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Archive for July, 2010

Women, do you have to ask your father/boyfriend/brother/husband/uncle/distant-male-cousin to travel/study/work/go to court? If so, there are others who have to do the same. There are others who want to work with you to allow for independent decision-making. There are others who want you to have these rights. If this is not the case and you are not required BY LAW and by social codes to seek male validation in all walks of life, then please join the fight to have the rights of fellow women recognized as well.

In all the fundamental ways, there is very little that separates us from women across the world. The devastating inequality is due to the little differences – the differences in culture/religion, but even those differences become similarities when we think of how the international community is able to interact in the 21st century. Through social media especially, similarities override differences in a fight to end oppression. In Saudi Arabia, all women (of every age) are required to have permission from male guardians to complete rudimentary tasks that are essential in living a full life. Unfortunately, there are many people who support this patriarchal system of oppression and utter male dominance.

There is a new Facebook page, Women Don’t Need Guardians, that seeks to create a virtual community of people with one thing in common: the desire for independence and universal human rights. Become a fan of this page by clicking the “Like” button in the corner and become an ally because there really is not that much that separates us (Jewish, Muslim, Middle Eastern, American, etc.); there is far more that draws us together.

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Cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude

I got my copy of Ms. Magazine yesterday and in it, and was excited to see an article called “Girls Love Robots, Too,” about a group of girls in San Diego who started their own robotics team and have won honors in national robotics competitions. It talks about how it’s a big thing for girls to have their own team, since men outnumber women in engineering 73 to 27, and emphasizes that the girls are defying the stereotype that only boys like science and math. The story makes engineering look fun: it features photos of smiling girls with a trophy and lab goggle, and discusses how the girls have designed a trash-collecting robot to clean oil from water.

The story struck home with me because tomorrow is the last day of my six-week engineering internship. Out of the eight people in my lab, two (including me) are women. Out of the twenty or thirty high school kids in the internship program, approximately five are women. The gender imbalance has been noticeable from day one, and no matter how many times I have tried to tell myself that it doesn’t bother me, many times it has—not because I’m not used to boys (some of my best friends are male), but because on many occasions I found myself thinking, Dina, what are you doing here?

A lot of that is because no matter what my mother tells me about being smarter than all the boys, society often tells me the opposite. Not directly—there are tons of initiatives right now aimed at getting girls into science—but quietly. From the way that video and computer games and the programming and technical skills that come with them are marketed at boys, to the way that sons are often taught about cars instead of daughters, to the way that when I tell people I want to go into science they automatically assume I want to be a doctor, not an engineer, somehow the feeling has cultivated inside me (and not just me—I’ve had this conversation with a good female friend of mine that also wants to become an engineer) that engineers are supposed to be boys.

I hate that feeling more than anything. I want to be an engineer, and I know that I will be an engineer if I continue to want to—but I know that doing so will be very different for me than for my male peers. A very large part of that is because for most of my life I thought I wanted to be a doctor, or a veterinarian, or some kind of vague profession involving comparative literature, and so now I am in a continuous phase of catching-up in terms of knowledge of science and programming—something that has to do with who I am, not with my gender. But another part is caused by the fact that for my entire childhood no one (besides my mother, of course) even mentioned to me that engineering would be a cool, fun profession for a girl to go into. Until this year, when I had an amazing chemistry teacher who pushed me to explore how much I could do with my love of science, I thought that engineers were in charge of construction sites. Really.

I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to have this internship, but it’s been hard. After the first week I started to hate myself for knowing nothing about programming and being behind everyone else (read: the boys) in literally every form of useful scientific knowledge. But six weeks have gone by, and I’ve learned, and learned how to learn. Although some of the guys my age in the lab started out skeptical, to say the least, about my brainpower and actual capacity to achieve anything, they grew to accept me, help me, and appreciate what I was able to achieve, kind of. However, I can think of multiple occasions when I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was a complete outsider among all of the people my age in the program, hating the way that the boys naturally talked to me differently about the work they were doing because I’m a girl. Not everyone was like that—I met a bunch of guys who treated me like a person, period—but there were a lot. Whenever that happened, I tried to reassure myself that there are amazing women in science today, but struggled, even though my boss (the other woman in my lab), is an incredibly smart and intelligent woman. Because the statistics are grim and most of the women I read about in the newspaper do work in bioengineering and medicine, sometimes it’s hard to convince myself that going into more technical engineering will be a good fit for me as a woman. In a way, the struggle has made me more motivated to prove to myself that I can be a successful woman engineer, and I’m glad for that, kind of. However, I’d much prefer to think of my likely choice of career as a natural one and not have to prove anything to myself.

We need women in science, including engineering, and women need to be in science, including engineering—it’s necessary for society and for womankind. But in order for that to happen, we need to push women towards science, not just by having scholarships for women engineers (although those are great, especially right now when I’m applying to college), but by pushing girls into science, especially technical science, from a young age. Society needs to help make it cool for girls to get programming experience and lab experience so that girls will feel that it is normal to confidently tell people that they are girls who think that engineering will be an amazing way to spend their lives—something that I’m struggling with today, and that girls will continue to struggle with until we do something to change it.

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This Thursday a document called “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” written by a group of three Orthodox rabbis and signed by Orthodox rabbis, educators, mental health professionals, and communal leaders, was released into the blogosphere. It lays out a set of principles on how to address the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world, an issue that Orthodox Judaism is struggling and grappling with today.

Somehow, the document manages to balance a very hard Orthodox stance on homosexuality with an emphasis on the importance of respect for homosexual people. Personally, I think it is important that the first principle is this:

All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

It sets the tone for a set of principles that seems to me to be based around the idea that no matter what one’s view on homosexuality is, homosexuals are people, and all people deserve respect and dignity—an important thing to remember, especially in the Orthodox world, where homophobic attitudes abound and homosexuals struggle for life with the fact that who they are by nature goes against what they have been taught. (A side note, kind of: Rabbi Blau, one of the creators of the document, moderated a panel on the issue of being gay in the Orthodox community at Yeshiva University a couple of years ago.)

But again, the document does take a hard stance: it says that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”; that all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited; that because an “entire congregation must be fully comfortable with having that person serve as its representative,” homosexuals most likely cannot serve in many religious offices; and that Judaism “cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood.” These statements make it clear that the people signing the document are not interested in compromising on the idea that the Torah prohibits homosexual relations.

Even so (and I know I’m going back and forth here, but I think that is the point), many of those very statements are qualified to show the empathy and compassion that the signers want other people to exhibit. For example, immediately after saying that homosexual relations are prohibited it says: “But it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” I think that this line is a very important one because it provides legitimacy to homosexuals and their feelings, something that should not be overlooked, as in many communities homosexuals are pushed towards therapy treatments to try and push them towards becoming heterosexuals. In fact, this document addresses those therapies and affirms homosexual people’s rights to refuse to undergo those treatments, something that I personally find to show compassion and acceptance.

Update (7/26/10): However, there are still many problems with the document: namely, that it seems to be somewhat of an apology for the current Jewish laws rather than a tangible idea for the future. Rather than discussing the biblical prohibition and dealing with it, the statement just takes it as it currently is and apologizes for it. Yes, creating a document like this is a very difficult and precarious thing to do in the Orthodox world, and I do think that this is a step in the right direction by emphasizing sensitivity and caring towards all human beings. However, I wrote this update after thinking about it and realizing that I’m not sure that is enough: I’m not sure that Orthodoxy will ever allow homosexual marriage or condone homosexual relations because of the prohibition in the Torah, but I’m also not sure if not allowing it can continue in the world we live in indefinitely. I think that given the fact that this seems progressive for the Orthodox community, this is definitely a positive document and is definitely a good way to get discussions generated about how the Orthodox community should deal with homosexuality (the growing list of Rabbis is a good sign), but I do not think that this is the final word on the issue.

What do you think? I’m really not sure, in case you couldn’t tell, so I would love to hear comments on this.

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The first step is to put women in positions of leadership, but the second step that is so crucial yet often not taken is to recognize those women for their influence on society, to give them the credit that they have not gotten for centuries. This is an easy step to miss because many people believe that the positions are enough, that the actions they bring are enough to keep unrest at bay. This is not true because the sheer existence of powerful women must be acknowledged so that other women know that such power and leadership is possible.

That is why The Forward put together this list of fifty influential women rabbis. They said,
We decided to select 50 of the most influential women rabbis in America, plus five in Israel, for this inaugural Sisterhood 50 list. These women span generations and the denominational spectrum; they are pulpit rabbis, teachers, academics, pastoral caregivers and organizational leaders. All of them have made it their life’s work to put Jewish values into action — and, as a result, are changing lives in and beyond their communities. This alphabetical list contains a lot of “firsts,” which is evidence of just how much ground there’s been to break in recent years.
Most importantly, to accredit these pioneering women, find out who they are and how they’re transforming Judaism, and spread that knowledge. Do so here.

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This morning my sister sent me this, an article in the Washington Post about students who are in the country illegally and who are publicly declaring that fact to raise awareness for the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act, according to the National Immigration Law Center, would:

Permit certain immigrant students who have grown up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and to eventually obtain permanent status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military; and eliminate a federal provision that penalizes states that provide in-state tuition without regard to immigration status.

What the students are doing is kind of terrifying—they’re putting themselves at risk of getting deported. But many students who were interviewed in the article said that they are tired of living in fear of deportation, and feel that it is important for them to speak out for the sake of the bill. And many people are saying that drawing so much attention to themselves is actually a form of protection against deportation, as it is less likely that they will be shipped off under the watchful eye of the media.

Now, this may not seem to be a particularly feminist or Jewish issue. Quite frankly, I don’t really think it is a feminist issue. But for me, it is easy to see why it is a Jewish issue; the history of Jews in America is one based around immigrants who were allowed to come to this country and work their way up. They took jobs that other people didn’t want or couldn’t do, got an education, and slowly flourished. The story of the Jew in America is the story of the immigrant (of all races and ethnicities) in America, and therefore, by definition, the story of America. In order for America to continue to be the country that it has always been, a country built on the strength and perseverance of immigrants, this country needs to allow these students, people who are trying to and can become useful citizens by joining the army or getting a degree, to do so.

It’s not just Jews who have come here to change their lives; I recently met someone who immigrated to America from India in 2005 who reminded me of how America still is the land of opportunity. When he told me his story of coming here, he glowed about the way that as soon as he came to America he had opportunities to make money and for social mobility that he never had before. He’s currently getting a degree in Nuclear Engineering, works more jobs than anyone I know, and is one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met; I consider him a great asset to America. He’s becoming a citizen next year—other people who are not as lucky deserve the chance to do so, and lawmakers owe it to America to make that happen.

Also, a side note: Amen to Shira’s post, below. Here’s an interesting article on the subject.

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My stepmother just sent me this note from NIF (the New Israel Fund), an organization that is near and dear to her heart. What separates NIF from other US-based groups dealing with Israel is its focus on domestic issues, which are often overlooked in light of Israel’s international political symbolism. Domestic issues all around the world are in large part comprised of issues of women’s rights, which, as we know quite well, intersect with marriage rights.

Check out this release from NIF:

This Sunday, for the second year in a row, NIF is sponsoring a wedding. It’s Tu B’Av, Israel’s Valentine’s Day, and like most Jewish weddings in Israel there will be flowers, dancing and a chuppah. But unlike most weddings in Israel, this one will be a Jewish alternative ceremony, joining the lives of two young people without the assistance or interference of Israel’s Orthodox-only Chief Rabbinate.

In Israel, the only way to have a legally recognized wedding is to have an Orthodox ceremony, and the only way to have an Orthodox ceremony is to meet the ever-harsher requirements of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.  Yulia and Stas, the bride and groom, are choosing a public ceremony in Tel Aviv to help raise awareness about the need for a civil marriage alternative in Israel.

By sundown on Sunday, Yulia and Stas will have had a Jewish wedding, but not one recognized by the laws of the State of Israel. Like many couples who wish to avoid the involvement of the Orthodox rabbinate in their wedding, Yulia and Stas will have to get married outside of Israel in order for their union to be legally recognized in their own country.

The need for a civil wedding option in Israel was driven home dramatically during the last few weeks, as emotions have flared in Israel and throughout the diaspora over the Rotem bill legislation introduced into the Knesset that, if passed, will grant the ultra-Orthodox an iron monopoly on conversion and on who is a Jew.

It’s one thing to get married in the United States, where a marriage does not have to involve religion and where the core issue at hand is denial of same-sex marriages. In Israel, there is another issue that falls under the umbrella of marriage equality: denominational representation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage laws in Israel where there is not an option for a justice of the peace AND there is no such thing as a marriage that is not performed by an Orthodox rabbi in observance of very specific halakha.

The scary part is that many of these ultra-Orthodox rituals and observances go against the beliefs of the majority of the population. A marriage, an act that is supposed to create a union of two identities, ends up contradicting the beliefs of the two people who are united.

So take action now and contact Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to recognize all forms of Judaism as valid.

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I learned about Nahshol (the Hebrew word for “large wave”), the world’s first unit dedicated to combat intelligence missions that is comprised only of women, this week from this article in Ynet. Trained as intelligence gathering combatants in the Israeli Defense forces, the women in the unit undergo basic training as well as a four-month training on the operation of advanced scouting and observation equipment. They are sent out in ambushes based on army intelligence information, and specialize in camouflaging themselves, their weapons, and their surveillance equipment. Their main jobs are to spot enemy forces and to guide IDF troops and gunships to their target. They focus on preventing illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, and smugglers of women from entering into Israel. According to the IDF website, what makes Nahshol different than other intelligence units is that the women gather intelligence from the field, rather than from a command center.

The unit sounds really cool—it was started four years ago as a pilot project, but because it has been so successful it has become a regular part of the IDF. It was hard to find information on Nahshol, and there did not seem to be any kind of explanation as to why an all-female intelligence unit was necessary, as opposed to a co-ed one, and I wonder. But according to the IDF website it’s been successful, and has allowed women to play an important role as a part of the Field Intelligence Corps, so it seems to be a good idea.

The one thing I found weird was the way that the article in Ynet was written—one of the sections in the article was called “Back home we wear high heels,” and the section includes, among other similar quotes, this quote from unit member Gal Bero:

“My nickname here is ‘the cosmetician,'” she says. “There is no way anyone here would see me unkempt.”

I would guess that the author is trying to show how even women who have traditionally male roles, such as combat and intelligence positions, can still be feminine. However, I found that section to be incredibly superfluous—most likely, some of the girls are feminine in the traditional sense, and some of them are not. But being feminine or not being feminine while not on duty really does not matter in terms of how they can perform in the field. Personally, I was put off by that whole section.

I was surprised for similar reasons by this quote:

Beyond the physical and mental difficulties inherent in their mission, female fighters also need to contend with adverse weather conditions, sleepless and showerless nights, and long hours of sitting in lonely ambushes (they’re not allowed to stand) that often bring no results.

Clearly, female fighters do need to contend with unpleasant conditions. But their being female has nothing to do with it—men in similar units have to face those same conditions. I found it weird that the author tried to paint the difficult parts of the Nahshol experience as one that is unique to women, while really what they are going through is an experience that is unique to the army as a whole.

I think that while it is important to have women serving in intelligence and combat units, it is also important to treat those women’s experiences not as womanly experiences, but as military experiences, or Israeli experiences. Doing so allows women to be seen not as a separate part of the IDF but rather as soldiers, just like all other soldiers, who are serving their country.

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