Modesty isn’t Discrimination — Or Is It?

Major General Orna Barbivai face blurred

For those who think that walking out on women singers has nothing to do with female military authority, think again. HaAretz reports that last month a religious soldier refused to parachute because his instructor was a woman.    Other commanders report soldiers refusing to take instruction for shooting, artillery, and other activities:

The disobedient paratrooper is not alone – field-unit commanders say they detect a growing trend. Soldiers from hesder yeshivas, which combine military service with religious studies, protested when they had female instructors for shooting, artillery and other activities. This kind of disobedience is relatively new … Reserve officers who served with hesder soldiers in the 1970s and 1980s say thousands of religious students were trained by female instructors without a murmur.

Religious soldiers insist that their refusal has nothing to do with respecting women and would not interfere with their ability to function in a mixed gender army.

However, it is difficult to imagine how women can rise to leadership positions when they cannot even function in intermediate level positions as instructors.  This refusal to learn from a woman isn’t limited to the army.  For years Puah has been dis-inviting female experts from its conference on Halacha and Fertility for fear that certain Haredi rabbis will not attend if women speak from the podium.

In many professions, senior positions are filled at least in part based on the public reputation of a person.  Modesty also cripples women’s access to leadership roles by making it virtually impossible for her to establish a public reputation.   If she does make it into a leadership position her ability to build evidence for a successful track record is limited.

Some Haredi run radio stations will not broadcast shows using female hosts and speakers.   Even under pressure they are willing only to do so for very limited hours and in cases of emergency only.
Many Haredi newspapers refuse to identity women by name or use only initials.   In some cases news stories about women are reported using masculine pronouns, further erasing the notion that women are public leaders.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Counterterrorism Director Audrey Tomason photoshopped out of Situation Room

The benefits of photographs in building a reputation are well proven, yet  visual evidence of female participation in senior level political meanings and discussion panels is routinely removed as well.  US Secretary of State  Hilary Clinton, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima), and most recently Major General Oma Barbivai  have all had their faces wiped from pictures.  Women attempting to gain political office have also been hampered by Haredi bans on women’s pictures.  When Rachel Azaria ran for city council, bus companies refused to place campaign advertisements including her face on city buses.

Modesty also interferes with women’s attempts to get financial recognition for their leadership.   Advertisements to improve wages of teachers, met opposition in B’nai Brak  because the advertisements contained pictures of women.

Further, there have been scattered incidents where so-called respect has actually been used as evidence to support the view that women should not lead. Earlier this month, Ashdod rabbi Yosef Scheinen spoke at the installation ceremony of a new police commander and said:

there has been a lot of talk about the exclusion of women, but I haven’t seen any woman in Ashdod appointed as a police station commander, as this is a masculine role which women are unable to fill.

He later explained that this was respectful to women because “God created women gentle.”  Although his reasoning may seem to be unconnected to modesty, it is not.  Part of the rhetoric of modesty is that a man’s virtues are meant for the external world and a woman’s virtues are meant for the private world.  As this essay explains a man works in the external world to build the house and the woman is the spiritual interior decorator by virtue of her gentleness.

Fighting discrimination in the name of modesty is not straight forward.

Col. Amir Baram, commander of the Israel Defense Forces paratroopers brigade told HaAretz that soldiers who wish to serve as combatants may not refuse instruction based on the gender of the instructor. But the army does acknowledge that there is a problem. The IDF prefers to let commanders use discretion in decision making. However, commanders are often afraid to confront religious soldiers and their rabbis. Without clear rules, they tend to give in to demands not to work with women.

Certain Haredi leaders have pointed out that even if modesty has a price, female Haredim gladly pay that price in the name of greater sanctity.    However, it is clear from these examples that  Haredi demands in the army and elsewhere affect many women outside of the Haredi community.  The female instructors who were rejected by male soldiers just wanted to do their job.  The buses upon which Rachel Azaria wanted to place advertisements  ran through non-Haredi neighborhoods.

Even within the Haredi community, it is very clear that it is only a woman’s choice if a male rabbi permits it.    A woman chooses but only within the constraints of male judgement.  In certain rabbinic courts female lawyers and plantiffs cannot appear before the court unless they cover their hair, even if it means wearing a janitor’s rag.  When women taken the call to cover up to heart and started defining it on their own terms,  they have faced tremendous opposition.  Women who chose to cover their bodies and their daughters bodies in burka like dress have difficulty placing their daughters in school.    The rabbinical council of Eda Haredit proclaimed such women “doomed”.    Even Haredi moderates like Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim show very little respect for these women or their capacity for leadership.

The mistake of the male leaders, according to Pappenheim, was allowing the women to go in this direction in the first place. “The moment they let the women lead their path, it developed into wantonness, because they do not know how to stop,” he says. (Source: HaAretz)

Once again an issue that begins with “modesty” reveals assumptions about women’s ability to act as mature leaders.

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