The Invisible Woman: When We Offend by Existing
On Monday morning, many of us woke to the surreal news story that Der Zeitung, a small, Williamsburg-based Hasidic newspaper, had printed a version of the ubiquitous “Situation Room photo” with a large dark smudge where Hillary Clinton had been sitting. Audrey Tomason, an official with the National Security Council, had also been photoshopped out of the background. The paper, which is directed at a very conservative readership, avowed that it was their policy never to print photos of women, and invoked their right to freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
If Hillary Clinton’s presence in the situation room that day mattered to these journalists, her removal from the photo would constitute deceit. Instead, the paper apparently considered it garden-variety editing.
Der Zeitung released a statement on Monday, excerpted below, ostensibly “apologizing” for their decision:
“Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”
As with most politicized apologies, it was about as satisfying as a wet handshake. Our Secretary of State and Director of Counterterrorism, quite literally erased from an iconic document? There is no “if” or “seen as” about it.
While varied news outlets have reported on the matter, many on the left have confined themselves to a line or two of head-shaking about Those Wacko Religious Nutjobs. Although the situation may seem absurd, a slightly more nuanced examination is in order.
Every individual has her or his own standard about where to draw the line between promoting human rights and forcing cultural imperialism. (See what I did there?) I tend to be pretty tolerant when it comes to other people’s religious traditions. Choosing not to print pictures of women who are dressed “immodestly,” however Der Zeitung might define such a thing, would be defensible, although it would not jive with my values. Modesty in dress is a complicated issue that involves women’s self-definition and cultural expression as well as patriarchal traditions.
Striking women from the visual record altogether is far more troubling. Think of the difference between the hijab and the burqa: one is about modesty, the other is about whitewashing identity altogether.
As a representative of the United States, Hillary Clinton is always careful to dress in a conservative manner. She has even been photographed wearing a hijab during trips to Egypt, Eritrea, and Pakistan. The reasons behind her decision to do so are probably complex, a mixture of deference to different cultures, desire to keep her verbal message front and center, and picking her battles. Even in the United States, her outfits are always reserved, partly, I assume, so that no perceived expression of her sexuality can be used as an excuse to ignore her politics.
Some would say that people who are uncomfortable with the female body are not worth consideration, but not all concerns about modesty are based in misogyny and gynophobia; the issue is not black and white. Again, everyone draws the line between acceptable and unacceptable in a different place. In any case, Clinton’s careful attentions were repaid by Der Zeitung with the same dismissal they would offer a woman who did not take cultural sensitivity into consideration.
If the paper’s editors feel that it is not worth their time to look over every photograph of a woman and determine whether it is appropriate to print, then their priorities are seriously skewed. In exchange for conserving a little time and effort, they imply that women are literally immaterial; they do offend the women of their community, and rather directly. Hasidic women get the message: “You don’t exist in the “real world” of politics; it saves us a lot of trouble if you just aren’t there.” Their policy is unethical, and it’s bad journalism. Yet the omission of all photos of women still falls under the heading of free speech, as long as no outright falsehoods are printed.
The photoshopped picture above is such a falsehood, pure and simple. It would be unacceptable even if the White House had not specified that the photo must not be edited (which it did). Der Zeitung went a step too far and breached the wall between distasteful and inadmissable. They have the right to refuse to print the photo; they do not have the right to alter history to suit their needs.
These sorts of problems make me wonder whether, since you can’t please everyone, you might as well please yourself and dress according to your own standards 100% of the time. This might work if you set up camp on a commune and live off your vegetable garden. Those of us who reap the fruits of civilization (read: money and power), unfortunately, need to play by its rules. We all adapt, to some degree, politicians more than most. We all compromise when it comes to revealing ourselves.
This story, however, is not about modesty. Clinton was edited out of the picture not because her clothing didn’t meet someone’s approval, but because her very existence, as a woman, offended someone. Her body was not blurred or obscured by a black bar, which would have been more understandable to me (though still strange). Even her face, totally detached from her body, was too much femininity for the editors. The only solution, for them, was to erase her. I believe that the burqa comes dangerously close to the same result — erasing women — and I cannot accept it for the same reason. (Regular Busy Signal readers may recall a piece I wrote in February, about eye contact as the most basic and vital element of communication.) I intend the mention of burqas as illustration; although I have Muslim friends and coworkers, I have never been acquainted with a woman who wears a burqa, and do not feel comfortable condemning it wholesale. Sadly, though, I do have experience with meeting men who would prefer that women exist in no other capacity than as female adjuncts to their world.
Earlier I mentioned a line between human rights and cultural imperialism. The total denial of women’s corporeal existence is where even a relativist like myself must draw that line.