Experiencing a society with more apparent binary gender divisions makes me wonder: am I uncomfortable with being assigned a gender? Or am I uncomfortable with the inherent sexuality accompanied by this gender assignment? Or yet, am I uneasy with the socio-cultural understanding of the category ‘woman’? Travelling to Israel made me more acutely aware of my own gender identity and the gender identity society pushes on me in ways that I am more easily able to avoid in Canada. My experience in Israel was one of being constantly reminded of gender divisions.
I see myself as a human being first and foremost, and to have the category of ‘woman’-which is policed- projected onto me as a primary marker of identity felt uncomfortable. During the course of the trip, on many occasions modest dress, which means very different things for men and women, was required when visiting sites. The projected sexuality that is accompanied by the category ‘woman’ is highly regulated in ways that the category of ‘man’ is not, including notions of modesty. Issues regarding dress and what is ‘modest’ are highly policed and are becoming stricter within fundamentalist religious groups[i]. This surveillance of women and their bodies is a way in which male community leaders exercise their power and control.
In Israel, gender segregation and modesty based in religion come across much more visibly and are enforced in public life. As someone who is not all that familiar with Jerusalem as a city, I had the fear that I might accidently wonder in to Mea She’arim, the ultra orthodox neighbourhood, and have rocks thrown at me because I was wearing shorts. Modesty is intertwined with gender segregation and arguably one and the same as both organize bodies in a political way within institutions[ii].
Despite the fact that modesty and gender segregation is aimed to protect men from having erotic thoughts, it in fact does the opposite. Because of strict regulations regarding what is deemed ‘appropriate’ for how men and women intermingle, even simple interactions between men and women become highly sexually charged. Walking on the same side of the street, a high-five, or sitting beside someone of the opposite gender on a bus becomes an erotic act[iii]. The organization of bodies along the lines of the sacred and the profane inherently perpetuates and creates hierarchy among genders. The women of the wall movement highlights the reality of staunch gender segregation policies, while exemplifying the political interaction between bodies and institutions in public and religious life.
Women of the wall is a multidenominational feminist movement which aims to secure the right for women to read from the Torah, lead services and wear tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) at the western wall, which is viewed as the most holy site in Judaism[iv]. The movement highlights the tension between secular values of gender equality and civil and religious authority in Israel. Women of the wall have faced violence and arrest[v]. This lead to contentious legal battles that went all the way to the supreme court of Israel, an institution that is supposed to be secular. However, the ruling party paid weak lip service to the acknowledgment of women’s (limited) right to pray at the wall. In doing so, the court ruling reinforced orthodox rabbinates ‘ownership’ of the wall, ultimately upholding the position that women of the wall are in violation of Jewish tradition[vi]. Regardless of legal precedents, the movement works to challenge orthodox rabbis authority and power at defining what Jewish prayer is.
As someone raised as a reform Jew (a denomination that has religious gender equality), the first time I had ever seen a meḥitzah in a shul was as an adult. Every meḥitzah is a bit different depending on the shul, with a wide variety and creativity as to what it should look like. In January I visited a few Haredi shuls during Shabbat in Jerusalem. The Hassidic shul (I believe Chabad) had a meḥitzah that was like a sheet running down the middle of the room. The Syrian shul has a women’s balcony and a meḥitzah that was a sort of wooden lattice. The last shul I visited also had a women’s balcony and was one of the best examples of hostile architecture I have ever seen. The women’s balcony had a wooden lattice and a sheet rendering it impossible to see anything of the large beautifully decorated men’s section. This also made the women completely invisible. The balcony was incredibly narrow. There was virtually no space for women, or for me, in both a physical and a symbolic sense.
Modesty practices, such as the meḥitzah (the division between men and women) and kol ’ishah (women’s voices), regulate the way in which women interact and are seen within public space and vice versa[vii]. Both the meḥitzah and kol ’ishah regulations, which women are subjected to at the western wall, are tools to control male sexuality as men seeing or hearing women praying could supposedly lead to men having erotic thoughts[viii]. The meḥitzah is a practice of division that fundamentally acts to control who sees whom. As Wolosky states, “throughout the meḥitzah discourses, seeing is something done by men, of women. Women’s seeing is never a topic of concern, but itself remains an invisible subject.”[ix] Thus the rabbinic line of thought surrounding modesty, the meḥitzah and kol ’ishah, only account for what men are experiencing and seeing. By preventing women from being seen or heard, women are rendered invisible and voiceless in religious spaces. Returning to my reflection about what makes me uncomfortable about gender divisions, it is the effects of the divisions that affect me the most. The silencing of woman, and by extension of me, was profound. Perhaps, then, my discomfort has less to do with how we organize and ascribe bodies to certain politics, and more to do with how we politicize and silence certain voices.
By: Lx Silver-Mahr
[i] Hahner, Leslie A., and Scott J. Varda. “Modesty and Feminisms: Conversations on Aesthetics and Resistance.” Feminist Formations24, no. 3 (2012): 22-42. doi:10.1353/ff.2012.0029.
[ii] Wolosky, Shira. “Foucault and Jewish Feminism: The Meḥitzah as Dividing Practice.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Womens Studies & Gender Issues, no. 17 (2009): 9-32.
[iii] Wolosky, Shira. “Foucault and Jewish Feminism: The Meḥitzah as Dividing Practice.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Womens Studies & Gender Issues, no. 17 (2009): 9-32.
[iv] “The Modern-Day Western Wall Liberators.” Women of the Wall. 2016. Accessed June 02, 2018. https://www.womenofthewall.org.il/.
[v] Charmé, Stuart. “The Political Transformation Of Gender Traditions At The Western Wall In Jerusalem.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21, no. 1 (2005): 5-34.
[vi] Charmé, Stuart. “The Political Transformation Of Gender Traditions At The Western Wall In Jerusalem.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21, no. 1 (2005): 5-34.
[vii] Wolosky, Shira. “Foucault and Jewish Feminism: The Meḥitzah as Dividing Practice.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Womens Studies & Gender Issues, no. 17 (2009): 9-32.
[viii] Baumel Joseph, Norma. “Shema B’kolah: On Listening to Women’s Voices in Prayer.” In Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, edited by Phyllis Chester and Rivka Haut, 288-309. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003
[ix] Wolosky, Shira. “Foucault and Jewish Feminism: The Meḥitzah as Dividing Practice.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Womens Studies & Gender Issues, no. 17 (2009): 16.