How Orthodox Judaism Made Me A Feminist

By Rachel Pearlstein

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and attended an Orthodox all-girls Jewish high school in south Florida. There were many good times and many freeing things about going to an all-girls high school, like not caring what you looked like, wearing sports bras every day, and being able to shout across the hallway for a pad or tampon without any pre-pubescent teenage boys making obscene comments.

They taught us in school and in the community that men were always thinking about sex and implied that women did not think about or want sex. Since men were always thinking about sex, women were supposed to cover their bodies and be ‘attractive but not attracting’. We were taught how big a sin it is for men to masturbate and so, in order to lessen the likelihood of men ‘wasting their seed’, women needed to cover up. You know how when someone says ‘don’t look’, one of the first things you do is look? Well let me tell you that most Orthodox girls think about sex plenty (the more we were told not to, the more we thought about it), and are quite crippled from all that repression especially if they chose to stray from this lifestyle.

The entire life experience was gendered; there were only two options for being a human — male or female — and you were either one or the other. There were exact roles for what women and men should do throughout the day, from which prayers to say, to where to stand in the synagogue, to how to dress and speak in and outside the home, and how to interact with the opposite gender. In addition to being repressive to women and even men alike, this life left no room for transgender people or anyone who did not choose to fit themselves into a gender binary. We were told that women are holier than men and have an innate spirituality and so women do not need to abide by many of the commandments in the Torah (the Jewish bible). Women of many devout streams of religion are told things like this by men and other women alike to keep them in a strategic place in society. When a person is born with a vagina, gifts of spirituality from God are immediately bestowed upon her? Come on, let’s get real.

When I began to venture away from that community and ideology I saw another kind of objectification and another culture trying to take away my freedom in the new world I was entering. It is no secret that women in the Western world are overly sexualised and objectified on billboards, television, music, everyday dialogue, and through countless other means. When I attended the University of Florida there was a strong pressure to look hot all the time when going out to bars or clubs. I constantly felt the pressure to wear fewer clothes, heels (which I absolutely cannot stand), and more makeup (it’s not fun to have lots of sticky goop on your face) if I wanted to be attractive to guys.

I did not like the other side of the coin. I grew up in a patriarchal world where women’s bodies were objectified in a different kind of way and I did not want to partake in another culture of female objectification and patriarchy. In Chassidic culture, women could not interact with men nor could they dress as they please because they may arouse men. This is one side of objectification and the culture in clubs, bars, and college campuses is the other extreme. Both are designed for men and force women to be a certain way quiet and covered or completely exposed and sexualised for men.

Then I found feminism. It was a slow process. I did not know that the way of life and stream of thought I was beginning to identify with had a name. Feminism for me is a middle path; a balance I have found. It is my rejection of the objectification of women’s bodies, of my body. For me it means choice. I have learnt to reclaim what being a women means, what sexuality means, and how I want to dress, act, and move through the world. Of course I cannot completely remove myself from Western culture but I can make decisions based on feminist principles and most importantly based on the person I want to be. I can choose to dress and act how I want, whether it is socially acceptable for women in Western culture or not. I can choose to act more ‘masculine’ when I please or as ‘feminine’ as I please. I can choose tight or short clothes if I want, or loose and comfortable clothes when I want. The main point is I CAN CHOOSE: not male Rabbis, not the (mostly) men who run the music, television, and fashion industry, but me and only me. For me, feminism is not radical but an empowering, self-introspective, and balanced way of life that I found and through which I am still finding my womanhood.

For all of you out there, no matter what your stance is on these issues, I implore you to ask yourself if you are being objectified. Ask yourself if you are making choices which speak to your soul, your heart, and the deepest parts of your being. If devout religion or mainstream Western culture is giving you these things, then I encourage you to latch onto them. But decide for yourself; to me, this is feminism.

What’s in a Pronoun: ‘He’, ‘She’ and…?

By Emily Morrison

Societal attitudes towards gender and gender identity are shifting and becoming increasingly tolerant. We have seen public figures come out as transgenderopenly transgender models and boycotts of North Carolina because of a law forcing people to use public restrooms that match the sex designation on their birth certificate, and not the gender with which they identify. It is easy to recognise that attitudes are shifting quite rapidly, at least in contrast to those of previous decades.

There is now widespread awareness of the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ and the phrase ‘non-binary’: that people are not necessarily just ‘female’ or ‘male’ and yet official pronouns in English (i.e. the words we use to replace proper nouns: she, her, he, him, it, they or them) still only allow us to express these limited options.

Although articles detailing different forms of gender pronouns abound online and organisations such as Facebook and OK Cupid have over 50 options to describe gender, there is no universally accepted way to identify as anything other than simply female or male. This presents an issue for people who do not identify as either. In university campuses across America, this is being tackled by the trend to define the pronouns you would like to be referred to as. The most common way of expressing neutrality is to use the third person plural: ‘they’ or ‘their’. But as linguists have pointed out, this lacks clarity, as ‘they’ or ‘their’ refer to a plural, so a sentence such as ‘They goes to work every day’ is jarring for anyone, let alone linguists.

Sweden’s formalisation of a gender-neutral pronoun hen in 2014 re-ignited the debate over the lack of an equivalent in English but it is a question that is far from new. The first arguments date back to the 1800s as a means of clarity when it was argued that the usage of ‘he’ in legal documents meant that, in theory, laws did not apply to women.

Of course, now the argument is a different one: the importance of inclusive linguistic structures that represent people and don’t leave them feeling isolated (people identifying as non-binary are twice as likely to commit suicide). And, while this cannot be underestimated, the case for the creation of one is not just salient for people who identify as non-binary. The tendency in most languages where there is not a gender-neutral pronoun is to revert to the masculine, an issue that has long been criticised by feminists.

This convention is criticised because it focuses our worldview on men and the primacy of them. This is because, far from simply being a way of expressing our views, the language we have actually shapes what we are able to conceive. As such, the dominance of ‘he’ in our language subconsciously places our focus in life on the masculine.

Inevitably, proposals for a gender-neutral pronoun have led to criticisms of ‘PC gone mad’ from certain parts of society and some media. But the more salient objection seems to be one of practicality. Some linguists argue that, although it is easy to invent verbs and nouns to express new ideas and concepts (as we frequently do in English), the creation of grammatical structures, such as pronouns, is difficult to change and adapt our thinking to.

I disagree with this for two reasons. First, if we accept the need to create new words to express new ideas, isn’t that whole point of a gender-neutral pronoun? That we now accept that not everyone identifies simply as a ‘she’ or a ‘he’?

Second, as a global lingua franca, the majority of English speakers are not native but learners of it as a second, third or fourth language, many of whom will be learning completely new grammatical structures anyway. And for those learning as a first language, this would be taught from a young age, so while it may be difficult for older people to adapt, over time it will simply become the norm.

What will be interesting to observe is how this will progress in the future. If we have a gender-neutral pronoun will it become the norm to use it for everyone, making ‘he’ and ‘she’ extinct? Like the polite form of you ‘thou’ which existed in old English? Or the increasingly uncommon use of ‘one’.

Even more importantly, considering the importance our language has on our ideas, the formalisation of a gender-neutral pronoun could fundamentally change the importance we give to gender.

Most societies have historically been divided on gender lines and the fundamentality of gender distinctions. Although these divisions are less pronounced in modern societies, many places that were once designated for use only by one gender (i.e. the pub or the kitchen) are no longer seen as such. These distinctions do remain to some extent: think, for example, of bathrooms, sports competitions, and children’s toys.
Over time, would having a gender-neutral pronoun change this? Would the distinction completely lose its importance? If so, how would this change our society? In any event, at least we can finally see that in our views of gender identity things are finally going in the right direction.

Mental Health and Gender: How Writing About Feminism has Helped my Depression

By Anonymous

I have never publicly or openly written about my depression. If I’m being truthful, I’ve never really felt comfortable enough to do so. I find it difficult to be honest about the way that I’m feeling, even with my closest friends. For the last ten years of my life I have been weighed down by it, but I have not said the words “I suffer from depression” more than a handful of times.

I wear a smile on my face like a mask and use it to pretend – to convince myself – that everything is absolutely fine. I laugh at the appropriate moments, I attend all of the social events, and I act as if everything is okay. I have spent a lot of my time and energy encouraging others to be truthful about the way that they feel, to relinquish themselves of that stigma. But when it comes to facing my own truth, I put plasters on my wounds and try to get on with my life.

And, whilst I have never had anything published on my depression, I have published a fair few articles on other subjects – most frequently on gender inequality and feminism. For a long time, I never made the connection between the two. They were very separate parts of my life, with the common factor that I had grown up battling both, and my feelings had only become stronger with time. However, it recently occurred to me that they are, for want of a better word, symbiotic. For me, they are interdependent and writing about feminism has, in all honesty, helped me to deal with my depression.

In the most basic sense, writing has been more therapeutic than therapy itself. There is an authenticity that I feel I can project on paper that talking isn’t able to give me. My emotions don’t hold me back; my fear of being judged doesn’t take over. I have the freedom to express myself more honestly and I have found that writing about something I care about, something that I have emotions towards, is a liberating outlet. Conveying my words, my beliefs, has made me feel more open generally. The feminist narrative that I write about is the product of that passion: it is the protective layer that I use to detach what I am saying from myself. It is personal but not too much so. It is important but is not exclusive to my experience.

It would not be untrue to say that there is an element of animosity that is associated with both depression and gender inequality as well – there is denial over their existence and over the extent of that existence. Depression, and mental health more widely, are still heavily stigmatised. There is a lack of understanding, which means that the extent of the potency of depression is often undermined. “Everyone feels sad”, “but you’re always so happy” and “it’s all in your head” are but a few phrases that have been said to me, and others. With regards to gender inequality, there is the similarity that issues are often assumed to be over, or exaggerated. I have been told that things are “not so bad”, “we don’t still need feminism” and “we have come a long way”, as if this is a reason to stop fighting for it. Writing about the latter has been an outlet to convey my feelings on the former: I am able to communicate my dissonance over the way that both are challenged together.

I have also found that what I have learnt through feminist discourse has helped me understand my own mental health a lot better. In relation to inequality, if you have been lucky enough not to feel the effects of something, we call it privilege. I would apply the same truth to mental health. It can be difficult to know what it feels like if you are not affected by it, but to deny its existence is dangerous and careless. When I am faced with this ignorance, or lack of empathy, I take comfort in knowing that this is a wider phenomenon. I use the academic idea of standpoint as a framework to situate mine and others’ feelings. I still get angry, but that anger has a utility, which I try to redirect. I do not feel isolated by it, I empower myself with it, using it in an argument through words on a piece of paper.

In a similar vein, feminism allows me to deflect feelings from myself to the wider sphere. Feminism, or at least the feminism I subscribe to, calls for breaking down gender binaries, allowing us to be more free and true to ourselves. I spend so much of my time angry and upset with who I am and what I do, which is made significantly worse by my depression. Feminism gives me the opportunity to relieve myself from blame – blame which I know I should not be holding on to anyway. I don’t hate myself as much, I forgive myself, I even let myself believe that I am doing something good by standing up for a cause. That feeling is irreplaceable.

***

Experiences differ drastically but, for me, living with depression feels like living with a broken window. That which is meant to make me feel protected is instead shattered, leaving me vulnerable and cold. What is meant to allow me to see clearly and from a place of comfort leaves me with a freedom to see everything with heightened senses – everything is clearer and with greater precision. It adds rawness to my life but steals away my sense of security, so that I am left with shards to cut me and an opening straight to my weaknesses. If I sound like I am glorifying depression, that is by no means my intention. I will spare you the details but depression is a big part of who I am and my relationship with it has been volatile.

Like most women and like most people who suffer from depression, I have been told to smile on more than one occasion. For me, being told to smile is a prime example of how both gender and mental health are performative. There are expectations about how you should present yourself. There are assumptions about how you should feel. I don’t want to be defined by my gender. I don’t want to be defined by my depression. I don’t want to be defined by a single part of my identity. I want to be defined by who I am as an individual – not the individual characteristics that I comprise of. I want and I don’t want so many things. But in the meantime I will settle for this: writing about feminism provides me with a purpose. It has been a lifeline and a reason to keep hoping that things can get better. As someone who has lost most of my hope, this is invaluable.