Indeed, this same 2500-year-old thinking that is behind the 21st century spate of radical religious misogyny spreading around the world. And obviously it’s not just Judaism. In Islam, Malala has taught us all about what’s going on in the Muslim world – in Egypt, Tunisia, and even Europe. In Christianity, the Paul Ryans of the world are spreading some frightening ideas about finding creative new ways to control women’s bodies. This is a world-wide, cross-religious phenomenon in which new invocations of old misogyny are pushing religions towards violent extremism. And Judaism is, unfortunately, no exception.
Although Orthodoxy is getting more extreme throughout the world, in Israel radical religious misogyny is spreading in particularly troubling ways. This has a lot to do with the lack of separation of religion and state in Israel and the fact that religious parties have disproportionate political power and a astonishing control over some of the state apparatus that monitors people’s personal status. But it’s not just that. It also has to do with secular men supporting religious political forces for their own advancement. The reason why, for example, there are no picture of women on buses in Jerusalem has less to do with what ultra-Orthodox Jews actually want and more to do with what secular businessmen controlling the ads think that haredim want. Similarly, in 2011, when then-Knesset speaker MK Ruby Rivlin decided to ban women singers from the Knesset, he did it not because of his own belief system – he is secular – but for his own political needs to appease certain haredi politicians. When the Shas-controlled Kol Berama radio station banned women’s voices from transmission in 2010, it was the secular male business director Shai Ben-Maor, who went to the Knesset to defend this illegal practice by saying, “This is what our listeners want” – even though research conducted among their listeners showed that 40% actually did not want to ban women’s voices and were actually offended by the practice.
So what really causes radical religious misogyny to spread is not ultra-Orthodox demands, but the perceptions of secular (usually male) politicians and businessmen who think that they know what haredim want and appeal to the most radical demands as if that will please the entire haredi population.
And of course the ones to suffer most through all this are the women. It is the women who literally have no voice and no political power – banned from radio stations, political parties, and a seat in the beit midrash. It is the women whose needs, wishes and ideas are completely ignored and lost amid the waves of political forces trying to own them. And it is women who are literally being stoned and stonewalled as they try to express a different vision for life in Israel.
Against this backdrop, the alignment that the authors described between grass-roots religious women’s groups and organizations calling for religious pluralism in Israel is particularly significant. Women’s groups need the support of secular society in order to effectively make change. These women are not just fighting against their own male leaders but also against the quiet secular acquiescence that has accompanied and enabled the rise of religious radicalism. This alignment is crucial in the process of halting the spread of violent religious radicalism.
It is vital for secular and progressive forces to get behind religious feminism. As we can see throughout the world, religious feminism is on the frontlines in the battle to contain religious radicalism. The whole world should be thanking religious feminists, and backing them. The fate of the world literally rests on their success in this struggle.
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminsit Alliance. Her next book, The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation, is due to be published in February by Soucebooks.