Archive for the ‘Gender Roles’ Category

Awesome article on the Greek system and how it infantilizes women and creates an unhealthy attitude towards women on campuses:

As vice president of Theta, I was tasked with figuring out how to get members more involved. We began fall recruitment, only to be told that the fall was only for the boys—we had to wait until the second semester. We planned a social event, only to learn that we had to get permission from our national headquarters to do so—and that we didn’t have access to the funds created by our annual dues, despite our brother fraternities having the ability to plan (and pay) for events at their discretion. Later, when we planned a homecoming party, complete with Bloody Marys, we were told that sororities were bound by a “no-alcohol policy”—something that, again, didn’t apply to the boys. “Why don’t you have a tea party?” our adviser offered, as if we were living in the 1950s.

The upshot was this: For trying to play by the boys’ rules, our sorority chapter was put on probation. Meanwhile, some of our male counterparts were on probation for serious, even criminal offenses like date rape, drug abuse, and hazing, yet they proceeded to party. When I asked our national office why we’d been punished, they spoke in euphemisms, but I understood the message: “Sorry, but you must abide by a different set of rules. This is how it’s always been.”

I sent a letter of complaint, and tried to organize a protest. But while many of my sisters shook their heads at the injustice, few were angry enough to leave the system and go rogue. All of which has led me here—to speak out about a system that gives millions of men and women in this country a backward education. While only 8.5 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. are involved in fraternity and sorority life, fraternities have produced 120 current Forbes 500 CEOs, 48 percent of all presidents, and similar numbers of senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. I wonder what the Greek system has taught some of the most influential people in our country about the differences between men and women? But then I realize I know: Despite all the strides young women have made, we’re not so equal after all.

If a university-approved system present on hundreds of campuses nationwide continues to treat women as second-class citizens, then we should not be surprised when men call women “f–king sluts.” I am not advocating the end of fraternities—Greek life is fun and valuable if done correctly. But if we’re going to change the testosterone-dominated college culture, the Greek system must empower women to take part in campus life with full and equal rights.

via The Daily Beast

What really got to me was the line about a tea party–as if women are expected to behave like children, and obey rules that boys cannot possibly be expected to be held to. I’ve actually had a conversation with a friend of mine at Penn, the school the author went to, about the fact that at least at Penn, it’s considered the norm that fraternities have crazy parties with drinking, and during sorority rush, girls aren’t supposed to even mention alcohol at all. If that’s not an absurd double standard, I don’t know what is.


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My group arrived in Israel yesterday, and now that I’ve rested up I want to write a quick post about my experiences in Poland. Well, not all of them, or even most, because I’m still digesting most of it, but I wanted to write about one experience in particular my friends and I had while in Warsaw.

My group woke up on our first day there and went to pray at the Nozyk synagogue. It’s a beautiful synagogue–the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived world War II. It was used during the war as a stable, but has since been refurbished and is now back to its beautiful origins.
Even so, I wasn’t able to appreciate praying in such a historically significant and meaningful place because I was praying from a floor above the bimah with what a hotel would call an “obstructed view,” to say the least. I felt like all of the praying was going on below me instead of around me, and many of my friends felt the same.

After our experience, we discussed the setting and the isolation and distance it made us feel—we had all struggled with our desire to enjoy the synagogue and appreciate its history. A friend of mine brought up the idea that perhaps because women who lived at the time when the synagogue was constructed a few hundred years ago wanted to pray in such a setting, we should too. However, I struggled with that idea because society has changed significantly since then, and modern feminism has changed the way we look at women’s place in the world–and we can expect a lot more involvement and inclusion. Even so, when she said that I began to feel like I should make a more concerted effort to get past my modern qualms, at least for a short period of time, in order to allow myself to truly become immersed in the synagogue.

The next day, instead of complaining about my lack of view, I tried to picture the synagogue full of men, women, and children celebrating life moments; I still felt that I would not be comfortable praying at the synagogue permanently, but that it was a worthwile place to visit and pray inside.

So, that was one of a million experiences in Poland. More to come from Poland, maybe, or more from Israel.

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A few months ago, I realized that I wanted to start wearing Tallit and Tefillin. Not because I had some grand change in ideology, but because I realized that doing so actually goes along with the ideology I’ve professed to have for quite some time.

I’ve always believed in egalitarianism, the idea that men and women should have the same obligations in regards to Judaism. However, until reading On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis by Rabbi Joel Roth, I hadn’t quite thought about the extent to which that belief should apply to everyday practice, including Mitzvot that are traditionally associated with only men. In his responsum, Rabbi Roth creates a justification for ordaining women as rabbis. In doing so, he discusses the fact that women are traditionally exempt from positive time-bound commandments, such as wearing Tallit (performed in the morning) because performing the Mitzvot would inhibit them from performing their duties at home. Roth brings up the idea that, for a woman who wishes for more to be expected of her than mothering, there could and should be another option: accepting full obligation of all Mitzvot upon herself, including positive time-bound ones. (His discussion of what this would entail and how it would affect people is quite long and nuanced, and worth a read.)

After reading his responsum, I realized that, in truth, I feel obligated to perform all Mitzvot–I see no reason why a male friend of mine should be obligated to perform Mitzvot that I am not. But with this realization came another one–that for years, I’ve been justifying my decision to not wear a Kippah, Tallit, or Tefillin with the word “comfort,” but that doing so is actually quite hypocritical of me. To put it simply: if I were a boy, I’d be wearing them, so why aren’t I?

And so, with that idea in mind, a few weeks ago I decided to try out a Tallit. At my school (or ex-school, as I’m about to graduate), we pray every morning, and so I asked one of our rabbis to teach me the blessing and how to put it on, and I wore it. I was immediately surprised at how comfortable it felt–wrapping myself up in the fabric made me feel warm and homey. It also just felt right–like I was differentiating between my day-to-day clothes and my prayer clothes and setting myself up to focus. That night my father took me to the local Judaica store in order to buy one of my own. We argued for a while about the color scheme, as I wanted to buy the plain blue, white, and silver Tallit that many boys wear at school, and he wanted me to buy a more feminine one. However, after both explaining my belief that if everyone’s obligated we can all wear the same type of Tallit and feeling the silky texture of a slightly more feminine but still simple white and blue Tallit, we settled on a beautiful Tallit that I have worn since that day.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to try Tefillin until yesterday thanks to many snow days and the end of school, but yesterday I woke up early, drove to school, came to Minyan, and was lucky enough to be taught by a peer how to put Tefillin on both my head and my arm. As a teacher had previously explained to me, they were very uncomfortable–they just felt weird. However, as he also explained, I found that weirdness to be very appealing–in his words, it had a kind of “shock effect.” Wearing the Tefillin on my head and my arm made me look and feel like I was not only praying, but like I was doing something overtly different from my normal life. Putting on and taking off Tefillin is somewhat laborious and time consuming–you can’t just immediately walk out into your normal life and move on like you can with a Tallit. I found that differentiation, that conscious effort, to be very powerful, and if I end up praying again on a daily basis (I’m graduating now), I’ll want to buy some and wear them (they’re pretty expensive.)

One of the best things about these two recent experiences was looking around the room and seeing both boys and girls wearing Tallit and Tefillin, comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) praying as a group. Instead of feeling different, I was one of them–obligated and fulfilling my obligation.

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

It’s an exciting, scary, and revolutionary time in Egypt right now. In spite of our opinions on the political implications of the anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak protests, I think we can all appreciate the large amount of Egyptian female revolutionaries with roles in the spotlight. I read an interesting article on this in the New York Times today that described the surprisingly large involvement of women in the protests in Egypt.

In particular, the article talked about a woman named Asmaa Mahfouz. Mahfouz is part of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of young people who use the internet to organize people against Mubarak and his rule. She posted a video online a few weeks ago holding a sign that declared that she would protest against Mubarak, and that in order to have hope, people must take a strong and visible stance. Her video was seen as bold, both for its complete lack of anonymity, something that is not particularly prevalent in online activism (Mahfouz made popular something that Amr Ezz, another founder of the April 6 Movement calls “visual blogging”), and because she was a woman. In Egypt, women traditionally are expected to not take on radical and inflammatory roles, and her doing so was quite the big deal. But both elements of surprise seemed to work out for her–in response to her video, dozens of people posted videos with signs of their own, promising to go out and protest in the massive January 25 protests.

Despite her efforts, men still make up the majority of protesters–something that is not surprising in such a traditional country. However, one thing that I found interesting was this quote from Ezz in the article, explaining why men, perhaps even more than women, were motivated by Mahfouz: “The fact that a woman was able to do this made the men feel challenged, and they wanted to do the same.” According to Ezz, because men were so uncomfortable with seeing a woman in a prominent role, they felt the need to assert their authority once again by dedicating themselves to the movement: essentially, sexism, or at least traditionally repressive gender roles, helped Mahfouz’s message to affect men. The idea seems a little backwards and weird, but if true, has helped Mahfouz’s video to be quite effective.

Even though the protests are majority male, many women are participating. Women march down the streets with men and even lead groups of protesters. The aforementioned article highlights Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old woman who led a group of both men and women in chants against Mubarak. Asked about her role, she responded:

“I am an Egyptian woman, a regular woman rejecting injustice and corruption in my country…women have to go down and participate and demand their rights, or is it going to be the men who fight for our rights?”

I find this quote to be very powerful, and something that women across the world can relate to–even if we’re not dealing with revolution, it’s important to remember that if we don’t speak up for things we believe in, we cannot expect anyone else to. Being a woman does not make us any less affected by national and international issues. I admire the female Egyptian protesters for taking the fate of their country into their own hands, even when it goes against much of what has been expected of them throughout their lives. We can’t be sure that this will affect gender roles after all of the turmoil has passed, as a lot of what happens will depend on what kind of government is in place. However, at least for now, women in Egypt are taking on new, exciting, and important roles, and it’s certainly something to celebrate.

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

This weekend has been very exciting for me–the synagogue that my family belongs to is hosting Sara Hurwitz as a guest speaker. For those of you haven’t heard of her: after studying for seven years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, she was given the title of “maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss (an Orthodox rabbi) in March 2009, and deemed a spiritual and halachic leader. Few people understood that maharat meant spiritual and halachic leader, and so Rabbi Weiss changed her title to rabba. However, the Rabbinic Council of America, a group of mainly modern Orthodox American rabbis, considered expelling Weiss from their group because of the similarities between the word “rabba” and “rabbi,” and so Weiss changed her title back to maharat. And that’s where we stand today—Hurwitz is now the head of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to become spiritual and halachic leaders in their communities. Hurwitz is also a full member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where she teaches, officiates at life cycle events and advises congregants on halachic issues.

You can probably see why I was so excited to meet her.

Last night, after dinner, Rabba (she still refers to herself as a rabba, and I’m certainly not one to object) Hurwitz invited the congregation to join her in a Talmudic case study of Yalta. Who is Yalta, you might ask? Great question–most of the congregation had never even heard of her (we’d only heard of the treaty). Yalta is a woman mentioned in various parts of the Talmud, known as being the wife of Rabbi Nachman, a famous rabbi, as well as the daughter of the exilarch (who is essentially the secular leader of the Jewish community). Hurwitz taught and analyzed with us three stories that mention Yalta, and then led us in discussion of the implications of her role as a female in the Jewish community.

The first source discussed the fact that Yalta was known to be carried on alanki on Shabbat, something that is usually prohibited (as it is seen as work). The source suggested that perhaps she was allowed to do so because she was needed quickly by someone in the community (a known exception to the rule), implying that she played a significant role in the community and had some kind of authority. Not such a small accomplishment for a woman living in Talmudic times.

The second source described a guest, Rabbi Ulla, coming to dinner at Rabbi Nachman’s house and refusing to pass a cup that had been blessed to Yalta after Nachman requested he do so. Instead, he cited a verse saying that “the fruit of a woman’s body is blessed from the fruit of a man’s body”. Enraged, Yalta stormed away from the table and broke four hundred jars of wine in her cellar. Nachman turned to Ulla and asked him, once again, to give her the juice, which he refused, and then she retorted that “gossip comes from pedlars and vermin from rags.” No one was exactly sure what that last line meant. However, the story itself involves some interesting symbolism: the line that Ulla quotes treats women like a vessel that must be blessed (and fertilized) by a man. In breaking four hundred bottles of wine, Yalta (quite dramatically) shows Ulla the necessity of a vessel–without the vessel holding in the wine, nothing can be contained, just as without a woman, man cannot reproduce. Hurwitz acknowledged the excess in Yalta’s actions, but also emphasized the powerful message that she sent.

The final source we discussed was one that I found to be particularly relevant to Hurwitz’s own struggle as a Jewish woman authority. The source discussed an instance where Yalta brought a sample of her menstrual fluids to Rabbi Bar Hana to judge if it was “clean,” meaning that her period was over, or “unclean.” He said that it was unclean, and so she turned to Rabbi Isaac (they were apparently in the Beit Midrash, or house of study), who initially agreed with Rabbi Bar Hana. However, she told Rabbi Isaac that on every other occasion, Rabbi Bar Hana had ruled such blood clean, and that only on that day did he rule in unclean because he had something in his eye, and so Rabbi Isaac finally ruled it clean. The source then goes into a discussion of when you can believe a woman on her menstrual fluids, which is a weird and interesting discussion for another time. What Hurwitz emphasized was that Yalta clearly knew that her blood was clean, but she chose to go to the rabbis anyway to ask if it was clean–and only then did she argue her point. She tried to challenge authority without trying to ignore it–she wanted to bring about change from within the system.

And that, I think, is Hurwitz’s thinly veiled metaphor for herself. In listening and talking to Hurwitz this weekend (she was nice enough to answer a few of my questions after speaking), it became clear to me that while she is very much trying to challenge traditional authority and pave the way for women to take on new and important roles in Orthodox Judaism, she also has a deep and unwavering respect for Orthodox Judaism and its traditional system. I asked her last night if she had ever considered going to a place like the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she would not have to deal with the complaints of the RCA, etc, and she responded that she never had–that she feels at home in the Orthodox world, and that it is important to her to bring about change while working within the framework of the system that is in place. Even though I find myself more comfortable outside the Orthodox realm and within a less traditional sphere, I have a lot of respect for her commitment to being both an Orthodox Jew and a female authority and leader. Learning with her this weekend was great, not just because I discovered Yalta, who was quite the rebel, but also because I had the opportunity to see a room full of Modern Orthodox Jews engaged by an intelligent, educated woman on Halachic issues–a site that I don’t see too often, but that could hopefully become commonplace in the next decade or two.

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This is just a short post to draw your attention to a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York called Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism. It is not necessarily a collection of Jewish feminist art, but rather a collection of feminist art drawn mainly from the Jewish Museum’s collection, and that often deals with feminism within the context of Judaism. I have not (yet) gotten to see the exhibit, since I don’t live in New York, but The New York Times seems to think it’s pretty great–full of “smart, nervy works that grapple with feminism and Judaism, often simultaneously.”

The curator, Daniel Belasco, published a piece in Lilith about the exhibit, lending some insight as to what went into the selection of the included pieces. He talks about his selection of large pieces for their visual power, as well as abstract pieces to challenge the viewer to think and feel. He talks about how he made a point of including male artists’ work in the show, stressing his belief that “for an exhibition to argue about the ‘triumph’ of feminism in art, to only present works by women would undermine the point by showing its effect on half the art world.” It’s an interesting piece to read, even if you don’t see the show, as it touches on the power of painting as a medium in itself as well as a means of empowering feminism. It also has some full-page color pictures of paintings that are featured in the exhibit, if you’re interested.

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I just wanted to share this video, Advice for Young Girls from a Cartoon Princess: The Little Mermaid. It’s incredibly funny and sarcastic, and touches on all the absurd things that Disney princesses are essentially preaching at small children. Now, I personally find Disney movies to be fun and enjoyable–who doesn’t enjoy it when people break out in song? However, I do think it’s interesting/important to think about the messages that Disney movies are actually sending. Even thought about Aladdin’s orientalist undertones? Or the fact that it’s completely forgivable for the male characters to be ugly (the Beast), but never the female ones? Yeah.

Some gems:

“Don’t ever talk to a man until he kisses you on the lips first. Then, as a woman, you’re allowed.”

“If you have a father that loves you, run away from him!”

“Never be comfortable in the body that you’re given. If you don’t like how you look–snip, snip, nothing wrong with that! I’m an ordinary human instead of being a beautiful princess mermaid, and I love that.

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