When Female Mathematicians Walk Into A Bar

Guilty – I find math jokes hilarious. When they are in fact jokes about math. I belong to a group on Facebook dedicated to the sole purpose of sharing math jokes. They make me groan or roll my eyes and occasionally laugh out loud. Once in a while someone will post a joke like this:

Yo Mamma’s so fat, her favorite day is Pi day.

Which is not only painfully unfunny, it’s also misogynistic, fat-shamey, and not even about math.

So I sigh and keep scrolling, hoping the rest of the jokes for that day will have more content and be less offensive. But then this happens:

Why do we have Pi day and Women’s day but we don’t have Men’s day?
Because men are rational!

By now I’m annoyed, but I tell myself to let it go, he was just trying to make a joke about pi being an irrational number, haha. It’s just a joke

And then someone posted this:

Woman = time * money
Time = money
Money is the root of all problems
Therefore, Woman = problems

So I decided to speak my mind and commented, “Did they run out of jokes at the funny joke store where you shop?” (Night at the Museum II is a family favorite.)

My comment made people angry. ‘Look how many people thought it was funny,’ they said. ‘It’s your choice to be offended,’ they said. ‘It’s just a joke, get a sense of humor.’

Usually when a group starts posting too much offensive content, I just leave the group. But these are math jokes. I love math jokes. I want to stick around for the other 90% which are funny. So I decided to say something. I typed up a serious post for the group, which, to summarize, said:

“As a [female] mathematician, I have some trouble with the amount of jokes posted here that are about women. There is already a huge gap between the number of men and women in math. […] Let’s try to make this group a space where everyone can feel like they belong.”

The original post and comments, in Hebrew, can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468380300090389/permalink/1664671797127904/

Immediately came a rush of agreement and thanks from many female members of the group. But backlash was incredible. I can’t say I didn’t expect it, given the attitude I had met from the previous comment about the women=problems post. Here are some examples of response comments:

“So you went through 1000(!) posts and found 10 that were offensive to women. Nice. I thought I was obsessive…Grow a couple.”

“Your post creates a bad name for all women in general, and specifically for us women in this group.”

“Your post ruined my Friday morning.”

“Hi girls, I wanted to post a math joke, but I’m afraid I’ll be attacked if I do.”

“This post reinforces the stereotype that women are irrational and overly sensitive.”

“Who are you to decide what kind of jokes I can laugh at? If you’re offended, that’s your problem. You are being a bully and acting in a way worthy of Iran or some place where women are objects. Shame on you.”

“Get a sense of humor.”

“I don’t think [you are] looking for a solution, just attention and pity.”

“I’ve had enough. What a humorless party-pooper.”

“What a shame that you allow your feminist opinions to blind you, and worse, to try to ruin this group.”

“Taking an offensive joke is a price you should be willing to pay.”

Then there was one comment which stood out:

“Your argument is right, but you’re wrong to try to convince men who are defective and egotistical who would never accept criticism even if it is justified, and certainly not from a woman.”

To which I responded,

“Well, then, back me up. Men, speak up!”

And then came the following responses, all from men.

“Liora, you are not alone! 🙂 I also feel that the jokes about women are offensive and not funny.”

“I never thought those jokes offended anyone, but now I see the amount of women who are hurt by them and I really do think we should stop telling them. Even if I personally am not offended, the fact is that some women here are and we need to respect them.”

 “What is with you guys? Someone said it’s offensive, apologize and stop posting them. It’s that simple. When women ask you not to tell offensive jokes, stop telling them they are being whiny or have no sense of humor. Behave like human beings.”

“To all of my penis-owning friends, we are not women. We do not experience the jokes in the same way. So most of us are not offended, and we might not even notice the misogyny in them. But if someone tells me his tooth hurts, I won’t silence him by claiming that my teeth feel fine. If she says the jokes are offensive, I believe her, and if I find a joke that contains gender references, I’ll think twice before posting it. We’re here to have fun, not to hurt anyone.”

 “Liora, great post. It’s a shame you had to take so much pigheadedness in response.”

“I’ve started a new group. It’s called Misogynistic Math Jokes. Take your misogynistic math humor there.”

“Guys, guys…I don’t get what your problem is. Someone said she was offended, and she is clearly not the only one. What’s so hard about just accepting? Why are you acting like it will somehow destroy the group? It seems to me that not posting these offensive jokes will only improve the quality of our group.”

“How does saying that there were ‘only 10’ misogynistic jokes out of 1000 prove anything but the fact that there were 10 misogynistic jokes?”

 Each response received its own dose of backlash.

I am overwhelmed and grateful for all the support, for every man who stood up to his peers and called them out. Every man who showed that women’s issues are not in fact only women’s issues, they are human rights issues. Men who reminded us that there are not only rude, self centered, egotistical dunderheads out there, but also caring, empathetic, kind men who love women and are not afraid to call injustice by its name. I am proud to be part of a group with you.

In an unexpected turn of events, about 12 hours after my post, a group admin invited me to join the team of group moderators. I now have the ability to remove posts and block users from the group, which means no more misogynistic math jokes over here! What this tells me is that the message was received. My voice was heard. But I think that is greatly due to the amount of men who spoke up in support of me and my fellow women mathematicians.

It’s easy to look back at the comments and think, wow, there is no chance for equality in the future. Why would any woman want to learn mathematics if it means being surrounded by attitudes like those? But from the supportive responses, it is evident that men also care about equality. Misogyny is becoming less socially acceptable. Men have joined the fight for women’s rights and respect. History has shown us that the civil rights movement did not take off until white people marched alongside black people. Likewise, the movement for equality will not win until men fight alongside women. Following my post about math jokes, I saw proof of that happening. So instead of being crushed and disheartened, I am hopeful.

Here’s to a better future, a better world for our boys and girls to grow up in.

Thank you!

*Top image from https://xkcd.com/385/

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Women Talk to a Wall – and Get Arrested

On the first day of every Jewish month, women all over the world hold their breath. Some of us cross our fingers; some of us pray or meditate. Some of us can’t be there to support them, so wherever we are we hold still and hope really hard that the Women of the Wall don’t go to jail this month. We know what they are doing is illegal. We know it upsets people. We know it’s looked down upon by authorities. But for some reason we get it into our head that maybe this time it won’t bother anyone.

The Women of the Wall struggle with a limitation of religious freedom in the state of Israel. Personally, it baffles me that this is a problem in a state which is one of the most socially progressive in the whole world in equality for women, where we have free health care, free day care, and such fierce laws protecting women’s rights. Moreover, it seems ironic that it would be a problem to practice a Jewish custom in what is supposed to be the Jewish state. (I’ll elaborate in the next few paragraphs.)

Women of the Wall

As it turned out this month not many people were bothered, and still ten women got arrested. The Women of the Wall gathered as usual and held an inspiring, exciting prayer on the women’s side of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. They danced and sang and wore prayer shawls. These actions are what have been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court of Israel.

1. Wearing a prayer shawl. For those unfamiliar with the different religious practices: in Orthodox Judaism it is traditional only for men to wear a shawl during prayer, and if a woman wants to wear one it is looked down upon, but it is one hundred percent allowed and backed up by some of the greatest Rabbis in our history.

2. Conducting a religious service. It seems odd to me that this sort of thing would be prohibited at a holy site. But the law is the law.

3. Singing and dancing. These actions are prohibited because in Orthodox Judaism it is considered immodest for a woman to sing or dance in the presence of a man (who is not her husband). As far as I understand, the idea behind this tradition is that a woman’s singing voice (or dancing) can cause a man to become sexually aroused. So to avoid adultery, we (women) avoid public singing and mixed dancing.

At this point, I would like to recommend this post I read on one of my favorite blogs, the Good Men Project. It talks about why saying ‘men are slaves to their sex drive’ is offensive to men. Please take a minute to look over it, it’s awesome.

With all this in mind, I would like to express my confusion about why the Women of the Wall get arrested. It seems to me that the ruling of the Supreme Court which prohibits these women’s prayer was made out of fear. If religious extremists complain that a group of women are ‘being provocative’ and ‘disrespecting the holy site’, and threaten to start a riot, obviously we should take action to make sure no one gets hurt. But last time I checked, threatening, black mail, and violence were illegal. So the Supreme Court appears to be telling us that we, the Jewish people living in the state of Israel, give in to fear instead of standing up for religious freedom. It seems like the Women of the Wall get arrested because someone out there might get angry and start acting violent. It sounds like we’re blaming the victim. It seems like we are holding women responsible for the actions of men. Here’s where the Good Men Project would say we’re wrong. Men are responsible for their own actions. They can control themselves and make their own decisions, and saying otherwise sets us back centuries. We should hold these extremists responsible for their own actions. People who use violence should be arrested, not people who just want to worship God in their own way.

In the Israeli national anthem, called ‘Hatikva’ which means ‘Our Hope’, we sing about our hope to one day be a truly free nation in our country. We hope to have full religious freedom. We hope to have liberty to make decisions based on our principles, not our fear. The Women of the Wall are the manifestation of this hope, just like the paratroopers who liberated the Wailing Wall in 1967.