Whenever I or anyone else writes about the issue of erasing women from view in Jewish publications, there’s one question that comes up very frequently.
“What if the women are making their own choice to not be in photos?”
That’s a good question and an important one.
Costume designer and fashion stylist David Zyla wrote about a bunch of different style types/personalities and one of them is a type that does best behind the scenes and doesn’t like being thrust into the limelight. There are women whose personalities are like that. I’m definitely not like that so it’s hard for me to relate but these women are very real and the preference to stay behind the scenes is a valid one.
The answer to this question is twofold.
First, context counts.
Let’s say that there’s a news story about an important project going on in a yeshiva for girls. Two of the students who are active participants are also shy and prefer to stay off-camera. Again, that preference is a valid one and not to be dismissed. If the story were to appear in a Jewish publication that has a policy to not use photos of women or girls, then we have to make an educated guess that the publication and its editors made the choice and not the girls. But if the story were to appear in a publication that does use photos of women, then we would see photos of the other students and any adults involved and then, since we’re not seeing photos of those two students, we can make an educated guess that those students made their own choice to stay off-camera.
Second, information counts.
Whenever we make choices and decisions in our lives, we always try to get the best and most accurate information in order to make an informed decision. Sometimes we make a choice based on our gut instinct but according to safety expert Gavin de Becker, our gut instinct, or what he calls intuition, uses information. The only difference is that our gut instinct doesn’t try to explain it in our heads. But if the information we’re getting is incomplete and/or inaccurate, then it can lead us to make choices that are wrong for us.
When it comes to this issue and to the whole mitzvah and concept of tzniut, a lot of women are being fed a lot of misinformation. They’re told that it’s un-tzniut for even a woman’s face to be seen but they’re not shown the sources. Yes, there are sources that say that a man is not allowed to gaze or stare at a woman but that’s HIS responsibility, not hers. And yes, there are sources about women covering up and not wearing revealing clothes but that’s a far cry from hiding our faces.
What’s more, erasing women is not even tzniut-appropriate in and of itself. The concept is defended by saying that the woman’s face might provoke impure thoughts in the men. In other words, the woman is a sexual object. There’s NOTHING tzniut about a woman being a sexual object. Quite the opposite- the goal of tzniut is for men and women to see each other as real human beings created B’Tzelem Elokim and not as objects.
One other excuse given is that erasing women is a decision made by rabbis many years ago. There are two problems with this. One is that no one can name the rabbis who made this decision. And no matter how controversial some rabbis are, they know that they won’t have a following or even be taken seriously if they don’t put their names to their decisions. The other is that erasing women is a very recent thing- it didn’t start until the mid-1990’s. Before then, Jewish publications routinely used photos of women. Were those publications violating Jewish law before then?
What all of this means is that we have to ask whether or not the women are making an informed choice to stay off-camera. If they’re choosing to stay off-camera because their personalities are more suited to that, then that’s a valid choice. But if they’re choosing to stay off-camera because they were told that it’s un-tzniut to have their faces seen, then that’s a problem.
When we write and raise awareness about the issue of erasing women, we agree that no woman should be forced to be seen. But neither should she be forced to stay unseen. Or unheard.
The choice needs to be hers alone.