Insights: Ideas of Equality in Religious Communities

This is a reflection written by Vicky Yu on the lecture by Professor Orna Blumen at the recent Learning Outside the Lines Conference.

My initial reaction to the topic of this talk, was a visceral sense of discomfort. “Orthodox” religious communities conjure up stereotypes of intense social conservatism: traditional, nuclear families, dogmatic leaders and a disdain for the evolution of an increasing secular and liberal youth. “Ultra-Orthodox” (U-O) could only be worse.

The background information did nothing to mollify my concerns. A patriarchal society that lauded modesty and viewed women as vessels for children was the epitome of a “backwards,” religious community. Despite my best intentions to remain neutral and open to the ideas, I was prepared to feel offended and galvanized in the name of these women who had been brainwashed into subversive roles. Instead, I came away with an entirely different perspective on gender equality.

The Idea of Equality

I’ve been taught to value equality. It is one of the hallmarks of a good society and we, the civilized people of modern society, are its champions. We give women the opportunity to choose their place in society. This was apparent during the question and answer session when multiple audience members all asked questions that skirted around the assumption that surely, these women couldn’t possibly be satisfied, let alone happy.

The women in the U-O community were undeniably inferior to men, yet they didn’t display the unhappiness and desperation that is expected from subjugated peoples. Instead, they took pride in their roles, cherished the values that had been taught to them and passed these principles to their students. They carried none of the bitterness that so often comes from the burden of bearing double-standards: being modest, yet undeniably tied to sexuality. Perhaps it’s because motherhood is treated as a gift rather than a challenge for women to surmount.


Motherhood and Perfection

Children learn best from what they see and in this community they would see women who are cherished for being mothers. Yet, they also see that the journey to motherhood, the taint of pregnancy, is something to be suppressed. While they learn respect, it is only respect for those who fit neatly into their worldview. It’s a mirage of perfection and when we hold people to be perfect, they can only fail to meet our expectations.

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of right or wrong. Gender equality is the promise of choice and control, however, it often comes with the stipulation that choosing to be only a mother is not good enough. Conversely, every women in the U-O community has a role, one that is highly respected. The mandate of motherhood fulfills a fundamental need to belong and have a place in society. What good is freedom if nobody else accepts your choices? How meaningful can your life really be if it does not reflect your own intentions?

I still don’t agree with the customs of the U-O community, but learning about them has allowed me to evaluate the merits of my own beliefs. It is only by being open to new ideas that we can forge the best society for the next generation.

Photo Credit: Melissa Segal via Compfight

About the Author:

Vicky is a curious undergraduate student currently pursuing two degrees in economics and statistics at the University of Maryland. She tries to integrate knowledge from a wide variety of different fields to craft her understanding. Her goal is to encourage people to think critically.


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