Monday, April 1, 2013

Obscuring Women in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

(Photos reproduced from 1)
     Making its way around the internet is the censored version of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising picture that the Bakehila newspaper recently published. In many ultra-orthodox communities, the blurring or covering the faces of women in pictures is common practice, and may be done in text books, on cereal boxes, in newspapers, and in any place that a female's face is found. Female cartoon faces are also censored. 
     One of the more widely-known occurrences of this type of censorship was in the May 6, 2011 issue of Der Zeitung, a Brooklyn-based Hasidic paper, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason, the director for counter terrorism, were erased from the picture, in conjunction with the newspaper's adherence to their modesty policy.  Apparently, Bakehila employs a similar policy. But these aren't the only newspapers to adhere to such strictures. The widely read Hebrew and English newspaper, Hamodia, billed as "the daily newspaper for Torah Jewry," also refuses to print pictures of women, due to their strict interpretation of the laws of tznius/modesty.
     Most troubling is that the readership of these newspapers are often the very same people who are looking to increase the numbers of ultra-orthodox Jews by supporting and/or engaging in kiruv efforts. Even more troubling is that those who are targeted by kiruv/outreach workers, have little or no knowledge of the actual goings-on  in the ultra-orthodox communities. Instead, the women and girls targeted by outreach workers are told that women are considered to be "on a higher spiritual plane than men," and that "women are closer to God." Sure, a compelling modern narrative has been created in which men and women are equal but have different roles to fulfill in their lives. Men must keep the laws of the Torah, many of which have specific time constraints. Women are not bound by those particular (time-bound) laws, since it is expected that they are also dealing with such things as child birth, child rearing, etc. New recruits to orthodoxy usually understand this. However, there are many laws that women recruits are not aware of until they are already committed to orthodoxy. While women learn fairly soon of the orthodox dress code, it is not advertised that the rules of modesty are so strict that they are often used, along with guilt, in order to control the women of ultra-orthodox communities. The photograph below is of a sign that was posted after the gruesome murder of eight year old Leiby Kletsky. It urges orthodox Jewish women to dress more modestly in order to be protected by God. Appealing to the women's fear that the little boy's fate may have been due to their collective immodesty, community pressure is exerted on them through the use of guilt, fear of God, and fear of losing God's protection. This notice indirectly blames the women for this little boy's murder. It could have been prevented if only the women were more tznius (modestly attired.)
Sign found in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Photo credit: G.G.

     While it is true that more liberal and more modern orthodox communities do treat women well, don't obscure their faces from their publications, and don't blame unfortunate events on a bare collar bone, these are not the communities that are targeting young people with outreach efforts. Most kiruv organizations are Hareidi/ultra-orthodox institutions that regularly adhere to, and teach these rules to their followers. It is ultra-orthodox kiruv organizations and ultra-orthodox rabbis who push these extremes on their new students, and turn out thinkers who regularly diminish women's presence in society.

1. Photo credit: Ynet News:,7340,L-4361353,00.html


  1. I would just add that while some of the less haredi Kiruv organizations might not block out women themselves, they partner and recruit for those same haredi organizations that do advocate or at least, are apologists for, ever-increasingly egregious behavior.

    The most egregious example is NCSY, which works with Aish and Ohr Somayach. Though booted from what is now the JSC for their behavior, they still have a strong public school presence under a "cultural" guise.


  2. One has to only look at the women in this documentary, even with the sound off, to see how controlled and repressive this lifestyle is for women.

  3. To what extent is there an overlap between kiruv efforts and those who promote ever-increasing chumras (extra restrictions) for women?

    My sense is that the face-blurring is an unfortunate trend on the rise (likely due to the availability of Photoshop), but it is controversial. Mainstream Chabad does NOT endorse it, and there were specific directives from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe that "there must also be a girl in the picture". Aish HaTorah, from what I've seen, also uses pictures of women. I know that some of the most restrictive rules come from more insular communities, like Satmar, that don't focus on kiruv.

    OTOH, I remember having an online conversation with someone about Rabbi Falk's book on modesty, since I found the whole tone of the book appalling. There were comments along the lines of it being "not suitable for kiruv". I'd say that it's not any better to treat already-frum women like crap, and that it's dishonest if the plan is to introduce it at a later stage instead of rejecting it entirely.

  4. Kiruv provides the entry point into this world. They can't tell a secular kid where this all leads or the kids would run before they finished their first sentence. Kiruv takes it one step at a time, a little pressure here, a little condemnation there. Smiles & approval at a longer skirt, mild disapproval at a shorter one. They layer it on slowly & introduce more restrictive rules as each BT recruit becomes "ready." It doesn't take kids long to fall into line, turn off the TV, give up the internet, spend a few weekends at shabbatons, study at a yeshiva and keep their mouths shut about erasing women from photos.

  5. JRKmommy, regarding overlap: The problem isn't that the campus kiruv rabbi or local Chabad shaliach (outreach person)is then going and blotting out the women per se, but that publications that either exclude women or blur their faces, and that supermarkets that obscure faces of women and girls that appear on national brands, are still being supported by people who are then going and doing outreach to bring people into these communities. Newspapers like Hamodia, that don't show women at all, are widely read by many in places like Monsey (a huge mixed orthodox community north of NYC,) and Brooklyn, as are community papers which regularly omit or obscure women from readers' view. These communities (and many are made up of orthodox Jews, both from birth and those who came to observance later on. These communities are home to outreach yeshivahs, outreach organizations, and outreach professionals (and those who do outreach but are not "professionals") who support businesses that engage in these practices. Subscribing to these newspapers, shopping in these stores, advertising in these publications for any purpose sends a positive message that they are not condemning their actions.

  6. Thanks for your answer.

    I've had that concern about a local publication here. They seem to be catering to the most extreme elements by not allowing photos of women - but this is not a halachic rule, and it is not something that many of their readers would believe is required. The problem is that by doing this, they set an example for the rest of the community, so it doesn't stay as a fringe practice. This particular local publication is widely distributed, with ads aimed at the frum community, and it has base who look to it for community information, upcoming sales, etc. I know some women - modern Orthodox business owners - who feel that they have to advertise there in order to reach customers, even though they have no issue with photos.

    What I would like to see is some inreach to match the outreach - a conscious effort to challenge crazy practices that alienate people in general. Not just saying "not yet, that's for people at a different level", but actually saying, "no, that's wrong, women need to be in the picture". There needs to be high-level push-back.

  7. I agree with you, JRKmommy. People from within need to start standing up to this blatant disrespect for women, otherwise it sends a frightening message to the community as a whole. Bad enough that women are not allowed to sing in front of men in ultra-orthodox homes, but taking away their voices was not enough? Communities have tznius patrols (modesty police) to make sure the women are adhering to strict rules governing skirt, sleeve, and neckline length. And now, women are not allowed to have faces. Yes, women and more moderate orthodox communities need to fight this madness. I wonder if maybe they're too afraid of the backlash if they do--it could put their kids at risk of being kicked out of their schools or not getting into better schools, it could affect the shidduch scene, it could affect businesses. Ultra-orthodox communities seem to be governed not so much a fear of god, as a fear of rabbis and losing community standing.

    1. > …more moderate orthodox communities need to fight this madness. I wonder if maybe they're too afraid of the backlash if they do…

      No, more moderate communities don’t care. What the crazy people in Williamsburg or Lakewood do has no direct impact on MO communities.

  8. "Ultra-orthodox communities seem to be governed not so much a fear of god, as a fear of rabbis and losing community standing."

    I agree. In religious terms, I think it could even be called a form of idol worship - people have more fear/respect for community reaction than G-d.

    I was in Israeli in December, 2011, and one thing that struck me was how, for the first time that I could remember, there was finally some real push-back against extremist misogyny, not just by some activitists, but a mass protest that included tons of Orthodox women. The image of a traumatized 8-yr-old girl crying on national television broke through the usual apologetics and apathy.


Your respectful comments are welcome.