph, of women standing up, taking control, and saving the day. So it seems fitting that this year International Woman’s Day falls out just days before Purim. Esther is seen as a feminist symbol for all. After all, she is the woman who put the world before herself, the woman who stood up and was counted.
But hidden in the shadows, far away from the little girls in pink capes and gold plastic crowns declaring through their lisps that they’re dressing up as Queen Esther this year, lies a darker side to the story. The story of the woman who came before, the one didn’t save the world.
We don’t often talk about Vashti, first wife to Achashverosh, the humiliated wife. Because if the pain she suffered at his hands wasn’t enough, we did her further injustice by turning her into an exaggerated caricature of a selfish woman bringing shame upon her husband. We’re taught that she had spots and a tail, that she became hideous, unworthy and unwanted. And then she vanishes as quickly as she came, forgotten for the more glamorous parts of the story, pushed aside for us to excitedly learn about the loud, bold heroism of Esther.
It’s understandable that her story is silenced, banished to obscure discussions far away from the glitz and glamour of Purim. There are more exciting things to talk about than just one more woman punished by a man for not submitting to him. But this International Women’s Day I say it’s time to bring her back to the forefront of the conversation.
If Esther is the symbol of fighting the status quo and succeeding, then Vashti is the symbol of quiet rebellion. Vashti is the millions of us who stumble around in the dark, bumping into walls built with the intention of holding us back. We may never succeed at knocking them down but we chip away at them relentlessly.
In the story of Purim, Vashti’s only crime is saying no to a man in a position of power. It’s a tale as old as time, one that is repeated again, and again, and again. Just last month we saw French actress Adèle Haenel walk out of the César Awards Ceremony after convicted child rapist Roman Polanski won an award. Despite the praise Haenel received for the bold act there was a multitude of criticism for her behaviour, which was seen by some as disrespectful and childish. She was told she may never find work again and has potentially badly damaged her career. Whilst this may seem like one person doing one small thing and losing for it, the bravery of women like Haenel are what lead to the Me Too movement and the eventual conviction of Harvey Weinstein. Small, quiet acts of rebellion leading to changing the status quo forever.
Isn’t that just the story of Vashti evolving through time, the echo of a tiny piece of almost forgotten folklore making itself known in the year 2020?
Feminism isn’t always glamorous and loud. Rebellion doesn’t always topple the empire.
Sometimes it doesn’t have to. The quietest of acts can make the smallest of changes and lay the paving stone for the next woman who might want to try. For every woman who smashes the glass ceiling there are thousands more who tried. But even if we don’t succeed in reaching it, we inch ever closer to it. All we can do is try our best to give the next woman slightly more of a chance, hope that our shout into the dark can be carried on by someone else, that through them it will finally be heard.
Vashti never wanted to topple the empire. Vashti just wanted to be respected by her husband, and ultimately even that was too much. For daring to speak up she paid the price by being erased from history, turned into an obscure story of the woman who grew a tail, a cautionary warning of what happens when we dare to make our voices heard.
But she was more than that, so much more. Without Vashti’s sacrifice Esther would have never risen to power. She would never have become the woman who saved the world, the woman credited with bringing her whole nation away the fate they seemed destined for and with that, changing history. Esther may have been the woman who broke down the walls, but Vashti got a good few swings in there too.
This International Women’s Day we should all try and be more like Vashti. The nearly forgotten story of the woman who dared to say no lives on in all of us, and it is our duty to bring her to the forefront again, to tell her story. No longer should we be telling the story of a shamed woman, but one of a woman who stood up and dared to be counted. The woman of the quiet rebellion.