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Orthodox Women, Stunted Ambitions

Does Orthodoxy make women girly?

That is the essence, I believe, of Israeli religious feminist Chana Pinchasi’s argument in an opinion piece in Ynet. In lamenting the absence of religious women in positions of public leadership in Israel, Pinchasi asked, “Why don’t we have a Keren Neubach, Shelly Yachimovitch, or Ilana Dayan? Why isn’t there a religious woman with a clear, polished, elaborate and committed ideological voice at the center of the public discourse? I mean the voice of a woman who does not deny her femininity but also does not play with it, and for whom it is not obsequious. The type who is both a mother and professional and has a critical public voice that you may not agree with but you cannot help but respect.”

I have been wondering the same thing. Although, to be fair, judging by Ynet alone, Pinchasi herself has a strong voice, as do Rivka Lubitch and Chana Kehat and a few others. But it seems to me that religious women are socialized into putting ourselves last, into fitting into social expectations, into not being too loud or too disagreeable, and into not really breaking out of the rules too much.

Certainly religious women are, as Pinchasi says, “opinionated,” and current photos of right-wing protests against peace talks have (some) images of women in them. Still, the religious community remains one the most staunchly conformist societies in Israel, and breaking molds in order to think for oneself is so deeply frowned upon as to make it difficult even for a woman to take such a step as, say, considering a career as a pilot, not to mention something so drastic as wearing pants and going bareheaded.

At the heart of the problem, Pinchasi writes, is the fact that the religious community frowns upon women who are perceived as excessively “careerist”: “Ask yourselves to what extent a 20-year old religious women would dare dream (just dream!) about becoming the director of a full-length feature film, the CEO of an international company for product branding, the editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper, or the executive director of a psychiatric hospital? It almost never comes up because it’s not considered legitimate.”

Actually, I think these ambitions probably come up in girls’ dreams more than we know, but the girls have no outlets to even consider exploring them. Religious girls’ high schools spend far more time and energy on teaching girls how to dress and how to behave demurely than on how to build a successful career.

The problem, then, runs deeper. The ideal image of a religious woman is one who does not consider her own dreams and visions worthy. A religious woman friend, recently turned 30, who has three babies under the age of four, recently told me that the reason she had her babies so fast is because she got married “late” — at the age of 25 — and was afraid that she would be unable to complete her dream if she did not hurry. What was her dream? To have six children. Today, she is choking under all the pressure and in the sense of loss of self. In her entire life’s configuration, it did not occur to her that a woman in her 20s can dream about personal fulfillment via something other than motherhood.

Moreover, even when religious women are successful in their work, they are often unable to take their work seriously. I recently conducted a meeting with two other women, one a successful (non-Orthodox) museum curator, and the other a religious woman writer and artist in her late 40s who has had three exhibitions on religious feminism, and whose writing has a considerable following in Israel. Before the meeting, I coached my religious colleague in how to present herself to the curator. “Let her know,” I said, “that you are an accomplished writer and a leading thinker in Israel on religious feminism.”

She started to laugh, as if this was the funniest thing she had ever heard. As it turns out, she does not think about herself in any kinds of powerful terms, does not consider her role in forming Israeli opinion on religious gender issues, and had never taken a moment to “think big” about herself. To my utter dismay, despite my coaching, when it came time for her to introduce herself, she quickly said her name and then moved on.

Religious women, as a group, need some coaching in how to develop and nurture a vision of self-actualization. We as a society need to provide the settings in which those freedoms can find expression.


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