Do you ever find yourself walking down the street on an ordinary day, and experience a stranger purposely avert their eyes from you as you walk by them?
* A little background for those unfamiliar with the phenomenon: In ultra-religious Judaism there are strict rules about separation of men and women. There are many reasons behind these rules, some of which are perfectly sensible, and some which are not as clear. One of the implications of these rules is that often, an ultra-religious man will avert his eyes when a woman is in sight, whether or not he knows her, regardless of other people present. My understanding of this action is to avoid sexual temptation.
I don’t dress provocatively. I usually wear loosely fitted jeans, a baggy sweatshirt and clashing colors. And yet when I experience a person purposely averting their gaze from me in a situation such as crossing the street, I feel dehumanized. I am made into a sex object. Because what they say with their eyes, at least what I receive is, it doesn’t matter if you dress modestly, or act modestly, the fact that you are a woman means you are automatically a sexual tempation.
Well, most of the time that is not how I view myself. I try to keep a positive self image. I’m a musician, a writer, an artist. I’m a mathematics student. I’m not such a bad cook. I’m a sister and daughter and friend. Of course, I’m not one to give power to a stranger by letting them reduce me to a sex object. I’m just saying, they’re obviously wrong if they think that’s all there is to me. And I think I can say in the name of most women that that is true for them as well.
Objectification of women goes beyond strangers on the street. In some extreme cases – and do note these are extreme cases – children and babies are sexualized in a similar way. Young girls above the age of three are criticized for dressing immodestly if their skirts do not fall below the knee and their sleeves are not elbow length. Male siblings avoid changing baby girls’ diapers. In my opinion there is a message in these actions which is wrong, and that is the message that all things female are sexual temptations. Babies are not sexual. Girls are not sexual. People who sexualize girls and babies are called pedophiles.
Once, while I was working at the hospital for National Service, a man came up to me and, staring at the floor, asked if he could get by. I was standing next to the food cart preparing meals for a patient. There were a clear two meters behind me, and yet this man wanted me to put down the food I was balancing and step back so he could pass in front of me. I did not understand why that was necessary since I was not blocking the hallway. Luckily the head nurse saved the day by explaining to me that this man held by a tradition which prohibited walking between two women. I glanced across the hall and noticed a woman standing there, talking to someone else. The hall was wide enough so he wouldn’t have any contact with either of us as he walked by, and yet I had to put down the tray I was organizing and step back from the food cart to let him pass. The whole time the man refused to look up at me and stared at the floor. I was wearing a standard hospital scrub three sizes too big for me (provocative?). It made no sense to me. I felt humiliated and belittled.Why did he feel he couldn’t walk between me and the other woman, seven feet away? And regardless, why did he feel he couldn’t look me in the eye when asking me a favor? Where was his respect for an eighteen year old serving her country? I’ll never know. All he saw in me that day was a sex object. And I was probably feeding his father.
In conclusion, let me just say what I think is the core of the Jewish religion. Love and respect for the other overrides the little everyday rules we’re supposed to follow. When someone offers you their hand to shake, a person should use their judgement and decide whether it’s more important not to touch a woman or not to cause her shame, a much worse offense people tend to forget about sometimes. It seems that some streams in Judaism have forgotten that loving our neighbors like ourselves is our highest law. Unsure about that? I learned a song in kindergarten about how Rabbi Akiva says, “Love your neighbor like youself, that is the entire Torah.”