Not Seen and Not Heard

Last week, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox paper, HaMevaser, photoshopped German Chancellor Angela Merkel out of a photograph of the solidarity march in Paris, a photo that appeared in countless newspapers around the world. In fact, all of the women who were in the original photograph, including Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, were conspicuously removed in HaMevaser. The women weren’t blurred out or whited out, they were simply removed. As if they did not exist.

It is no secret that in the ultra-Orthodox world, there are strict modesty guidelines. Pictures of women do not appear in newspapers or in advertisements. The idea of k’vod bat hamelech pnimah (literally, the beauty of the King’s daughter is within) seems to have become a battle cry, and the rationalization for these extreme modesty guidelines.

When the story of HaMevaser’s creative editing reached world news, it was yet another embarrassing moment highlighting how ultra-Orthodoxy views women.

Yet, juxtaposed with the story of the disappearing women is another story slowly gaining attention, this one both surprising and inspiring.

With Israeli elections on the horizon, a group of ultra-Orthodox women have started a campaign to add ultra-Orthodox women to the electoral lists of two ultra-Orthodox political parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. While ultra-Orthodox women have been encouraged to vote in past elections (exclusively for ultra-Orthodox parties), women have not been included on the rosters of candidates. This groundswell from within the ultra-Orthodox world demands that one woman be included on the electoral list of each party. In fact, they have gone so far as advocating “No representation, no vote.” If women aren’t included on the ballot, ultra-Orthodox women are encouraging each other to stay home on Election Day.

To be sure, this is a grassroots movement with some support, but certainly not the full support of all ultra-Orthodox women. And while many maintain that their husbands support their endeavors, it is clear that the rabbinic leadership remains staunchly opposed.

Devorah KatzIn truth, ultra-Orthodox women are already in the public eye. They are in the workforce. They are the breadwinners. They are responsible for household and family matters as well. An ultra-Orthodox woman on the ballot seems like it should be a natural extension. Yet it is seen as both a betrayal and as a portrait of immodesty.

Will there be ultra-Orthodox women in the Knesset through either of the ultra-Orthodox parties? Probably not. The campaign started a little too late to garner the attention it needs to advance. But what they have done, successfully, is begin a dialogue.

I know the value of dialogue and I know the value of grassroots movement. And, I am ready to admit, I know the value of allowing issues to develop. The road behind us is full of accomplishments and the road in front of us is full of challenges. I am so excited to watch this challenge unfold and eventually become an accomplishment for women in the ultra-Orthodox world.

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