Hasidic Williamsburg newspaper Der Tzitung removed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audery Tomason from the now-famous photograph showing the President White House and military staff watching the assassination of bin Laden. Why did they do this, and does it matter?
Der Tzitung has not publicly explained its reasons for deleting the women from the photograph. Many people have written online that it the photoshopping was part of the paper’s strict policy of not showing women. (As an aside, the White House release the photo under the specific conditions that “the photograph may not be manipulated in any way.”) The policy stems from the religious traditions within Hasidic judaism, where given the strict prohibition on premarital sexual contact, photographs and images of women’s bodies are avoided in the interests of rousing any illicit feelings in men.
Of course, the problems with this line of thinking are legion. First, it presumes a patriarchy. Why not delete all the men from the photo, and leave the women, to prevent women from having lustful feelings? Because men control the papers. Secondly, it presumes that the religious interests that motivated the photo manipulation trump the rights of women to depicted in positions of power or to see other women in power. And so on.
The truth is that communities that define for themselves strict gender lines correctly perceive that crossing those lines as a . In other words, it is wrong to say that the Hasidic community would be unaffected or improved by extending to women the same rights and treatment as men. In fact, it would completely alter Hasidic existence, destroying the old way of life and replacing it with a new one. The entire Hasidic way of life depends on not extending equal treatment to women.
Consider the Amish. The Amish cannot be Amish if they use tractors, electronics, and watch TV. Likewise, Hasids cannot be Hasidic unless they live in a world were women are invisible in culture and secondary in society. Similarly, the Catholic Church cannot ordain women and still be Catholic.
To change these fundamental rules would not simply change these communities. It would transform them into something else incompatible with the original, or annihilate them as “cultures”. Now you can argue that the people within those cultures would be better off after equality, and you are probably right–but they wouldn’t be members of those cultures any more.
The question is not one of rights, the question is one of existence and conversely one of tolerance. If there can be no Hasidic community without the relegation of women to the background, and you want to change that, are you comfortable obliterating the culture even as you liberate (or “enlighten”) its members? Do you liberate the members but destroy their culture, or do you tolerate or even celebrate the cultural differences, knowing that you are also tolerating what you yourself would consider intolerable?
And who is to say? What if Hasidic women consciously and with great deliberation chose to cede their rights and equality to join these communities? Do they have the right to make that choice? Or does the mere existence of women in this condition (voluntarily or involuntarily) somehow threaten the rights of all other women? In other words, is the mere existence of a even a choice between patriarchy and equality for women itself an oppression?
Can there be gender equality in mainstream culture if the mainstream permits pockets of inequality to flourish within it?