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Let’s talk about sex (or gender)

July 12, 2009 – 12:37 am9 Comments

stepford_wivesBy The Hasid

The Jewish community of Australia is a strange beast, both forward-thinking and “traditional”.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the role and status of women: we’re simultaneously feminist and bound by conservative gender roles. It’s a strange experience, especially when you’re an idealistic teenager not quite able to ‘sit’ comfortably with contradiction. To wit: the modern-Orthodox school I attended championed the rights and achievements of women in the secular world (the academic expectations placed upon us were certainly equal to those of our male peers), yet we were virtually ignored in prayer services and religious instruction throughout our high-school years. To be blunt, I felt like a second-class citizen, as did much of my female cohort. But that’s for another post.

It does, however, provide a nice segue into into the topic du jour: women’s auxiliaries (of synagogues) and Parents’ organisations (of Jewish schools). Namely, their organisational and fund-raising habits, which – though very important financially – seem to be a complete throwback to another era. Let me be be clear – I am not in any way disparaging the women who dedicate huge chunks of time, money and effort into fund-raising activities, on top of the demands of work and family. I tip my proverbial hat to them and acknowledge how their hard work contributes positively to the Jewish community. And yet, the whole ‘scene’ – the manner in which these activities are organised and presented – gives me the irrits.

Case in point: last week I came across an invitation to the Yavneh Parents’ Organisation’s annual hostess function, to be held on Monday July 20. The event itself sounds really interesting, featuring guest-speaker Joanne Fedler – a best-selling novelist, feminist and women’s-rights activist. Brilliant, I thought. Sounds fascinating. But then, on the back of the (hot pink) invitation, I read that the event was a women’s only function.

“Hostess” function? Hot-pink invitations? Women’s only? Seriously?

What about Yavneh fathers who would also like to contribute to fundraising efforts, or at least hear Ms Fedler speak? What is with the arbitrary segregation of sexes for non-religious, social events? It’s like old-school sexism disguised by a thin veneer of women’s empowerment. One could, I think, safely assume that the women in attendance will be well-educated, open-minded, and – to varying degrees – supportive of feminism as a means of eliminating sexism and breaking-down traditional, socially-constructed gender roles. Which makes the whole thing even more bewildering, like there’s some sort of collective smothering of feminist sensibilities happening for the sake of fund-raising and maintaining ‘tradition’. It just screams Stepford Wives.

I do not mean to single out Yavneh for criticism in this area. Most other Jewish dayschools and synagogues have similar events throughout the year. I’m sure they’re equally backward and painful. (The NCJWA, however, I see as quite distinct, as its mandate is specifically women-oriented; whereas there is nothing specifically women-oriented – at least that I can discern – about a parents’ organisation or a shul.) I just happened to chance upon the Yavneh invitation, but one could easily substitute Yavneh for Scopus, King David, Mizrachi, or any other Jewish educational/religious organisation.

So, can someone please shed some light? Surely I’m not the only woman who attends these events reluctantly and with a sense of deep discomfort? Surely I’m not the only one bored to death by luncheons, gender-segregation and the reinforcement of silly stereotypes?

Speak up, sisters and brothers of Israel.

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