They call it the case of the disappearing Orthodox woman.
Controversy over erasing photographs of women in right-wing Orthodox publications is dominating public conversation in the Orthodox community yet again. But Orthodox women are beginning to fight back, with mixed results.
In an op-ed in the Times of Israel, Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll gave numerous examples of right-wing publications excluding women from their pages, including newspapers, magazines, and even children’s books. A co-founder of Israeli advocacy group Chochmat Nashim, she says the practice of erasing pictures of women began in the most extreme communities, “but what happens, as with all extremes, when it’s not spoken out against, it seeps out and it continues and it gets worse.” In the op-ed, she called out the Modern Orthodox leadership for failing to condemn the erasure of Orthodox women in right-wing publications.
“What do we have leadership for, what do we have gedolim for, if they are afraid to say what is right and what is wrong? Is that not what leadership is for?” Keats-Jaskoll told the Jewish Week.
“What do we have leadership for, what do we have gedolim for, if they are afraid to say what is right and what is wrong?”
For years, right-wing Orthodox publishers have been erasing women from their newspapers and magazines, photoshopping them out of the picture entirely or blurring their faces. But while the practice is mainly confined to the right-wing Orthodox world, the issue has increasingly been roiling the Orthodox community’s center and left wings.
Shira Sheps, an Orthodox photographer, recently started The Layers Project Magazine as a publication for women that showcases Jewish women. Instagram personality Adina Miles, otherwise known as Flatbush Girl, caused a stir over the summer when she placed an ad in an Orthodox newspaper with an emoji over a picture of her face. Her stunt led to an online movement, promoted by JOFA, which attracted the attention of Mayim Bialik. The actress posted a picture of herself from her TV show, Big Bang Theory, with an emoji covering her face accompanied by the hashtag #FrumWomenHaveFaces.
The RCA responded to Keats-Jaskoll’s op-ed in a statement on Facebook, affirming its support for printing the faces of women but stopping short of condemning Orthodox publishers who engage in the practice. Critics continued to call on the RCA to do so, saying the statement did not go far enough.
“What we said in the affirmative implies the negative as well,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told the Jewish Week. “Our sense is that these magazines come from and represent and have the largest membership in a part of the community that is generally not served by the RCA.”
Rabbi Gil Student, editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com noted that while the right-wing publications are excluding women, more centrist Orthodox publications, including his own, are including them.
“If you look at the Jewish Link of New Jersey or the Five Towns Jewish Times, these are newspapers run by Orthodox Jews primarily for the Orthodox community, and they publish pictures of Orthodox women tastefully and within the standards of the Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Student. “No one complains to my knowledge.”
Much of the conversation around this issue has been happening on Facebook, where Orthodox women have long had a platform in ways they have not in their communities’ media.
“This needs to be a movement from within. Nobody wants to be changed by somebody from the outside.”
There are even Facebook groups exclusively dedicated to this issue. An administrator of one of these groups, who describes herself as a “yeshivish rebbetzin,” started her group to organize yeshivish community members to fight the exclusion of women. She says the change will come when the readers of these magazines, not the Modern Orthodox community, speak out against this practice.
“This needs to be a movement from within,” she said. “Nobody wants to be changed by somebody from the outside.”
Her group, which has over 500 members who have to identify as “past, current, or potential subscribers” to magazines like Mishpacha and Binah to join the group, encourages members to write letters to the magazine editors explaining why they have unsubscribed.
“They are afraid of their readership and their advertisers,” said the group administrator. “These are decisions that are being made as business decisions that are somehow being seen as philosophical decisions, and they’re not.”
Although she doubts the publishers will mind the condemnations from the Modern Orthodox community, she hopes that the push from the right-wing community will have an impact.
“This time the movement is from within the readership, within the target audience of the publications that exclude pictures of women,” she said. “And I think that’s why we have potential to make change happen.”