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What Photoshopping Women Out of Photos Is Really About

I have this pet peeve about women sending emails from their husbands’ email accounts. Although this was probably more of a common phenomenon towards the beginning of the e-mail era, I still get emails like this, and it drives me crazy.

The hiding of women behind men is not as uncommon as we would perhaps like to believe. I remember getting a sales call a few months ago from a carpet-cleaning agency in which the saleswoman (!) said to me, “Would you like to go ask your husband if it’s okay?” Or like the time I got really angry at our mortgage bank for calling me up to tell me that they have a present for my husband’s 40th birthday. How exciting, I said to them — and what about me? I had turned 40 just two months earlier. This clerk went searching around her papers and said she’s sorry, that only my husband’s information is listed in the computer. I signed the mortgage papers, too, I tried to tell her. But there I was, deleted as an entity by someone punching information into a machine. All these situations are the same, really: It’s all about women’s invisibility.

I thought about this amid this week’s brouhaha over Der Tzitung’s notorious erasure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the iconic photo of the national security team getting an update on the bin Laden raid.

This episode generated discussions all over the place about what this means for Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy — whether this is done by extremists or not, who is segregating their community from whom, and what the photoshopping of women is all about anyway. The idea that this is about “modesty” is thankfully beginning to erode (maybe).

The photoshopping of Clinton is indeed part of the larger Orthodox phenomenon of removing women from public spaces, silencing women’s voices, covering women’s bodies, and pretending women don’t exist. This is about creating a woman-free world, enabling men to walk through the universe knowing that they will never have to encounter a woman.

That said, the society in which Der Tzitung’s actions are seen as “normal” is not as distinct from everyone else as we would like to believe. Western society still has a seemingly infinite number of tools for rendering women’s lives invisible. Open up the business pages of most newspapers any day and you will be hard-pressed to find women represented either in imagery or subject matter. The sports pages are even worse, as women’s accomplishments are often ignored completely. Thought journals are still missing women, as The Sisterhood recently reported. Boardrooms, too, are often missing women entirely, despite legislative efforts to change that reality. Although one might be tempted to argue that it is not true in western life that women are invisible — after all, women’s heavily made-up and sexualized faces and bodies are overly visible, used to sell every product imaginable — the commercial manipulation of the female form does not compensate for the real erasure of women’s lives in the realms that actually matter. The deletion of women is not just an ultra-Orthodox problem. It’s a society-wide problem.

For me, then, there are two lessons from this story. One is, the Jewish community needs to stop using the word “modesty” to justify an ideal of women’s invisibility. Two is, rather than self-righteously laughing off what “they” have done to women, we should be looking at our own societies and asking ourselves if we are as distinct from ultra-Orthodoxy as we would like to believe when it comes to the erasure of women’s lives.


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