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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Scholars speak on religious tensions of gender differences

Published: April 19, 2013
Section: News

HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law (GCRL) hosted a panel on Monday for the Gendered Rights conference, titled “Trends in Sex Segregation: Israel, America and Beyond.”

Sylvia Barack Fishman, the co-director of HBI, moderated the panel, and Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of Jewish rthodox feminist alliance, began the panel by discussing gender discrimination in public spaces.

Maryles explained that the takeoff times for planes at the El Al Airline get delayed because the flight attendants are busy switching around seats in order to accommodate the needs of men who don’t want to sit next to women.

Just a few months ago, she said, she was scolded by the wife of an American Orthodox Jewish man for sitting next to him on the plane.

“What about the needs of average people?” Sztokman asked. “Why are they accommodating the needs of men who don’t want to sit next to women, but not all of ours? How about us?”

She went on to say that just a few weeks ago, authorities of a gym drove the women out because a group of men said they didn’t want to be in their presence.

“The fault here is not necessarily in the ultra Orthodox Jews. The fault is in the secular society that empowers this kind of thinking. Thinking that men’s desire to not sit next to women is a legitimate desire that needs to be met,” she said. “The only way to stop religious radicalism from spreading is to unravel that kind of rhetoric amongst the secular society.”

Ilan Fuchs, a research associate at HBI-GCRL, followed by speaking about women’s education in context of a unique group called “Satmar,” a Jewish community in New Jersey.

Fuchs explained that this community considers women’s access to text, to the literal meaning of opening a book, dangerous.

A book written by Satmar Rabbi, “argues that the difference between the two kinds of women, the naïve and the promiscuous, is knowledge,” Fuchs informed the audience, “the study will transform her from naïve and pure to seductive and promiscuous woman.”

He suggested, “Satmar refuses change but is forced to change because the world outside changes. They’ve become more and more extreme as the world changes more, and to do so they need to reinvent the past to justify what they’re doing. Which is reform, in some sense, but it’s a reform on the right side of men.”

Afterward, Lisa Anteby-Yemini, who is a Scholar in Residence at HBI and Universite De Alx En Provence spoke about gender discrimination in rituals of Muslim and Jewish women.

In 2005, she summarized, an American Muslim woman led a mixed congregational prayer and gave the Friday Sermon for the first time in New York City. A huge debate followed and the radical view called her actions non-Islamic and asked that she be ostracized by all Muslim societies. “She never did this again in public space and she was seen as a transgression and a blasphemy,” Anteby-Yemini said.

Another occurrence was in 2012 in France, when a Jewish Orthodox female scholar led a Torah reading for women in a Synagogue. Both the chief Rabbi of Paris and France severely disapproved of this and told the Rabbi of the Synagogue who supported this to “never allow it to happen again at the risk of being fired,” Anteby-Yemini said.

She theorized, “I think some of the reasons that were in the debate in France was that this was too brutal a change or too brutal an innovation in the customs of French Orthodox Synagogue space or ritual.”

“Many rabbis said this was a threat that would bring even more serious consequences to the split in the community and also that this would erase the difference between them and the non-Orthodox in France,” she said.