Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

For a while now I’ve been struggling to figure out what I want to say and formulate a post about this:

And I’m still not completely sure what to say. On the one hand, the video is beautiful, in that special wow, there really could be hope in this world way and terribly sad in the wow, there are so many girls out there living lives that they should not be living way. When I first saw the video I had to watch it a couple of times to actually think about it. And then I was curious, so I looked up the website of The Girl Effect. They have a fact sheet with some interesting and relevant facts, such as the fact that “an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent” and that “out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” The statistics clearly show that there is a gap between what I (and many people in Western society) believe girls deserve and what they are getting.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to change a society, and this video is, to say the least, quite the oversimplification. How can you give a girl independence in a society that is structured around her dependence? How can you make a society pay attention to girls when for thousands of years it has not? The answer: slowly. That’s where my hesitation is–not in the ideas behind The Girl Effect, but in the idea that everything is going to be easy. If you read “Girls Count: An Investment and Global Action Agenda,” you’ll see that the people at the Center for Global Development have some very logical and seemingly important ideas, like increasing access to secondary education for girls, working to get laws passed that fight discrimination against women, and getting girls official identification so that there is an official record of what happens to them.

I read these ideas and immediately said to myself, yes, of course these need to happen. And I still think they need to happen–but sadly, I’m just a little skeptical. NGOs like the World Bank have been for years and continue to build schools for girls, and what happens? Some girls get to go to school; in many cases, thousands upon thousands of girls get to go to school. But there still remain thousands and thousands who don’t. If a law gets passed that encourages equality, a law gets passed–but it is still up to the government, police, and other officials to enforce the law, and many times corruption inhibits that from happening. This is not to say that efforts should not be made–I think they should. However, I think it’s important to remember that even though the small pieces themselves may seem simple to achieve, it is much more difficult to change an entire society. The Western world functions very differently than other cultures, and changing a society’s mores and expectations takes time. It took, and is still taking, time for women to be seen as equal in America, and that time applies in the same way, if not more, when talking about changing foreign cultures and their perceptions of gender equality.

So watch the video, share the video, and talk to people about it. It raises a lot of issues, from the idea of the imposition of Western values onto other cultures to the debate about the efficacy of micro-finance initiatives. And hopefully, slowly, girls across the world will get the opportunities they deserve–from education to not having to have a child at age 14–and be able to live up to their full potential.


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There is a fascinating article in Monday’s New York Times about girls in Afghanistan who are referred to as “bacha posh,” literally translated to mean “dressed up as a boy.” The article describes the unquantified but seemingly (from discussions with Afghans from multiple generations) large number of girls whose families dress them up as boys at a young age and present them to society as boys. The families do it for many reasons, especially shame at not having a male son and the need for a child to be able to work to help support the family. The bacha posh, unlike a regular girl, is allowed to work outside the home and have significantly more freedom in public, and finds it easier to attend school and get an education.

I found the article to be fascinating. I was really surprised by the the idea that Afghanistan, a country that is typically associated with traditional mores and standards, would have so many people willing to engage in what is essentially cross-dressing. But apparently it has been going on for generations—the article mentions a woman in 1900 who dressed up as a man in order to guard a harem, playing a role than neither men nor women were allowed to do.

The article also raises many issues about gender identity: girls raised as boys are usually turned back into girls when they hit puberty, and are then left to struggle between who they are used to being and who they must be. In the article, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents initially proposed that she become a bacha posh explains how she never wants to go back—that nothing in her feels like a girl. It makes me think about the idea of gender perfomance, Judith Butler’s idea that gender is not inherent but rather a creation of society:

Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”

I haven’t studied the concept enough to have a sure opinion about it, but this article certainly points towards the idea that gender can be changed based on society’s expectations of someone; a girl whose parents decided for her that she would be a boy takes on the societal roles of a boy and learns to love playing the role of a boy. If that can happen, which it appears it does, then it would seem that gender could be an arbitrary thing that is separate from a body’s physical elements and function. A few personal stories cannot be taken as definitive, of course, but it is really interesting that these girls continue to want to act like and function as boys even when allowed or forced to return to their lives as girls.

Part of what makes the article so interesting and sad is the way it describes the difficulties that women in general face in Afghanistan, from being beaten by husbands to needing a husband’s explicit permission to run for political office, to the constant social pressure to have a girl and the subsequent exclusion and disappointment at bringing a girl into the world rather than a boy. One of the most poignant things I read about was the fact that many girls wish they could have stayed boys, but could not: when they hit puberty, they have to publicly go back to being a girl, get married, become a wife, and are thrust into the foreign and confusing world of womanhood. I find this quote from the article, a reflection of a bacha posh after having formally gone back to being a woman, to be incredibly sad: “Still, not a day goes by when she does not think back to ‘my best time,’ as she called it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.” It’s sadness lies not just in the woman’s own personal struggle, but in the fact that Afghanistan is a place where women do not want to be women—that there is a place where women clearly feel that their lives would be better as men. That’s something for all of us to think about and remember: that even as feminism in the Western world grows and thrives, there are a lot of women out there without the privileges we have.

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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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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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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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Today is Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It is a day to honor the lives of those who both survived and were murdered during this tragic genocide. Dina and I believe that it is vital to provide a space where the experiences of women in the Holocaust can be honored because, as in all cases of intersectional discrimination, women were put into a position that was different and, some might say, even more grotesque and terrifying than that of male victims.

In my Gender Studies class, we examined Harriet Jacobs’ quote, “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.” This seemingly innocent saying can truly bring about a heated discussion because slavery is one of the worst acts of cruelty and many believe that what is slavery is slavery; what is genocide is genocide and to break it apart will take away the unity of the victims and present a hierarchy of struggle. This is valid, but there is something to say for the varied experiences of women and how they innately, structurally, and socially differ from those of men. I remember being in middle school and utterly obsessed with reading YA Holocaust novels about young women (The Devil’s Arithmetic, Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, you name it), experiences that could just not be translated into a male lexicon. Once sexism is compounded with a genocide on the basis of anti-Semitism and general xenophobia, the oppressors are able to use women as tools of war in ways that a patriarchy does not deem possible for men.

The only attribute of Jews in the Holocaust that could keep them alive was their potential for physical labor. Seen as mules, if they could not work, they were murdered on the spot. This made women incredibly vulnerable because if they were pregnant or recently had children (keep in mind, birth control wasn’t readily available in Nazi Germany so this was a large population of the women brought to the camps), they were deemed incapable of work and sent off to be killed. Not to mention that many of the women “capable of work” were sent to a separate women’s camp at Bergen-Belsen, where they suffered extreme brutalities.

What distinguished women from men most in the Holocaust was their role of motherhood. “Women and children first” does not apply in the case of genocide in case you add “to kill.” At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I was moved most by the children’s memorial, which was also a de facto memorial of the mothers who lost those they birthed and the mothers who died simply for parenting. In my thoroughly-filled stream-of-consciousness Israel journal, I wrote of the memorial,

The most moving moment of the place (Yad Vashem is not just a museum; it is a complex series of multimedia memorials) was the children’s memorial. Hundreds of candles were lit in one room, each commemorating a child murdered as the names of these children, along with their ages (many five years old) rang out. Who were these beings, unfinished souls without bodies, a half-painted canvas a divine artist left unfinished? Did they play hand games in multicolored playgrounds until the giant jungle gym was replaced with walls that little hands clutched in a useless, innocent effort to escape the fatal gas? Did they hang on to their mother’s every word, to the nutrients in her breast until euphemisms were muted by terror and the 200 calories she consumed a day prevented the milk from giving her child any more than parched skin and small, brittle bones?

Some might say it is impossible to separate discrimination, but to reveal the lives of women in the Holocaust does not separate discrimination; it brings to light stories that would otherwise not be told. Read more about women in the Holocaust so that you remember lives that are ignored every day. Remembrance does not only lead to action. It is action.

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The Women of the Wall were (you guessed it) praying at the Western Wall this morning like they do every Rosh Chodesh morning. At least, they were trying to pray; praying is made pretty difficult when rather large plastic chairs are being thrown at you from behind a mechitza that resembles a tent.

The work of the Women of the Wall is considered civil disobedience – a nonviolent fight for the right to pray where women have not been traditionally allowed to pray through doing the very act they are prohibited from doing. This is a historical practice, a form of protest that exists in the exertion of positive rights. It is the practice of the great heroes who have changed the world like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Alice Paul. Now, it is also the practice of Anat Hoffman and all those who pray with her.

But who was really being “disobedient” this morning? Who were the Women of the Wall disobeying? Certainly not their religion, a minority fraction of their government, and then the men on the other side of the wall who somehow think that they have the right to take away the religious entitlements of their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. It seems to me that the Haredi men throwing the chairs were the ones doing the disobeying and it was so far from civil.

These outbreaks are terrifying. They remind us of how far we have to go as Jewish feminists and they remind us of the ridiculous nature of some people who would interrupt their own prayers to throw chairs at women. One would think that if they were that into davenning they wouldn’t want to shave time off of a spiritual practice to hit women.

These outbreaks simultaneously help the movement because they show the irrational cruelty of those who claim they are the opposition and the sanity of the allies who instead of fight for equality practice it and resist the fight for inequality that comes in the form of chairs interrupting prayers.

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