Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Avi's audacity on Feminism

The latest Avi makes quite a shocking claim. Writing in the Forward he proclaims: Ultra-Orthodoxy Is Most Feminist Faith. Unfortunately, he fails to compare and contrast the status of Haredi women with their counterparts from other faiths. Instead, he delivers what can only be called a lukewarm propaganda tour of Israeli society.  Let's deal with the central claim:

Women’s empowerment in the United States has traditionally been linked to economic opportunities, to women becoming wage-earners. Back in 1950s America, most women were homemakers, dependent on their husbands to bring home the babka, so to speak. Part of what was celebrated as “women’s liberation” entailed the increase in women earners, where the distaff partner in a marriage was not economically dependent on the stubbled one.

Unfortunately, this is barely 1/3 of the story. Historians recognize three movements or waves of feminism. Second wave feminism, dated to the early 1960s, is what Avi has in mind with his tossed off reference to "women's liberation" but second wave feminism was about more than economic opportunity: It touched on every area of women's experience, including family, sexuality and work. So while, the Haredim might (see below) be doing an OK job getting women into the workforce, this isn't quite enough to secure them the crown for World's Most Feminist Faith. Women who belong to other sects and faiths are also employed, yet they enjoy far more economic opportunity, aside from the additional freedoms they enjoy in areas of secualtiy and family.

Now let's talk about all that extra opportunity. Avi is proud to report that more and more Haredi women are entering the workforce and he presents this as proof that Haredi Judaism is not just ordinary feminist, but most feminist.  He seems to think that you're a feminist whenever you give your wife more to do. Only that entirely misses the point.

Going to work for the sake of going to work wasn't the goal of second wave feminism. From the beginning of time, economically disadvantaged women have gone to work. The feminists of the 60s weren't merely seeking work or money. They were seeking freedom and opportunity, and they believed both would follow once they proved themselves in the workplace and earned some of their own money.

Is that really what's happening in Hareid society? Here's the test: Are all of those working Haredi women following in the footsteps of the middle class American women c 1960 who saw going to work as a first step toward winning control over their own bodies and their own lives? Or are they more like the poor, disadvantaged women who from time immemorial took jobs to stave off starvation? Are Haredi women going to work because they wish to open the doors of opportunity? Or is this just a matter of survival?

Here's another test we can use to evaluate Avi's claim: Do Haredi men have any intention of granting Haredi women control over their own lives and bodies? Will they be allowed to defer childbirth on their own initiative? Will they be allowed to pursue higher education, or to take unpaid time off from work to prepare for better-status jobs? Will they be allowed to directly take part in shul or community affairs, or will they always be forced to speak publicly through their husbands?

The answer to all those questions, of course, is no and this is why Haredi culture is decidedly anti feminist. It obstructs women from following any path but the traditional one: They must have many children. They must let their husbands speak for them in matters of public concern. They aren't allowed to pursue higher education, or even to study Torah at an advanced level. It seems clear, therefore, that the  fact that so many of them work outside the home is also a perpetration, rather than a discontinuation, of traditional practices. Women with husbands who were unable or unwilling to work have always had to pick up the slack, and the phenomenon of working Haredi women represents nothing other than this.

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