Wednesday, 5 March 2014

cue eye-roll & "here she goes again"


It has happened again. My local synagogue, a place where I am on paper a member but feel alienated from and increasingly unwelcome, has put together not one but two pre-pesach adult education programmes without any women educators.

I know how this plays out. I raise an objection, get called out for being a nasty girl and for not raising my objections in an appropriately respectful tone... dirty laundry in public... I make the arguments about the need to include women as scholars and educators and not to silence the female voice in public space. So it is precisely in public where the conversation needs to happen... They tell me they invited one woman and she said no, so they tried and I should be more respectful and appreciative of all their hard work... Other people tell me that they agree with me and they are also appalled. Just not outraged enough to speak out... or  they are beyond caring and expecting the synagogue to deliver anything decent.... 

I realise I am a bore about this feminist stuff. I get much eye-rolling and “here she goes again” when I speak out about this. So this time I going to try to behave differently. Not because I have less anger, but because as much fun as it is to receive hate mail and long lectures on how I ought to be nice and polite.... expressing outrage once the programme is publicised is ineffective. Nothing changes. Everyone gets defensive and stupid.

I don't believe that changes haven't happened because women haven't been nice or respectful or private enough. This isn't about asking for permission. This is about not perpetuating the status quo, everyone who cares needs to stop going along with the all-male bias. 

It is too late for this particular all-male line up. but it isn’t too late to make a tikkun, a repair. Let’s focus on Shavuot. The festival of receiving the Torah, so that it is a reflection that all the people, not just the men, received the Torah. Here is my proposal. (and this goes for all places planning Shavuot programming, not just that one synagogue)

(btw - this is not about Partnership Minyanim, women wearing teffilin, or other important issues that need to addressed about women's engagement in public prayer rituals. This is about education and having women's voices as teachers - this shouldn't be contentious and yet it still is. We can't have an honest, respectful conversation about women's spirituality if the community doesn't listen or respect women's Torah.)

To female educators: if you are invited to teach say yes. Or say: Let me think about it. And then say yes. If you do need to say no, because of family commitments, because you don’t like teaching late at night, because of any reason really. That’s fine. It’s your prerogative to say no. No one individual woman should feel that she ought to something 'for the cause.' If you do need to say no, then recommend a couple of female colleagues and offer to make the introductions. Just please don’t say no because you don’t think you have anything to say, and question why they are inviting you. It is their decision if you are good enough, not yours. They are inviting you because they think you have something to say. So say yes.

To male educators: if you are invited to teach before you say yes, have the conversation about the context within which you will be presenting. Say “I just want to get a feel for the overall programme - who else is teaching/are you approaching?” If they don’t list any women’s names or a bit vague, get specific, and assert “I would prefer to be part of an education programme that respects and includes women.” And have that conversation with the programmer, yes it might be awkward, and they might not listen to you. But they respect you enough to invite you, so at least during that conversation you have an opportunity to influence and educate. Recommend female colleagues and offer to make the introductions. And look through your own research and reading. When you bring other opinions and scholarship into your teaching, how much do you learn from women scholars and writers? There is so much good writing and scholarship from women that is out there, find it and bring women’s voices into your own teaching alongside male scholars. (and teaching about female characters is not the same thing as including women’s voices) Yes, you might have other issues with the educational standards and who is invited to teach in the community, not just gender. Have those conversations as well. But don't think that just because you are male that you cannot be a feminist. You are on the right side of gender inequality, and have the privileged position of choosing to make this something you care about or walk away from. Your female colleagues do not have that choice.

To programmers of adult education programmes: Widen your network of recommendations, ask around, not just the usual suspects. Be creative with the educational formats. Plan earlier than you normally do. Don’t ask busy people to teach only weeks before and be surprised when they turn you down. Do some research on the person you are inviting and suggest topics for them to present. and do say why you are inviting them specifically. (but don’t say, it’s because you are a woman. no one likes to be the token invite). Don’t settle for an all-male line up. If you really can't find any female educators, consider other ways to bring women into presenting - who introduces/chairs if your event goes into that sort of thing. Consider bringing someone as a facilitator to study together some Torah written by a woman scholar, so she may not be physically present in the room but her ideas are. And listen to why a female educator is saying no. Be aware that some communities are less receptive than others to women speaking publicly, and most female educators have had experience of abusive behaviour and having to justify their qualifications, and so they might be a little reluctant. Be encouraging and ask them to consider it. If it is for the night of Shavuot tikkun leil - offer babysitting (you probably should also offer babysitting to any male educators who have parenting commitments...) offer to find people to walk your presenter so they don’t have to walk alone at night. Ask them to recommend a colleague. When you publicise your programme, highlight all your educators and what is great about them, as they might not be so well-known. And do be aware that there are those annoying people out there who will scan through a list of names looking for a balance between men and women. Don't be surprised if they call you out on it and act affronted and offended when they do. You are in no position to be offended, accept the rebuke.

To everyone else: if you care about this, and believe that someone's scholarship and thinking should be respected not based on gender. and want to see more women educators teaching in depth to the whole community, and not just 10 minute presentations. Then speak up. Speak out. Be annoying. Or be nice and polite (that method just doesn't come naturally to me). But speak about this and make it an issue to those who plan the programme. Don't just shrug and throw hands up in the air. If you look to your daughters, and sons, and hope that the community can change in time for them, make the changes for yourself now. 
I am trying to be constructive. Put together a decent adult eduction programme, and I will be happy to promote it... but make no mistake. I am furious that in 2014 this still needs to be said. I know it isn’t just in the orthodox jewish world that this happens. And other areas of society are developing strategies to break the all-male hegemony. Carry on with the all-male programme, and I will be happy to submit your efforts on this website

lets make this shavuot a celebration of all the Torah and knowledge that is out there in all parts of the community. there is time to avoid the eye-rolling.

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