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The Invisible Woman: When We Offend by Existing

2011 May 13

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.


13 Responses leave one →
  1. May 15, 2011


    Winning, Andi. Totally winning.

  2. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    May 15, 2011

    “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.”

    Talk about an apology that isn’t an apology. Thanks for this Andi, because this was just a blip on my news radar, and it should be more than that.

  3. Rich permalink
    May 16, 2011

    I feel you took this the wrong way, and by that I mean you could go in two directions with a sense of “offended-dom”. The opening caveat to my own thoughts is the old maxim regarding two Jews and three opinions. When I read about der Zeitung on Reddit the other day I did my head shaking, “oh man guys, this is what my mother-in-law would call ‘not good for the Jews'”. I haven’t always been Jewish, I did my pick and choose, there were mothers that preferred a Catholic boy, I sometimes say I go to temple four days a week and maybe leave out that’s where my fencing club is, but I have a background and bits and pieces of a Jewish education that give me a slightly different perspective. I’ve been told by orthodox rabbis that there are several rules in Judaism to protect women, the most benign of which is the matrilineal decent of “Jewishness”, the reasoning here being “Who are we to tell a woman the religion of her children?” in the case of a Jewish man and a gentile woman, the man is unable to “force his religion” on the children, unless the mother converts or the children decide to embrace Judaism at an acceptable age. I suppose the extreme would be the laws of modesty, traditionally they are, again, for protecting women from exploitation (i.e. depictions without permission, pornography, etc.). Your conclusion that her erasure is the product of offended (I shall assume male) Jews just doesn’t jibe with me, the reasoning is sound but I feel there’s an underlying misunderstanding. Where you take offense in the presumption that the image of Hillary might offend a dude named Menachem drinking coffee with his black hat buddies, instead think of his wife at home Sheila who thinks of her self as a good Chasidic wife, modest and publicly covers her head in deference to God, and wonder if instead it would be she who would look at these women and shake her head and wonder how they can walk around like that. I don’t disagree that you’re right in being offended, there’s an entirely different argument to be made that perhaps in this day and age women don’t need the protection of halachic law. Maybe the source of this issue is the issue, draconian laws that are at least 1800 years old. Why can I go to Williamsburg and buy a paper thats never published the image of a woman, and still be unable to trade my fiance for a few fatted calves for my upcoming Sukkot party.

    • Andi Greco permalink
      May 16, 2011

      Hi Rich, fancy meeting you here!

      I ought to better articulate one point in my argument: I don’t think that some cabal of male Hasidic Jews (Menachem and that sinister coffeeklatsch) is conspiring against female politicians, which was the conclusion to which a lot of people jumped when this story broke. Hillary had Der Zeitung’s endorsement in 2008, after all. What I meant was that ‘modesty’ is just an excuse when there is not one square inch of a woman’s body or face that passes the test. If you have to get rid of her altogether, if the woman cannot exist in any sense apart from her sexual tempting female-ness, then something is wrong.

      As for Sheila, I would argue that I was thinking of her — more specifically I was thinking of Alissa, a friend of mine who is brilliant and liberal and chooses to wear a tichel when she goes out every day. That was where the ‘female self-expression’ shoutout was directed. Sheila should stick to her guns. It’s just that there’s a world of difference between covering immodest dress (however it’s done) and actually erasing someone from history.

      I’m having a hard time understanding how suppressing any and all images of women can be rationalized as protection — from “depictions without permission” or, stranger still, “pornography.” Whatever a woman chose to wear when she left her house, whatever she chose to cover or leave uncovered, isn’t that the way she chose to ‘depict’ herself? If some guy can find a way to wank over your modestly dressed bod in a photo, what’s to stop him from doing it after he sees you on the street in real life? The issue is how the woman chooses to dress, not the documentation of her corporeal existence. That’s why DZ’s decision doesn’t pass the smell test, even by their own logic. Anyway, at this point it’s not really about ‘protecting’ women. We have law enforcement for that, which (at least theoretically) places the blame where it should be, on the exploiters, rather than on the woman for “asking for it.” Nowadays it’s about identity.

      As for those draconian old laws — my short answer is that I think they have a real place in this world, and contain mountains of potential good and hard-earned wisdom, if people approach them with their brains and hearts turned on. There’s no such thing as a literal approach to the Bible or the Torah; if you’re breathing, you’re interpreting. I wouldn’t be in church two or three times a week (with no face-saving cover whatsoever!) if I believed otherwise.

      In other words: enjoy the Sukkot party; let your Jew flag fly. Better to ‘be the change you want to see’ than to ignore the parts of your adopted culture that don’t make sense even with a wide-open mind.

      • Andi Greco permalink
        May 16, 2011

        Heh. Well, I meant ‘cover’ as in ‘excuse,’ but it occurs to me that in this context one would be more likely to read it as ‘hat/scarf/whatever.’ Both meanings apply. Anyway, let it be said that “fencing in a temple” sounds pretty badass.

      • Alissa permalink
        May 16, 2011

        Great post, Andi. I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I’m your married Jewish friend who covers her hair. Weird!

        Rich, I don’t think that Andi’s interpretation is wrong at all. The idea that tzniut (modesty) is about protecting women is a post hoc rationalization that ultimately does not ring true with me. As it is in fundamentalist Muslim society, requiring women to cover themselves is protection for men from their sexual desires. Women are separated from men in traditional shuls to prevent them from being distracted from prayer. Men can’t listen to a woman sing (kol isha) because it might turn them on. It’s all about covering a woman’s ervah (nakedness or indecency) to control the yetzer hara (evil inclination) of the men around her. This approach makes the entire community’s piety dependent on the bodies of women. It’s not protection for them, it’s control.

        So you know where I am coming from, I am a liberal, feminist Jew who does not see the whole of the Torah as being divinely authored and therefore binding. My approach has been to bring many of the commandments that have been abandoned by the more liberal denominations into my life and then to decide which of the mitzvot resonates with me and deepens my practice and my connection to the Divine and which don’t. Originally, my decision to take on the mitzvah of head covering was about my wanting to acknowledge my change in status as a married woman, as someone who had been publicly declared separate and holy for my husband (as he is to me): I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, and whatnot. It was my way of keeping something of myself apart from the public sphere, which I thought was terribly romantic. However, my practice cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. According to Torah I am not commanded to cover my hair because I am special, I am so commanded because when I got married my hair became ervah and acquired a power to arouse other men that it didn’t have before the wedding. I must prevent my body from taking men’s minds off Hashem.

        Despite this I still cover, but I wear my tichels the way men (and women) wear kippot: it is a symbol of humility and a reminder that I am a part of something bigger than myself. The fact that it looks like I cover for modesty is something that I struggle with, but I just haven’t found a kippah that I feel comfortable wearing yet. (I also like wearing scarves for reasons of fashion and practicality, but that’s a whole other thing.)

        • Alissa permalink
          May 16, 2011

          I guess I should change my picture to a photo of my with my tichel on, huh?

        • Rich permalink
          May 29, 2011

          I like the reasoning behind your tichel wearing, I know a great many reform and conservative Jews who feel the same. We’re meant to continually question our religion, post hoc reasoning doesn’t ring false with me because so many of our customs are continued with new arguments. Many of my beliefs don’t fall in with halachic authority, most of my education dismisses the Torah as being a divinely inspired work corrupted by man’s hand, what better way to push an agenda. Regardless of the opinions of traditional authority and custom I like that my rabbis never told me that women were in anyway inferior or that attraction was evil because it distracted me serving Hashem. Andi’s argument wasn’t wrong, I just saw the reasoning differently and found it even more diminishing and for me it was even more offensive.

          Ps. I’d likely have no Jewish identity right now if the reform rabbi I met in the summer of ’03 didn’t tell me of the choir of college girls that had replaced the cantor for the summer. Five girls singing in Hebrew? Baruch Hashem!

    • Any permalink
      May 17, 2011

      “I suppose the extreme would be the laws of modesty, traditionally they are, again, for protecting women from exploitation (i.e. depictions without permission, pornography, etc.).”

      This is a faulty logic. Shouldn’t all people present in the photo be afforded the same rights? Even benign sexism is still sexism. This doesn’t prove that it wasn’t erasure due to sexism. Your privilege is showing a bit.

      • Andi Greco permalink
        May 17, 2011

        To be fair, I don’t think Rich was endorsing this opinion. He was just describing the explanation that rabbis have provided him.

        • Rich permalink
          May 29, 2011

          Bingo, I don’t dig archaic laws that assume a person needs protecting based on gender.

  4. Rich permalink
    May 16, 2011

    I applaud.

  5. Shelley Ross permalink
    May 19, 2011

    You know what? Men would be in trouble if there really were not women in the world, wouldn’t they? However, it’s clear that to these men, women are not quite human; instead, they are brood animals existing only to produce the next generation of men and of brood mares. It is vile, and I cannot fathom why their women tolerate it. Oh yes, lifelong brainwashing. Tragic.

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