by Rebecca Krevat, NCJW Field Outreach Associate
I attended the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) International Conference in New York this past weekend expecting a day filled with sessions and conversations about important, but typical Orthodox women’s topics such as the Agunah crisis — women who are “chained” to marriages by religious authorities — and Partnership Minyans, prayer gatherings where women are able to participate in certain parts of the service.
It is definitely not a contradiction to be Orthodox and a feminist, but I often wish it were an easier road to that particular dual-identity. Orthodox women face all of the same struggles as women across the country, including the wage gap, sexual assault, domestic violence, and harmful stereotypes (just to name a few).
All women are judged according to the expectations of their society or community, and Orthodox women also face the burden of specific community expectations that they must live up to lest they be chastised. That’s why it was wonderful to see 800 other attendees at the conference grappling with the many questions of what it means to be Orthodox and also desire equality for women, or vice versa.
I left the JOFA Conference feeling hopeful that the space for the Orthodox feminism is widening. I was pleasantly surprised to see that JOFA covered topics that the wider feminist community struggles with as well, for instance in a session titled “Slut!” The Shame Effect.
”Slut-shaming” is the practice of condemning a woman for being sexually active, or having “too many” sexual partners, when oftentimes men are congratulated for the same behavior. It can also manifest itself in judging a woman for her clothing choices or actions, when they don’t comply with the expectations of how women are “supposed” to behave. Really, women can never win in these scenarios because if they go too far in the other direction they will be judged for being “prude” or “uptight.” Slut-shaming falls under the horrible umbrella of rape culture and victim blaming, when women who are sexually assaulted or raped are accused of “asking for it,” blamed for their own assault due to what they were wearing or if they were drinking.
For many people, slut-shaming probably wouldn’t come to mind when thinking about Orthodox women. How could a woman be slut-shamed wearing a crew neck shirt and long skirt? Some Orthodox women don’t even touch men because of the practice of being “shomeret negiah” a restriction from touching members of the opposite sex, even in a non-sexual manner. Rachel Hercman, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual health, dating and relationships explained during her JOFA panel that slut-shaming does rear its ugly head in the Orthodox community, just in a different way. When discussing dating in the Orthodox community (speaking strictly about heterosexual couples), it would be typical to note that a man learns or prays every day, however for a woman the most important questions would surround her external features — will she cover her hair when she is married, does she wear skirts above her knee, etc. Futhermore in everyday gossip, it is “news” when a young girl stops wearing skirts and begins wearing pants, or the other way around. The same occurs if a woman decides to become shomeret negiah, or decides to abandon the practice.
Hercman noted that she had never heard gossip about other kinds of religious boundary testing, like a woman “opening her mail on Shabbat.” The gossip about “transgression” is relegated to these modesty codes. In my own life, I have heard the phrase “Hot Chani” to refer to a woman who technically abides by the Orthodox modesty codes, but may wear tighter garments, high heels or flashy clothes. These are all ways in which women are subtly “slut-shamed” in the Orthodox community. While they may not be described “sluts” in the secular sense of the word, these women are judged and shamed for their choices of dress or behavior in ways where their male counterparts remain free from objectification. Women’s bodies are policed just as much in the Orthodox community as they are in the general American population — it is just disguised as a “concern” for Halacha.
We must end the slut-shaming of both Orthodox women, and women in general, and that’s why feminist principles apply equally to Orthodox and non-Orthodox women. It is nobody’s business how a woman dresses or behaves sexually, and a woman’s religious practice is between herself and God. I look forward to the day when all women are viewed for who they are, and not from the lens of antiquated patriarchal norms, whether they are from Rabbis or not. And the JOFA conference showed me that I’m not the only one.