Don't touch our women

Xenophobia and the objectification of women have come together in a vile combination in Israel.

women (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
women (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL, PATRIARCHAL SOCIETIES, which usually excel at the oppression of women, have emphasized the need to “defend” their wives and daughters.
Defense of a woman’s honor and the ostensible concern for her welfare have too often been enlisted for imperialistic purposes, reducing women to pawns in the hands of warmongering men. Helena of Troy and, in our own Tanakh, Dina, the daughter of Jacob, were pawns in the hands of patriarchal men in ancient times. Today, the patronizing screech, “Don’t Touch Our Women,” shouted out by the men and women who would expel foreign workers and non-Jewish citizens of our country, proves that patriarchy is alive and well.
We should all be alarmed.
Is it really the defense of women that is of concern to the frenzied crowds in Bat Yam, Safed and the Hatikva neighborhood? Is concern for women the motive for their base attacks on foreigners? And would driving these “others” from our midst bring succor to women, ease their fears or provide for their real needs?
Women do feel vulnerable, but it is not the stranger that they fear. Women know that this “protection” reflects men’s primordial fear of the stranger who would conquer his home and take away his control over his life and property – including his woman. This is the fear that exists between men – and it has nothing to do with women, and certainly not with their welfare or well-being.
In fact, the racist wave that has swept our country has turned women into an object onto which men project their fears. Women are being used as mere tools to incite the crowds, as if they have no existence of their own.
Women are victimized through rape and sexual harassment – most frequently by men they know. But men are abusing women’s vulnerability and, by doing so, they are treating women as passive non-entities who have no will or thought. To these men, women are mere objects whose existence and significance are determined from their first moment of birth – by their fathers and families, by their husbands and by the nation into which they were born. When a madly incited crowd screams, “Don’t touch our women,” allegedly seeking to “protect” them from foreign or domestic enemies, they are actually denying the right to self-expression and liberty.
As long as women are nothing more than the belongings of a tribe, our voices will be silenced. We will not be able to make our true cries and pain heard. And a patriarchal society must silence our voices, because if they were to be heard, we just might be able to free ourselves from the roles to which we have been assigned.
It is not coincidence that xenophobia, which focuses on the fear of the threatening other, is at the root of misogyny. Women in patriarchal societies are simultaneously portrayed as the ultimate other, the sexual predator who threatens social homogeneity and harmony, and as the objects that men must protect from the predations of the foreigner. Both representations are based on fear and hatred.
In a country like Israel, which suffers from the diseases of inequality and extreme chauvinism, it is thus easy to incite against foreigners.
True, our policy-makers have also failed, providing no policy for the absorption of the foreigners and sending them to fend for themselves among the weakest members of our society, those who cannot defend themselves and do not have the strength to accept difference and otherness. But this does not change the fact that those who fly the flag of “protection” of weak and vulnerable women are actually pointing to the weakness and vulnerability of the flag-bearers themselves.
In Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, we read the story of Dina, who goes out to visit the women of Shekhem, where her people had made camp and where her father had purchased the land where he had pitched her tent. There, she is raped by Hamor. As if to vindicate their sister’s honor, Shimon and Levi lie to the people of Shekhem, telling them that they will give their sister in marriage, if their men are circumcised, and then murder them when they are weak. But their father, Jacob the patriarch, denounces their deeds. The tribes of Levi and Shimon were separated from one another and never receive land of their own. Their sister, Dina, was indeed cruelly raped, but Jacob could not condone her brothers’ twisted use of her suffering as an excuse for the genocide of a neighboring people; even on his deathbed, as he blesses his children, Jacob repeats his disdain for their actions.
Unfortunately, the State of Israel has yet to learn this lesson from Jacob. In the State of Israel, which has embraced laws of marriage and divorce that cruelly discriminate against women, we should not be surprised that xenophobia, racism, chauvinism and the objectification of women have all come together in a vile combination.
Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror is director general of Mavoi Satum, a non-profit organization that provides integrated legal aid, social services and emotional support for women whose husbands have denied them the right to a divorce.