Sexism and “Jerusalem” by Ivy Helman

headshot2Three weeks ago, I played a video entitled “Kingdom of David: Rivers of Babylon” from the PBS Empires series.  The series first aired in 2003.  For the first time, and I’ve played the video in class for probably six semesters in a row, I noticed that all of the biblical scholars, archaeologists and rabbis interviewed to discuss the Torah, the history of the Jews, the Talmud, the exile and the prophetic tradition were men.  This reminds me of a few months back when a female colleague of mine discussed about an encounter she had had with the producers of another documentary about the Hebrew Bible.  They had only interviewed one woman.  When asked about this decision, the producers told her that their audience finds men more authoritative than women when it comes to explaining topics of a religious nature.

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Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, an older woman walked into the liquor store where I work.  She wandered around for awhile and then appeared somewhat overwhelmed, which is usually my cue to inquire if the customer needs help.  She said she was just fine.  Five minutes later she was still wandering the store apparently unsure what to purchase so again I approached her and asked if she’d like some help.  She seemed somewhat desperate at this point and asked for my opinion on the Irish Cream Liquors and which one tasted the most like Bailey’s.  I told her I wasn’t exactly sure.  I had not tried them all but the one she was holding in her arms was very popular and we sell quite a bit of it.  She continued to hem and haw explaining to me that she was having a bunch of old ladies over for lunch.  She intended to offer them sips of Irish Cream afterwards.  Then out of the blue she looked at me and said that she still couldn’t decide so she was going to ask a man for his opinion.  This man also happened to be my boss.  He said that he hadn’t tried it, but that it was very popular.  His words, exactly the same as mine, seemed to be enough to convince her.  She bought the liquor and left.

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A rabbi friend of mine posted on Facebook.com a week ago a petition called “Let My Torah Go” from the organization “Women of the Wall.”   I clicked on the site.  The petition derides the unfairness and injustice of denying women access to the 100 or so Sifrei Torah held there for public use at the Kotel (commonly known in English as the Western Wall).  In addition, not only can women not bring a Torah from somewhere else to the Kotel to use, neither are they allowed to publicly read from the Torah at the Kotel.  The petition requests that the state of Israel live up to what it has said about the Kotel: that it be a “’public, holy site for all Jews,’ ” and grant equality to women as equal participants in Jewish religious and public life.  The petition ends with the following statement, “Women make up half of the State of Israel.  Women make up half of the Jewish world.  It is time for women have access to Torah at the Kotel.  Let My Torah Go.”

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Last Thursday I ran a bunch of errands.  In the middle of driving from one to the other, I pulled out into traffic at one of the busiest intersections in Lowell.  I sat there, somewhat in the middle of the road, waiting for the traffic to move so I could proceed.  There was really no other way to get into traffic except to force my way into the stream.  A middle-aged man in the car next to me started talking to me in a very loud voice.  He was not yelling nor screaming but he was clearly quite upset.  According to him, I was being selfish.  I was supposed to wait until it is safe to go before I pulled into traffic.

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These stories, each in their own way, are just a few of my daily experiences with sexism.  Let me tell you.  It’s tiring.  It’s demeaning.  It’s maddening.  It’s unjust.  It needs to end.

Let me say it again so that my words resonate this time.  Sexism needs to end.  One of the ways to further this feminist mission is to point out its existence.  Another is to respond to it.  The woman at the liquor store “needed” a man’s point of view to make a decision.  I told her that I had just said that exact same thing my male manager did but she wouldn’t take my word for it.  The women at the Kotel cannot use the Sefrei Torah even though they are there for “public” use.  I signed their petition.  I also thanked G-d for the “Women of the Wall,” who continuously stand up for women’s equality and rights as b’tzelem Elohim.  The man stuck in traffic with me “confused” my assertive driving skills with selfishness.  I rolled up the window slowly.  He knew I was shutting him out.  Documentary producers continue the pattern of interviewing mostly, if not only, male scholars arguing that they are more convincing and authoritative than female ones when it comes to explaining religion.  I’m not showing those kinds of videos again.

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A few days ago, my girlfriend and I saw “Jerusalem” at the Museum of Science in Boston.  This IMAX movie was written and directed by Daniel Ferguson and narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.   Suddenly, as I watched the movie I noticed a difference.  It was a brief respite from the sexism surrounding me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Jerusalem” focuses on the lives of three teen-aged girls, each from a different religion (one Greek Orthodox, one Jewish and one Muslim) and looks at the city from their perspective.  During the movie, the girls visit many of the same places during their daily routines but offer different interpretations of the sites.  Likewise, each of the girls express the love they have for the city and how important it is to them and their families.  They acknowledge the city is also important for people of other faiths but they don’t know why because they don’t speak to people of other faiths.  Interspersed throughout the girls’ stories is the history of the city, including its importance according to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the original inhabitants of the land, the Jebusites.  The only “authority” interviewed was a female archaeologist Dr. Jodi Magness.  The movie ends visually and narratively with a yearning for a different kind of Jerusalem, a city in which people from different faith backgrounds talk to one another.  By talking to each other, the movie suggests that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would see just how much they have in common.

There were a number of issues the movie didn’t explain well.  To be fair, I don’t think these were the filmmaker’s goals.  For example, if you OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAaren’t Muslim entering Dome of the Rock is limited at some times, non-existence at others, yet the viewer moved freely through the holy site and its adjoining complex.  If you are a woman you do not have the same access to the Kotel that men do, but the viewer moves freely in the male section of the Kotel.  In addition, at the Kotel, women cannot carry, let alone read from the Torah as the video shows the men doing.  There are other issues too but that is for another time.

The movie wasn’t perfect but it was a pleasant alternative.  I also wouldn’t call it feminist given some of its underlying assumptions and unfettered and unproblematized access to sites, but it was definitely much less sexist than most.  It was also visually stunning, although sometimes slightly dizzying, and the interviews were reflective, meaningful and informative. As far as I can recall, it was the first movie I had seen about the three monotheistic religions and the holy city of Jerusalem that did not presume maleness as its starting point or its main focus.  It was a breath of fresh air.  I hope that more movies about religion (and specifically the monotheistic faiths) follow suit.

***

Women are half the human race and it’s high time we are treated as such.  Our voices need to be heard.  Our participation needs to be valued.  Our perspectives, wisdom and understanding need to be honored.  Our lives and our stories need to be told.  We need to be cherished for who we are: an integral, invaluable part of the human species.  Stop sexism now!  Thanks “Jerusalem” for the brief respite.  It was much needed.

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).



Categories: Film, General, Human Rights, Interreligious dialogue, Justice, Monotheism, Resistance, Sexism

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18 replies

  1. Great post, thanks Ivy! As regards our stories that need to be told, I’m reminded of a survey too that showed that girls will read and enjoy storybooks that feature boy heroes, like Harry Potter, but generally, boys will not read books that center on female characters.

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    • Sarah, I think the issue is not that boys won’t read the female-focused books, but that publishers won’t publish them. Look at “Wrinkle in Time”, one of the most popular teen books of all time. It has a geeky girl as the featured character. Boys love the story as much as girls. But 28 publishers turned it down before it was finally published. “Harriet the Spy” is another title popular with both boys and girls. I suspect that boys don’t want to read mushy girl stuff, but I never liked those books either. Truly it is publishers, teachers and librarians who need to be brow beaten a bit, not kids. We are the ones perpetuating that silly notion that boys won’t read books featuring girls. If there is an interesting story with a strong central character, kids will read, whether the character is a boy or a girl.

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  2. I liked your post, particularly the specific ‘vignettes’. Yes, sexism is depressing (I’ve had and seen variations of “the liquor store” many MANY times), but there is hope for the future. Perhaps a younger woman of a different generation would not have needed a male reinforcement opinion. Thing is, WE have to be the ones to change it. WE have to create that non-sexist future, and by create I don’t mean complain. We have to BUILD stories, poems, institutions, foundations, etc. Sounds like “Jerusalem” is a hint of what that future can look like.

    And WE can do it!

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  3. Good for you to address this major problem again. Your story about the woman in the liquor store who wouldn’t take your word for the Irish cream but had to appeal to a man is very telling. I am suddenly reminded of Aristophanes’ Lysisistrata…….what if every woman in Israel went on strike and didn’t do all the work at home, like cooking? All those men who get to spend all their time studying (or whatever) would starve. How can we get men to catch on that we are indeed half the population??

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  4. Heading to Israel this summer for the first time on a birthright trip…I know my trip will be affected by some of the things you have mentioned. I’m really using this trip as a spiritual journey so it’ll just be interesting to see what will happen…thanks for the great post!

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  5. Great post, Ivy, very insightful. I am a Muslim man who was taught religion by a woman, my mother, and perhaps because of it, feel my religion incomplete unless it also includes the female perspective. Finding this site as been invaluable in getting that female religious perspective.
    I do agree with everything you have said, along with your asking that women be treated as the half of everything they are. Interestingly enough, that has revealed to me some of the main problems women face in relation to manhood and malehood.

    1- Women are not, practically, half of the population. Men do not think of women as half of the population, because there is not one group of women to which they relate; there are instead various subgroups of women, depending on their role. The young man has a mother and potential mates. The adult man has a wife and a daughter. There is a pool of women who are mother-like, to which we relate through our mother; a pool of women who are potential mates, to whom we relate based on our marital status, libido, sexual impulses and experience, and psychological makeup, and a pool of women to which we relate as …property(?), in that they belong to us, and as much as we must protect them from outside forces, we also have the say on what they do with themselves, and this group includes daughters and people who work for us. Men have always made that division in their mind ( and women too ) or had it made for them by societal rules and mores, and this is now less a matter of choice than it is a matter of psychological makeup. Such division having driven and underlined the course of history from the beginning of time, it is still present among us in spite of the advance of civilization and cultural/gender parity, and also thanks to our western cultures’ ability to reinforce the sexual roles while claiming to erase the gender roles. Obviously, and thankfully, this will diminish greatly as the next generations, which have been taught gender parity come to be, and especially, when women play a higher authoritative role in their lives.

    2- The most powerful thing men can face is women united into a single movement and single cause. In such a movement, all three subgroups come together, and men see side by side and arms locked, their mother, wife and daughter. Men do not know how to handle that. History has told us that whenever women united into one cause, whatever it was, and whatever society it was, it spurred the feminist men to join them, and it forced powers that be to the negotiating table. Using that #bringourgirlsback hashtag as an example, it is a cause that is taken principally by women, all women, young and old, mothers and wives, in the west and the east, Muslim and Christians. It is quickly joined by all male feminists, especially those with daughters, and the world is made to move because the world can’t but move when womanhood does (laws of physics, being an equal or larger mass). Anything short of that is a disservice to the female cause because while all black people passively or aggressively are fighting for the same cause (for rights gained by one are rights gained by all), and all Jews, practically and aggressively fight against the same forces, the gender war is different from the racial or ethnic ones, and is more individual than collective; and individual rights do not necessarily transfer to the collective, being more of a subjective nature. Ultimately though, the war women fight is one, just on different fronts, for the Jewish women fighting for access to the wall, are the Muslim ones fighting for access in the mosque, and the same ones fighting for access to congress and the white house, to the universities and the talk shows… And to tie back back to your point, yes, the tide will turn when men see women as the half of everything they are, but they must be made to see it.

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    • What you describe here, Po, is one of the foundations of sexism here in the West. Men are seen as individuals with characteristics specific to each one of them. And women are not seen as the individuals they are, but are seen in relationship to men, as mothers, wives, daughters, etc. In other words, relationships to men define who women are. Can you imagine the opposite? That you might be defined as the son of your mother? Or as the husband of your wife? For example, the composer Robert Schumann was often addressed as Mr. Wieck during his lifetime, because his wife Clara Wieck was a famous pianist. That didn’t accord him the respect he deserved, nor does defining women solely in relation to their men accord them the respect that every person should have. Western culture has to change, and I think it is changing, for you men to see us women as something other than motherly, wifely or daughterly, and certainly something other than property. And culture changes when people change.

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  6. To me,all inequity is based on who has the $$$$$$$$$$$$. Money equals Power iin our world.
    Until women have the $$$$$$$$$$$ they will always be at the mercy of those that do(the men)

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    • I don’t think it is that simple, Mary. If 100,000000 women were millionaires, it would not change the plight of women, only their individual lives. And any one of them may be the victim of any men without a dime in his pocket. Sure it is about means, but it is also about perception, and it is also about misogyny, none of which is solved with money alone. Furthermore how would women make the money if the system, societal and individual doesn’t allow it?

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  7. Or, until we get rid of or change the monetary system. Maybe it’s time for a new system – for many new and better systems, and maybe it will be the women who will invent them!

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  8. Ivy, like all the writers here I can totally relate to your post. Not only are women not taken seriously, even by other women, but I just read that research has shown that people don’t take hurricanes with feminine names as seriously as those with masculine names! That is insane and tragic, but is is just a symptom of how prevalent sexism is.

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  9. You used a show six times and you didn’t notice that all the boring bores were men? You’re kidding us right? I never listen to men discuss anything, religion is about men, spirituality is about women. This is scary.

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    • Turtle Woman, I actually think just noticing sexism in something you do as matter of fact actually points to a greater lesson: the way in which we don’t even see it sometimes as if it is “normal” when it clearly is not. Sometimes, our perspectives need to change or we need to be in a different place mentally to be able to notice just how pervasive sexism is in society and that is why I included that example. Even, I someone who is deeply committed to feminism and everything about it took a while to notice it in a film I use in class. The larger issue is that when I stop showing this film, what alternatives are out there to show? Right now, I do not have one.

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  10. Your article left me musing about so many things… first, how much sexism still is in effect here and how little it has changed elsewhere since the liberation battles fought by my generation worldwide. But, I also have to look at how much sexism I personally hold about “men”. If I see a man speaking with authority – I am immediately suspect whereas, if I hear an intelligent woman speaking – I immediately tune in! I guess its a bit like reverse racism – reverse “maleism”? And, Ivy, to play devils advocate for a minute, some of the respect you desire will come with age – often, your youth works against you as selfish, uppity, inexperienced etc. Lastly, many times, I have considered living elsewhere, for a multiple of reasons, but when I weigh the freedom to be “wymon” I feel in California – I just can’t make that transition. Thanks for making all of us look at it in the face yet again. Jayne 4 WomensHeritageProject.com

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