Body politics and Israeli feminism

Whether or not the Women of the Wall will actually face arrest or detention on April 10 remains to be seen; that they have faced this in the past only to return in greater numbers is a testament to the righteous chutzpah necessary to transform the gendered discrimination at Judaism's holiest site.

11 April 2013

The last few months, the floodgates have opened. Rape culture is finally becoming something discussed and deconstructed in public. We might say the cases in Steubenville and Delhi brought attention to familiar struggles in different corners of the globe: the latter because of the complicity of the state, the former for complicity of the media. Within North Africa, March 16 saw a 19 year old Tunisian woman named Amina Tyler post photographs of herself, with "Fuck your morals" and "My body belongs to me, and is not a source of anyone’s honor" written on her torso. It isn't so much that she wrote those words, but that she did so while nude, which arguably incited such people as Almi Adel, the Salafi Islamic preacher (who is part of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Tunisia,) to call for Amina to be stoned to death - others have suggested 80-100 lashes. Now, it appears, her family has settled on keeping her in a psychiatric hospital, presumably against her will.

I was reminded of the Egyptian woman Magda Alia al-Mahdy who posted photos of herself in the early days of post-Mubarak Egypt in October 2011, about whom Maya Mikdashi wrote

"She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn... Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control."

In Israel, some forty women took up the idea that nudity itself be transformative in the right contexts, and took part in a solidarity demonstration just a few weeks after al-Mahdy was herself abandoned and denounced by the same people she'd marched with in Tahrir Square full of hopes for the burgeoning revolution in Egypt. Sometimes, it seems feminist solidarity can cross boundaries  that politics can't. These recent movements, not to mention the public addressing of rape culture that make visible the workings of patriarchy in general, know that the regulation of women's bodies in particular are issues of power relations everywhere.

On Thursday, the feminist group FEMEN took to the streets in a show of nudity of their own, as part of a "Topless jihad" in defense of Amina Tyler, who was herself a founding member of FEMEN Tunisia. Thursday's demonstrations were going on in European cities - Paris, Brussels, Milan, Kiev, and Stockholm, and have drawn ire for their perhaps parochial, mostly Islamophobic undertones.

In Tel Aviv this past Friday, some four hundred demonstrators took part in what is becoming a worldwide tradition of the SlutWalk, a convergence of women and men who intend to challenge assumptions about dressing 'provocatively' by asking the uncomfortable question, "provoking what, exactly?" The march is a show of defiance in a society that so often maintains that a victim did something to beckon a rapist, whether it's the clothes they wore, or the reputation they might have.

SlutWalk will be taking place in Jerusalem at the end of next month, but in the mean time, it seems Jerusalem's women face an intersection of religious-based patriarchy as well: on March 14, Women of the Wall received a letter warning them that wrapping themselves in tallitot (prayer shawls), holding a minyan of women, or of reading from the Torah and reciting the Kaddish  (the mourners' prayer) out loud at the Western Wall would be grounds for their arrest. Feminism, like civil disobedience, comes in all types of designs. The practice of wearing a tallit (shawl), holding a minyan and reciting prayers (including the very  central and meaningful Kaddish), is precisely what Women of the Wall have been doing every Rosh Hodesh (marking the beginning of the Jewish month) since December 1, 1988. In fact, 10 women (two of whom were rabbis) were detained in February for wearing tallitot (shawls) at the Wall. With them were 300 others women and men, including a few of the paratroopers who recaptured the Western Wall from Jordanian control in the 1967 War.

Male privilege at the Western Wall means that I can pray on the more spacious side of the plaza in front of the wall, out loud as I please, as part of a minyan while wearing a tallit, without being told by either other men (or for that matter any women nearby) that I am "acting out of line", or more absurdly, threatened with arrest. Before the SlutWalk march takes appears in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall will have braved another two Rosh Hodashim, no doubt facing more intimidation, shouts, harrassments and threats, on the other hand keeping men needlessly and absurdly privileged.

Whether or not the Women of the Wall will actually face arrest or detention on April 10 remains to be seen, but that they were threatened with it at all is alarming enough; that they have faced it in the past only to return in greater numbers is a testament to the righteous chutzpah necessary to transform the gendered discriminations at Judaism's holiest site. Whether in the criminalization of religious practice on the basis of gender (as in Women of the Wall), or gender-policing practice through religion (as in the case of Amina Tyler and Magda Alia al-Mahdy); or the willingness of the state and media to side with rapists by calling them “promising” (Steubenville), or a reluctance to respond at all (Delhi), it's clear that patriarchy, like feminism, can come in many designs—but it doesn't have to.

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