Orthodox women’s group seeks to reverse trend, have women reappear in public sphere

Group fights back against recent trends that go beyond mainstream Jewish standards of modesty.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

From gender-segregated buses to repeated vandalism of images of women in public, incidents that appear to suggest women don’t belong in the public eye have become increasingly common in Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel.

The perpetrators cite religion as a justification to remove women from the public sphere.

But advocacy group Chochmat Nashim, headed by Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, seeks to reverse the trend and ensure that women in traditional Jewish society are able to make their voices heard and remain a part of public life.

It’s critical to note that the women in Chochmat Nashim define themselves as observant, Orthodox Jews who are devoted to the traditional practices of their faith.

Chochmat Nashim is not opposed to the halachic (Jewish legal) standards of modesty, such as women dressing modestly and covering their hair when married. Rather, the activists call out viewpoints that go far beyond the traditionally accepted ideas of Jewish modesty.

Chochmat Nashim’s most recent project, a photo bank, seeks to create an archive of images that depict religious women engaging in normal, everyday activities like gardening, cooking, and celebrating special events with their families.

By providing stock images of religious Jewish women, the group says, they can help to reverse the trend of forbidding women from being featured in public life.

Around a decade ago, Keats-Jaskoll began to notice a worrying trend in Beit Shemesh, the Jerusalem suburb where she’s raising a family.

“In Beit Shemesh, we started to see that women and girls were slowly disappearing from billboards, posters, health clinic ads, and my daughters, who were seven and ten at the time, were asked to sit in the back of the bus because that’s where girls belong,” she told ILTV.

Noting that Jewish law does not require that women be hidden from public view, she explained that “first of all, we divide between what is religion, and what is culture, what is Halacha, and what is a social norm.

“It is most certainly not Halacha to erase women’s images, and nowadays, because so many kids have grown up with the idea that a woman’s picture can’t be seen…you now have religious men and boys tearing down posters, defacing them…and that’s actually Halachically not okay,” she told ILTV.

The idea that women should not be seen in public ”has created what we see as a detrimental trend in Orthodox society, where people are losing focus of what’s really important…we’re trying to bring back normalcy.”

Mentioning that she has three sons, Keats-Jaskoll said that preventing normal interactions between boys and girls can end up being detrimental to men.

“We’ve done research…and when boys and men are not normally exposed to women and girls, it’s just not good.”