Wednesday, 22 May 2013

the repression of the feminine

In yirimiyahu (jeremiah), there is a verse that is understood to be about messianic times. It says 'נקבה תסובב גבר'. This is really hard to translate. i'm going with super-literal here (even though it won;t make too much sense) of feminine shall revolve masculine. I'm sure that many of you can give me a better translation (and please do). It's generally understood as meaning that in some way, on some level of meaning, women shall turn into men, or rather more conceptually that the feminine shall turn into the masculine. There are a lot of ways that it could be understood, and i'm not going to give a parshanut (exegesis) of what they are and could be.

instead i want to make some observations of the world around me. because i truly think that we are living in the foreshadowing of that time. across the world, across religions, across cultures, there is a zeitgeist of the repression of the feminine. not a repression of females, but of the feminine. in the secular world, there is feminism, which basically set out to give women the right to be like men. nowadays, women can get ahead in work as long as they behave like men. more and more studies show that women do not get promotions or pay rises, not because of direct discirmination, but because they do not ask for them or conduct business in accordance with the typical male practice. the female approach to doing business is shunned.

within the world of jewish feminism, too, women increasingly want to serve G-d not in a way which fully expresses their femininity, but in the same way that men do. (friends who might be offended, don't be: this is an observation of a trend not a personal criticism). women want to learn torah from men - rabbis - far more than from women who teach a feminine torah (although b"H there are exceptions and there are women who teach a feminine torah).

The increased sexualisation of women which is so widespread is not a celebration of the feminine. Quite the opposite: it is something that is done to please and give pleasure to men. the ideal of beauty in the western world is increasingly unrealistic in relation to the realities of the female body. the catchphrase for female beauty now is 'boys with breasts' - that is, women with large breasts but whose figures are otherwise straight up-and-down like a boys. no curves. breasts only feature in the current beauty image as a sexual aid, not as an aspect of reproduction. a year or two ago, there were two stories in the papers at the same time: a woman had been arrested (i think in australia but it may have been america) for breastfeeding her baby in public (modestly, under a blanket in a quiet corner of a car park). at the same time, in australia, a former stripper (or perhaps she was a pole dancer) was running for public office, and part of her campaign was that women should be legally permitted to walk around topless. the juxtaposition was comical; on the one hand, a woman was arrested for carrying out a natural biological act. on the other, someone was attempting to enshrine in law the rights of women to be sex objects. you couldn;t make it up.

and i see this repression of the feminine in the jewish world as well. as i see it, the aim of most chumras in tznius now are to hide and disguise the female body. capes and cloaks are to hide the shape of the chest and the curve of waist and hip. the recommendation to buy your clothes a size too big intends to cover a woman's natural body shape so that she appears to go straight down from shoulder to skirt hem (albeit straight down in a cone shape, rather than the vertical straight down of the secular world's attempt to repress the feminine physique). women are encouraged to wear clothing loose enough to hide their pregnant bellies. The trend is for the only body parts which may be seen or have their shape distinguished is that which is asexual - hands, face, feet, lower legs.

The traditional feminine role is also being repressed. in the secular world, a woman's worth (and a man's) is measured by how much she earns. looking after children and a home are not valued. In the Jewish world, this phenomenon exists as well. In charedi society, what is important is for women to work so that the men can learn. no longer is it valuable for a woman, like sarah our mother, to remain within the ohel to raise her children and look after her family and immediate environment. instead, what matters is that the woman go out into the world to work, so that her husband can remain in the ohel of torah.

and of course, the way that islam approaches the feminine nowadays does not even need me to detail it.

so, what i see is not that everyone, everywhere, elevates the masculine and represses the feminine. but that it is a real trend, a zeitgeist, which is manifesting itself everywhere. I hope, personally, that it is yet another marker on the long road to moshiach. but the trend is certainly there.


  1. It seems to me an obvious allusion to what happens under the chuppa when the kalla enters and the chatan is waiting. It is a reference to the times of Meshiach. If Matan Torah was qedushin, then this refers to nisuin. I see nothing in it about feminine becoming male or any such idea.

    1. i'm not so sure about your use of 'obvious', but yes that is a good interpretation. it doesn;t contradict mine though (which isn;t mine, it's a kabbalistic understanding, i didn;t make it up).

  2. A few comments/questions:

    1. I completely agree that the over-sexualisation of women in the secular world and obsession with tzniut in parts of the religious world are 2 sides of the same coin.

    2. You're right that there's definitely a difference between repression of the "feminine" (I'm not sure how to define feminine though) and repression of women - e.g. women can advance in the workplace (= advancement of women) but only if they act more like men (=repression of the feminine). However, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing! It depends what aspects of their behavior we're talking about.

    3. I once heard the (kabbalistic?) idea (possibly from you??) that as we get closer to the times of moshiach, long-time "curses" lose their power, e.g. the curse that men shall rule over women. I think we certainly see progress in that regard (at least in the secular world), in terms of greater equality of opportunity.

    How do you think this fits with your interpretation of the passuk in yirmiyahu?

    4. I also once heard the idea (again, unfortunately I don't have the source so I have no way to verify this) from a chassidic rabbi that there are "feminine" and "masculine" souls - "feminine" souls are "new" souls and "masculine" ones are souls that have already been in a body before. He said that as we approach the times of moshiach, there are less and less "new" or "feminine" souls meaning that many women have "masculine" souls, which he understood as being the reason for the general feminist trend. He even quoted a chassidic rebbe who was supportive of women performing mitzvot that they are exempt from (I think he said tefillin or tzizit but I can't remember) precisely for this reason - that their souls were "masculine" and therefore it was entirely appropriate.

    5. The question is also how you define "feminine". Which behaviours/traits/activities are inherently "femine" (and therefore natural to most women??)and are they necessarily all positive behaviours/traits/activities that women (and not men?) should adopt or promote?

    e.g. what is a "feminine" way of learning torah? Is it necessarily a positive way (for women) of learning or is it simply how women were taught in the past?


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