Jewish women take a stand by singing

By Charlotte Fischer

Photograph taken by Josie Winter

Around the world, strange things have been happening to Jewish women in the last few years. In Israel, women were forced to sit on the back of buses. In Brooklyn, Hilary Clinton was airbrushed out of a Charedi Jewish newspaper’s photograph of Obama’s security team. In Jerusalem, women were banned from speaking at a state-sponsored gynaecology conference. (That’s right – it was okay to talk about vaginas, just not to have one.) And earlier this year, an 8 year old girl was spat on whilst she walked to school for not dressing ‘modestly enough’. All over the world, Jewish women have been facing increasing restrictions on the roles that they can play – within their own community.

This trend has come to South Africa too. In the last 7 years, women have been banned from singing at our community’s Holocaust Memorial Day. For the last four (with an exception last year which I’ll talk about later) women were banned from singing at Israel Independence Day.

Women have historically been part of the singing at communal Jewish events in SA – as they have around the world. And why shouldn’t they? These events commemorate things women played a role in – the Holocaust didn’t only happen to Jewish men, for example, and on our day of remembrance we sing the Partisan song – a piece written for all the partisans, women as well as men. Moreover, we think Judaism has a long tradition of women expressing themselves in song– in Bible, Miriam sings, a woman sings in the Song of Songs, Deborah sings in Judges in front of men. But there are some men subscribe to alternate tradition in Judaism, the extremist version of which says that they shouldn’t hear women –other than their wives- sing in any circumstance, for fear of the sexual licentiousness of a woman’s voice.

We believe in religious freedom – we think men who choose an interpretation of Jewish law as to feel they shouldn’t hear women sing should be free to step outside for those sections. We don’t think it gives them the right to stop women from singing. But for the last four years, the South African Zionist Federation has banned women from singing on this basis.

Last year, a group of women protested. They said that the Israeli Declaration of Independence guarantees that the state will not discriminate on the basis of sex, so how could the SAZF be celebrating that declaration by going against the principles laid out within it? The women began a petition, and after it garnered almost 200 signatures, were allowed to sing in a mixed choir. When SACRED, a progressive Jewish action centre, approached the SAZF to confirm this would continue to future years, we didn’t get a response. 7 times we wrote to the SAZF. 7 times we were ignored. And so this women’s day, four Jewish organisations – SACRED, Netzer, Habonim and WIZO – came together to launch a silent song protest outside the SAZF’s offices. We held up signs in time to music to protest the taking away of our voices. A video of our action can be found at the bottom of the page.

In South Africa, we know how hard and important the struggle for equality can be. Here in 2012, women are still being abused and discriminated against. We stand in solidarity with all women in South Africa who are suffering as a result of their sex. But we cannot raise our voices to speak about inequality in broader society unless we are also willing to address it in our own community. And in our own community at the moment, we can’t even raise our voices.

This issue isn’t really just a Jewish issue. Safiyyah Surtee wrote in the City Press this month about issues facing Muslim women. The Traditional Courts Bill brought up another round of questions over the role of patriarchy clothed as traditional or religious expression in the new South Africa. We hope that the SAZF listen to our action and release a statement that they commit to a policy of non discrimination. But if they don’t – we’ve found our voices, and we’ll continue to raise them.

Watch the video here


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