You can hardly believe it. Huge ads on the outside of Washington D.C. buses proclaim “DC Doin’ It” alongside a photo of a sexy-looking couple nuzzling and the bold proclamation that for both male and female partners, the new female condom is designed to “tease, please and protect.” The thrust (forgive me) of this bold and innovative campaign to protect women from getting AIDS is on pleasure rather than panic, with the “protection” benefits mentioned but not underscored. The campaign, run by the D.C. Department of Health and an AIDS coalition, plus a pharmacy chain, wants to empower women to take charge of their sexual behavior and its consequences, with vivid descriptions of the “fc2” condom in full public view. I was stunned, and I read the bus ads every time I saw them last month. (You can check them out at dcdoinit.com.)
One reason I found these ads so powerful, even aside from the fact that they looked more like soft porn that like the typical public-space advertising, is that I had just finished editing the article in this issue about how generously the Israeli government supports fertility treatment and how scant is the discourse around contraception and abortion. But, in reality, the power of those D.C. bus ads is that they — and the female condoms they’re giving away free — provide women with a way to assert agency over their own sexual activity, encouraging both pleasure and protection.
Now please bear with me for a minute. What’s coming next may sound like a pretty unlikely yoking of events. I’ve been observing two other behaviors not typically spoken of in the same context as female condoms. They are other examples of women taking charge of their bodies in public spaces. The first: at the recent biennial convention of Women of Reform Judaism, the sisterhood arm of the Reform movement, about 700 leaders in their synagogue communities gathered for lectures, discussions, song, study, prayer, celebration and the thrill of having President Barack Obama address them. Here’s what surprised. In a movement where ritual usually takes a second seat to social justice activities, many of the women wore kippot. These women were wearing kippot not just at prayer services, but throughout the conclave. A non-Jewish woman journalist covering the meeting asked me if this was how the women announced themselves as Jews on the street. But no, I said, these women don’t usually wear their kippot on the street. The kippot were, rather, a way of proclaiming that they were entitled to be fully participating Jewish women among other Jews. I’ve seen similar delighted appropriation of the traditional kippah-wearing by women at meetings of Conservative Jews, but the striking thing about the kippah prevalence at the Reform meetings was that it seemed a much smaller percentage of the men present were kippah wearers. For the women, the kippah was a signifier that they were serious about their Judaism, asserting this with a powerful visual reference.
A much less subtle example of women’s asserting the right to be present and full participants in public spaces is the willingness of Israelis to demonstrate against exclusion of women’s bodies and voices from some town squares in places like Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. This is where ultra-Orthodox right-wing religious factions have declared that women and girls should walk on separate sidewalks from men, stay out of public areas, refrain from having their voices heard singing in public, and more. Thousands of Israelis marched in protest against this gender segregation, even on some public buses, and against violence or threatened violence toward women (including against girls attending a not-Orthodoxenough day school). The horror — and the ugly absurdity — of a female soldier being told by an ultra-Orthodox man that she should sit at the back of the bus is only a small part of the story. What happens to women’s bodies is a bellwether. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation,” President Shimon Peres said. And the National Post newspaper in Canada described the demonstrations as a clear opposition to “the coercive encroachment of patriarchal ultra-Orthodox values.”
Female condoms. Kippot. Public protests over gender injustice. These are all physical manifestations of equal status. The links aren’t so farfetched. You get it. What is harder to get, and what really shocks, is that well into the fourth decade of the women’s movement these examples are still worthy of note.