Recently, there was a discussion on my social media feed about publications that include women’s photos. In that thread, someone suggested that we just allow other communities to have publications that suit their readers while we have our own publications that suit our readers. One of my answers was that “if that publication was promoting cigarette smoking as something good, would you want that in your home?” I continued by listing a few of the reasons that erasing women is so harmful and dangerous.
I realized later that the comparison is rather apt for two reasons.
First, both cigarette smoking and erasing women are harmful and dangerous, albeit in different ways.
Cigarette smoking is terrible for the lungs and leaves the smoker at serious risk for emphysema, lung cancer, and throat cancer. Not to mention breathing problems like asthma. And it’s bad for the people around the smoker- secondhand smoke is just as risky. On a psychological level, it’s bad for smokers because they have to leave rooms and buildings to smoke which cuts them off, however temporarily, from their social system.
Erasing women and girls is dangerous in different ways that are no less harmful. This practice turns women and girls into sexual objects. It infantilizes men and boys by teaching them that they cannot be mentschen and control themselves. It erases part of our history. It diminishes a woman’s parnassah when she isn’t allowed to use her face to advertise her professional services. It makes a Chillul Hashem portraying Judaism as a religion that treats women like objects based on a practice that has no basis in Halacha or Mesorah.
Even on the level of vanity, there’s something dangerous. Cigarette smoking is very bad for the face. It leads to stained teeth, wrinkles and lines (especially around the mouth), and a gray “smoker’s cast” to the skin. Many women are self-conscious about their faces and bodies in general but thanks to the erasing of women, we don’t have visual role models of healthy women. Instead, we have the over-sexualized images of women from the secular world. The tobacco industry hasn’t helped there either- they would often use these over-sexualized images in their advertising.
Of course there are those who point out that while smoking can lead to illnesses that can literally kill the smoker, erasing women doesn’t kill anyone. Actually, that might not be true. When women are turned into objects, it allows for abuses that can be fatal. According to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky z”tl, one of the important things to remember when trying to prevent or stop abuse is dignity. If a husband sees his wife as a real human being created B’Tzelem Elokim, he’s less likely to abuse her in any way. There’s no dignity in an object so there’s nothing to prevent abuse.
Second, there’s the insidiousness of both.
Cigarette smoking rarely has a bad effect right away. If a person smokes once and then doesn’t do it again, it’s likely that there won’t be any damage. But over time, the smaller damages add up and the medical problems start to show. The smoker may not even realize that there are problems until it’s already too late.
Smoking is just as insidious in general society. We didn’t really start to know about the dangers of smoking until the 20th century and even then it took a while. Cigarette companies used to have commercials on TV and only later did they have to stop that. And for a long time later, they still had those magazine ads and billboards (many featuring those over-sexualized images of women) and only later did they start to include those Surgeon General’s warnings.
Erasing women is just as insidious. It wasn’t even around until the 1990’s and it crept in slowly but surely. Many of us (myself included) were not paying attention to it and did not start to notice until someone else pointed it out. By the time we started noticing, that practice had not only started to spread beyond the Charedi communities but pressure was building on many Modern Orthodox publications to accept it.
Unfortunately, there are still those who see erasing women as simply a different practice that deserves tolerance if not respect. And while these people may not like the erasing of women, they won’t protest it. To them it’s about “live and let live.” To that, I answer that I stand by what I said before- if this was about cigarette smoking, would you accept that as a different practice/point of view that deserves respect?
As Jews, we have a responsibility to NOT tolerate, let alone respect, any kind of unhealthy behavior. If any of our publications were to promote smoking, we wouldn’t want that in our homes or communities. And if the publications are allowing women and girls to be erased, we don’t want that in our homes or communities either.