Prepare to be gut-wrenched.
Elana Sztokman was just in the US for a ten day book tour for the publication of her book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom. Then she got on the plane for the 11 hour trip back to Israel.
The plane took off 20 minutes late because an ultra-Orthodox man was negotiating with passengers so as not to have to sit next to a woman—me—on the 11-hour flight.
I asked myself if this was karma or poetic justice. After all, I had just spoken to hundreds of people about exactly these issues, and the way women are made to feel like second class citizens as a result. Part of me wanted to smile and hand out copies of my book. But I sat there silently for a long time, watching all this happen, witnessing all these men around me talking about me, mostly in Yiddish, but also in Hebrew and English, without looking directly at me. I sat there, torn between my desire not to make a scene and my feeling that If I don’t articulate, right here and now, how all this affects women, how this affects me, who will?
Because what is this shit? It’s this:
That’s what it is. It’s not anything else. It’s not holy or spiritual or sanctified. It’s othering, it’s disgust, it’s get away from me, it’s don’t come near me, it’s you’re a contaminant.
After listening to them for a long time Sztokman decided to point that out.
I said, “Imagine if instead of men and women, we were talking about Jews and non-Jews. Imagine how you would feel if a bunch of non-Jews were standing around saying that they can’t sit next to you because you’re a Jew, that they are willing to sit anywhere but next to you, because their religion won’t allow it, because you are impure or different, or whatever. how would you feel? How would you ever get over that insult?” I could feel my voice rising. After all these years of writing about this, after this whole tour where I went around listening to people and sharing ideas, I just couldn’t stay silent in the face of this humiliation.
But Mr Ultra-Orthodox and all the other men said she didn’t understand and turned their backs on her. (She doesn’t say if there were any women around, or if so how they reacted.)
I sat down, put on my seatbelt, looked out the window and suddenly started to cry.
At one point I said to the men, whose backs were turned to me, “I sat here for half an hour just absorbing the insult.” That’s what everyone expected me to do. That’s what women are accustomed to doing. We give all kinds of reasons—we say we don’t mind, we like sitting in the back of the bus, we don’t want to “be like men,” this is what God wants, we don’t want to make a fuss, we like their lives. So we absorb the insult. We pretend everything is great. Maybe in some ways it is. Maybe we generally or genuinely love our lives. Maybe we are afraid of losing something if we fight for change. Maybe we are afraid of our own power. so we smile and go about our lives and pretend that this doesn’t happen.
If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world, it is this: I would like women to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.
So do I. Every day, every hour.