Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Women - and Charedi Publications

Hamodia Publisher Ruth Lichtenstein (Columbia Journalism Review)
I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton. For a variety of reasons unrelated to this post. But there one positive thing that may come out of the next Presidential election if she is elected. Charedi publications that refuse to publish pictures of women may have to start doing so.

This may seem surprising if one considers their stated reasons for that policy. They consider images of women to have the potential to arouse erotic thoughts in men. Even if they are dressed by the strictest standards of modesty in their clothing.  Here is how Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein explains it in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review
When I asked her about women, she said excluding them in photos was a matter of modesty. “Purity and modesty are natural to women, not public exposure,” she said. “It is unfortunate that modern times deny women this precious quality and instead turn them into objects.” She said that the paper’s policy not to publish women’s photos comes out of “respect for women’s rights for privacy and modesty.” “We are backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition,” she added. “We do not compromise our values.” 
The problem with this approach as I and others have said many times is that it doesn’t stop there. Those segments that tend toward this attitude have (in some of the more extreme cases) tried mightily to erase women from the public square entirely – as if they don’t even exist. Kavudah Bas Melech Penima - the honor of the daughter of the king (a Jewish woman) is internal – they interpret to mean that a woman should never be seen in external circumstances. As much as is humanly possible she should stay at home and venture out only if absolutely necessary. 

In one of the more extreme examples of this attitude, some clearly misguided adherents of this approach spray painted over the word ‘women’ in the sign over a women’s health clinic in Bet Shemesh. Though I’m sure that even the zealots of this approach felt this was going too far, it is clear where the motivation to do that came from.

As many thoughtful people – both men and women – have said, erasing women completely from the public square sends a very negative message to young girls in that society. And it is not the message that they wish to send (about modesty) it is a message that women are non entities – unimportant invisible ‘actors’ whose function is to cook, clean the house and have lots of children. Never to be seen or spoken about - or even spoken to, if possible.

I can’t imagine a more depressing feeling being developed in a young girl raised to believe that her sole function in life is to be a cook, cleaning lady, and birthing machine - to be hidden from all but her family. Nor is it healthy for a young boy to be raised to believe this about women. Thankfully most of the religious world does not go to such extremes: 
(E)ven though they won’t run photos of women, the papers are largely run by women, who by and large have stronger secular educations than ultra-Orthodox men. 
And yet they continue to project an attitude that belies this truth by refusing to publish any pictures of women. 

Their policy of not publishing any pictures of women is about to be challenged if either of the 2 current female candidates win the Presidency. They may actually violate their stated modesty principles. How can they never publish a picture of the President of the United States? That would be a major insult to the office.

How can they violet their principles? The truth is that they won’t be. Only the principles of a portion of their constituent readership: 
In interviews, the editors of four major English-language ultra-Orthodox publications, three of them published in New York and one in Jerusalem, said that they are reevaluating their no-women policy in light of the Clinton candidacy, but would not make any final decisions alone. As with all important decisions, they will take the question to the boards of rabbinical advisors with whom final authority over the publications’ content rests. One of the editors, a rabbi himself, said that a Clinton victory could spell a change in the longstanding no-women policy in his paper and the others. 
The only conclusion one can have here is that refusing to publish pictures of women was never for modesty reasons on the first place. It was to cater to a demographic that does. Even if for some reason they decide not to publish any pictures of even the President if when is a woman, the fact that they are even considering it shows that modesty has nothing to do with it.

I believe they will begin publishing pictures of the President if she is a woman. The question is whether they stop there? Will they only publish pictures of her and no other woman? That would be insulting in the extreme to other women - if you ask me.  How can you not publish a picture of – say Rebbetzin Kanievsky for reasons of modesty and at the same time publish a picture of a President Clinton or President Fiorina? How will they explain that Tznius standards may be violated for one and not the other?

Whether one admits it or not, these magazines are influential on their readership. So - much as I am not a fan of Mrs. Clinton it is quite possible that she may be the agent for change in the world of Charedi publications. If that happens - it will be a change for the better that is long overdue.