Tuesday, May 22, 2012

XOJane's Take on Hasidic Women and Feminism

Today on XOJane, my favorite site for a good ol' fashioned hate-read, there's a first person post from Chaya, a Chassidishe married woman, who writes in the response to the waves of negative press the Orthodox community has received in the wake of the asifa, the gathering of 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field this past Sunday in order to protest the internet. Most notably, women were not allowed to attend the rally and this fact has resulted in charges of misogyny directed at Orthodox Jews.

Chaya is here to tell us that it aint' so. She's a married, Orthodox woman with a degree in Women's Studies (no less) from a large, liberal university. And she's totally happy with her life and would like to disabuse the masses about the perceived misogyny in Orthodox Judaism.

Some of the things that she insists on, I won't quibble with. Yes, I certainly hope that ultra-Orthodox women find their husbands attractive and it's unfair to suggest that they wouldn't. I would never suggest that a hipster male is fundamentally unattractive just because I don't find him appealing so on that point, Chaya, we definitely agree. Attraction is in the eye of the beholder.

But even within that section, there's already a problem. She writes: "In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife." While this is all well and true, the part she left out--that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she's a possession. You see, women are a protected class within Orthodoxy. Yes, you have to treat them right, but they are still subordinate. Don't believe me--read the last six months of articles in the general press about agunot.

Further, Chaya asserts, in her section describing the mikvah as awesome, that it is as a result of these rituals that Orthodox women have a lower rate of cervical cancer. Um, even a cursory google search doesn't bear this out. I mean, yes, they have a lower rate of cervical cancer, but it probably has nothing to do with abstaining from sex during your period. Since most cases of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, it's probably the fact that Orthodox women have fewer sexual partners that is responsible for this statistic. From a paper in the Israel Medical Association Journal that looked at the phenomenon:

However it is extremely difficult to isolate this ritual from other risk factors that are absent in the orthodox group, such as early coitarche, multiple partners, and smoking. A similar low occurrence has been found in other communities with strict sexual conduct that practice endogamy--i.e., marrying within their faith, but do not practice circumcision. The date by Stewart and co-workers also failed to show any significant association between cancer of the cervix and abstinence from intercourse during or after menses in Israeli Jewish women...It should also be mentioned that the great majority of Israeli Jewish women no longer practice niddah yet the incident of cervical cancer among them remains persistently low.
Sounds like the author didn't do her research but simply repeated the propaganda that she and I were taught about how special mikveh is. (It's magic! It protects you from disease!) I'm not arguing that she shouldn't find mikveh meaningful but I can't stand it when people use psuedo-science to justify their religious rituals.


I'm not here to tell Orthodox women how to feel about their situations. I know very well that A LOT of women are more than happy in their roles and lives and are far from meek when it comes to expressing their opinions. But you don't get much leeway in the types of choices you make in that community and it's foolish to say otherwise. If you wish to remain in the Orthodox community, you give up certain options, not based on your abilities but because of your gender. And you might be very happy with the set of options that Jewish law allows you but it's still biology-as-destiny sort of stuff. If you want to be called "Orthodox" then your role, while not as narrow as many people believe, is hardly expansive. It hardly allows for all of the things that you could want to do or might be capable of.

Feminism, to my mind, has never been forcing women to choose roles that connote greater visibility and power, but it's about making those jobs/roles options for women as "natural" seeming as the choice to be a mother and take care of a husband if that's something you want to do. So good for Chaya that she is very happy and well-educated and content within her community. But she's lucky that she hasn't desired to do something that is out of bounds for women because I doubt she would've been nearly as happy in her life if she wanted to do something like be a rabbi or read from the Torah or a million other things.

I'm not saying that equality exists as anything other than an ideal in the secular world. But at least when we confront it, and lately we've been having to do it far too often, we're not cloaking our discussion in this "separate but equal" nonsense.

Again, I get that Chaya and many other women like her are happy in their lives. But don't believe that this satisfaction means that there is anything approaching true gender equality in the ultra-Orthodox community. Yes, they're empowered but only to a point.

14 comments:

George said...

A little education about Agunot: http://kvisit.com/S94DkAQ

Daniel L said...

Well said.

Dvora Meyers said...

Daniel--Thanks. Apologetics--and that's what that XOJane post was--tick me off.

George--oh boy, am I well-versed in agunah. I wrote this not too long ago: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/152512/on-agunah-issue-pressure-rabbis-not-rep/

mom BH said...

Ok- a little education about jewish law- the agunot problem isn't about Rabbis and jewish law - it is about %^$*^$ men who want to keep their former wives from ever remarrying- jewish law has a perfect answer - just secular law won't allow it- jewish law allows a jewish court to beat the &%(&( out of the (^*&%(*& man to get him to give the get. Anyone who says that jewish women are second class citizens haven't been around most women I know - doctors, lawyers, accountants, and the best mommas in the world. we rule the roost -the men just have to give us the money to do so!

April Penn said...

Well said! Nice research!

Chavie said...

Wow! Way to prove your ignorance, Mom BH. You say that the agunot problem is not about Rabbis and Jewish law, and yet the Rabbis are the ones who have the only power to change this reality. Jewish law gives today's Rabbis the ability to twist it around to whatever is necessary in that generation. For example, the Rabbis have the ability to say that since secular law does not allow us to beat up a guy who won't give a get, we'll need to do the equivalent of that which will work in today's day and age. We can't use the age-old methods of beating him up even if secular courts would be okay with it, because thank God we have evolved as a culture and no longer need to physically hurt someone to get results.

Dvora Meyers said...

Thanks Chavie for doing what I was too tired to do yet again. Well said. And Mom BH--as for my Jewish education, well, I spent my entire life in yeshivot, learning from texts and also studied at Drisha. Suffice it say, I'm not exactly ignorant about halacha and its evolutionary process.

Nrob said...

i'm not so sure Chaya meant that obbstaining from sex during the time of nidah or the Mikveh it self is what prevents cancers and other disease...I think what she did mean, is that by checking yourself monthly weather it be to see if you are still bleading, or before mikvah it self, is what makes intercepting diseases early on possable. Because of the period of Nidah and how throughly they check/clean them selves women know their bodies extremely well... any belemish, bump (or any difference at all) is more likely to be cought by the women, rather then at the yearly gynocoligst check up.

Dvora Meyers said...

Nrob--I take issue with your interpretation of Chaya's comments re: cervical cancer. Since when is cervical cancer detectable from self-examination. It isn't. It doesn't manifest with lesions or warts or any of the other hallmarks of STIs. According to National Institutes of Health, it typically has no symptoms. So no matter how well acquainted you are with your genitals, you will not find it on your own. It will be diagnosed by an OB/Gyn. Not by ritual immersion or sticking two fingers up your vagina. And the symptoms, when they do appear, would be recognizable by every woman, not just one who immerses herself. (Believe me, I would notice if there was blood in my vaginal discharge.)


And furthermore, I prefer to keep my arguments to what Chaya actually wrote and what she stated was that Orthodox Jewish women enjoy lower rates of cervical cancer because they don't have sex during and right after their periods. Not that they might be better able to detect infections or cancers, as you suggested, but that they don't get them. And the paper I cited shows that the lower rates are due to other factors, namely fewer sexual partners. Let's restrict our comments to her actual arguments, not what we "imagine" she meant. (Unless you're actually Chaya then by all means, tell us what you meant.) She cited pseudo-scientific reasoning that religious people often use to bolster their claims of their rituals being more "correct" and I debunked her claim.

triathletegal said...

Dvora you are truly my hero! Thank you for being you!

Dvora Meyers said...

Triathletegal--Aw! Thanks for the support!

triathletegal said...

You definitely have my support! It's just another example of why sex ed is sooo important for the religious Jewish community, and that was showing a huge lack of.

meme said...

"that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she's a possession."

Pedantic quibble--a ketubah is not a marriage acquisition contract. That function is satisfied with the ring ceremony itself.

While you could make a marriage acquisition contract in lieu of a ring (say you were on a desert with nothing of value about) that is not what a ketubah is.

Fun fact--the another way of getting married is by having sex with the intent to be married!

meme said...

"that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she's a possession."

Pedantic quibble--a ketubah is not a marriage acquisition contract. That function is satisfied with the ring ceremony itself.

While you could make a marriage acquisition contract in lieu of a ring (say you were on a desert with nothing of value about) that is not what a ketubah is.

Fun fact--the another way of getting married is by having sex with the intent to be married!