The Human Spirit:

When haredi Web sites make women invisible, what's the real message they're sending?

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
The decision by the haredi-oriented Web site to erase the face of distinguished law professor Ruth Gavison from its photo coverage of the Winograd Commission report typifies a regrettable trend toward using the religious concept of "modesty" as a cudgel in holding back the advancement of women. Not that Gavison, the 63-year-old champion of human rights, should take her erasure personally. This Web site discriminates equally against all women. Even if Hillary Clinton is elected the 44th president of the United States on November 4, there's one news site that won't carry her face. Nor would a photo of your pious grandmother or the righteous rescuers you'll find in the Yad Vashem Quarterly make it onto the screen. It's not a question of skirt length or head covering. Women's photos are deemed intrinsically immodest by the influential Internet providers that filter content for extreme religious Jews whose rabbinical authorities allow them to use the Internet. No woman can be seen, no matter her achievements or erudition. Considering the junk that appears unbidden on one's screen, we all have a certain sympathy for the desire to be discriminating on what appears on a Web site. Gatekeepers of discernment should be able to distinguish between appropriate and offensive content. After all, in these days, you are your Web site. To be truly scrupulous, for example, a religious Internet site might eliminate photos and pictures altogether. But then, who would realistically turn to your site? The Internet is a medium increasingly dominated by images. Not by chance is the hottest growing trend on the Web called Facebook. And does show faces. There are men in abundance. You can see men in Sderot, men at council meetings and even Israel Discount Bank CEO Nochi Dankner. I have nothing against Nochi Dankner, but he is, well, beardless. But women are faceless on this and other haredi sites, even more shrouded than the veiled Arab woman with eye-slits I saw last week in Jerusalem, trying so hard to juggle her baby and find the right documents to check her child into the ER through that mask. BUT WHY are women's photos really banned? Is it really because women's photos are always salacious, or because acting in a way in which a media outlet would want to print your photo is in itself a violation of the code? That is, seeing the photo of Ruth Gavison might inspire a young browser to intensify her studies and grow up to become a woman of distinction in the public sphere. Boys would also grow up recognizing that sometimes there are important women in government, in courts of law and in academia. Some might argue that women within the perfected religious sphere don't want or need lofty role models. I strongly disagree. The accomplishments of others help us expand our notion of the possible and prevent us from censoring our dreams of fulfilling our own potential. The girls of greatest talent and imagination need to be inspired, too. The question of whether or not a picture of a girl could appear on the cover of a Chabad children's magazine came before the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1983. According to an essay by Bar-Ilan University Prof. Susan Handelman, the rebbe insisted that girls be in the Chabad children's magazine. He wanted girls to identify with the magazine, too. IN GENERAL Israeli society, girls and women have to climb barriers and break glass ceilings. But in the Orthodox and haredi world, the barriers are higher, the glass ceiling lower and more shatter-resistant. Take for instance, a recent report completed by researchers Dafna Strauss, Orna Shani and Bithya Har-Shefi for the Hadassah Foundation. Religious services command a hefty budget of NIS 500,000,000. But it turns out our tax money goes mostly to a men's club. Of the 133 religious councils, fewer than 30 have women in paid leadership positions. Not one woman serves as chair of a council. Nearly all the women who are employed work as mikve attendants and bride counselors. And despite their considerable kitchen experience and the iron hand with which religious women monitor kashrut in most homes, of the 5,000 paid kashrut supervisors, only six are woman, i.e. 0.1 percent, even though these jobs no longer require physical labor that would favor men. The two religious councils which employ relatively elderly female kashrut supervisors have no intention of finding women to replace them after they retire. The excuse presented by interviewees for women to break this low ceiling isn't even halachic per se. A woman would have to supervise both female and male employees in kitchens, factories and catering halls. You guessed it. It might not be modest, no matter how modestly they dressed and how fully covered their hair. We live in a time when religious women are taking on greater responsibility for earning the family's living, when Orthodox women are having more children, and when Orthodox women are better Torah educated than ever before. We don't need false barricades of invisibility incorrectly called "modesty." Role models count in helping us shape and improve our lives. Brilliant women, courageous women, righteous women are needed role models for girls to dream and to achieve their dreams and help overcome fear and peer pressure. We need to be reminded that they exist, and we need to see them. What will happen when the messiah arrives? Will also refuse to run her photo?