When a picture of the rally in Paris against extremism appeared in the newspaper HaMevaser, something was missing. The women! They had been Photoshopped out of the picture. “It is rather embarrassing when the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our own extremists take the stage,” wrote Allison Kaplan Sommer in Haaretz. But keeping women out of the public eye is nothing new in the Haredi Jewish world.
Haredi Judaism emerged in response to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) which had given birth to the Reform movement.Haredi newspapers are known to have editorial policies that prohibit the publishing of photos that show women since it considers the female body to be immodest. In 2011, New York-based newspaper Di Tzeitung altered a picture to remove then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of a famous shot of White House leaders watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In the Israeli political parties that represent the Haredi sect, women are explicitly banned from running for Knesset. Ruth Kolian is trying to change that. One of the three founders of the new Haredi women’s Knesset party B’Zechutan, she is working for representation.
“There are a number of different populations who have representation in the Knesset. But Haredi women have no representation at all and the male representatives do not address the needs and concerns of Haredi women,” Kolian noted.
In November, the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women held a hearing to discuss disturbing findings about women’s health in the Haredi sect: a thirty percent higher rate of breast cancer mortality and one of the lowest levels of life expectancy in the country. “Haredi women are ranked eighth in Israel for life expectancy, while Haredi men are ranked second,” said Kolian. “Not one of the Haredi MKs (Members of the Knesset) showed up to the hearing.”
And it’s not just in Israel. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine of January 22, 2015 featured an “orthodox Jewish sex counselor.” Bat Sheva Marcus works with Haredi women whose minds have been kept free of information and infused with fear. “They have zero connection to pleasure,” said Marcus “have been given little if any instruction and are often repelled by the idea of intimacy.” Yet, they embrace the idea that after marriage sex is a blessing as well as a religous responsibility. This therapy has been approved by some rabbis so that these women can “multiply and be fruitful,” not for their pleasure.
In many ways, the lives of the Haredi women seem to be in the dark ages. But while it’s not our job to fight for what we see as inequity in a sector of society we don’t belong to, we can support the women from within that community who are fighting.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004