The Women Stay in the Picture.

Cut out of the Picture: Secretary Clinton and NSC Official Tomason.

x-posted from CaribBelle’s Minority Report.

Here’s another example of the impact of “modesty laws”: two women (Sec of State Hillary Clinton and a National Security Council Director of Counterterrorism) get cut out of the situation room picture when the photo is published in a Hasidic newspaper.

This story reminded me so much of a conversation I had Friday with friends about the implicit chauvinism in restrictive religious covering for women. Here’s where my multiculturalism conflicts with feminism. I believe in religious freedom, but this type of protection just really troubles me to the core. I almost want to thank Der Zeitung (based in Brooklyn) for calling attention to the fact that traditional, protective “laws of modesty” have the perhaps unintended (if we assume the best possible scenario) effect of constraining women’s choices and power:

“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status,” Der Zeitung said. “Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20061215-503544.html

So women can never be part of the visual history created by this paper. But that in no way relegates them to lower status? This is their argument.

Carole Bell is  a professor at George Washington University in D.C. Follow her on Twitter.

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9 comments to The Women Stay in the Picture.

  • Like Professor Bell I too was disturbed by the removal of Hilary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from this news photograph but her post raised a few red flags for me.

    Let’s be honest: “I believe in religious freedom, but…” is a close cousin to “I’m not racist, but…” You either support religious freedom, or you don’t. That includes practices you don’t understand, based on spiritual ideologies you don’t share. I am hardly arguing in favor of religious modesty laws–I am not religious in a conventional sense and even if I were the tradition in which I was raised (Catholicism) does not have modesty laws in this sense (at least not for laity). But even though it isn’t my tradition I know that modesty laws are not monolithic–they are interpreted in different ways in each religious community that employs them. And despite the popular secular, liberal arguments against them women are not the only focus of modesty laws. For example even a casual observer can note that Hassidic men also dress and behave in culturally proscribed ways based on their religious tradition.

    While I am no expert on the Hassidim (perhaps another reader can fill in the blanks here)I know that there are a wide variety of practices between various groups and the fact that there are many Hassidic female professionals at all levels proves that there is no direct correlation between lack of representation in newspaper photos and professional achievement. Certainly their removal does not erase the professional achievements of Clinton and Thomason either. So Professor Bell’s assertion that “restrictive religious covering for women” is “inherently chauvinistic” is more about her emotional reaction to a cultural practice she doe not share– a typically western response– than a true descriptor of the lives of Hassidic women.

    So even though I share Professor Bell’s discomfort with the end result here I simply do not have the cultural or religious context to interpret the reasoning behind it–and neither does she. If the New York Times had removed Clinton and Thomason from this photograph perhaps Bell would have a point. But this newspaper is for, by and about the Hassidic community and the ways that they interpret their religious mandate is not up for a committee vote by Professor Bell and her friends. If Hassidic women themselves object to the practice of removing images of women from news photographs then I trust that they will say so. In fact this extreme interpretation of Jewish Modesty Laws has been challenged on religious grounds by other Jews since its publication and I am happy to follow their lead in this discussion, rather than impose my own values here–an action that frankly does more harm than good in this instance.

    Besides, Bell’s underlying assumption that restricting representations of women automatically “constrains women’s choices and power” has been challenged by some secular western feminists who have questioned whether or not increased visibility equals increased power for women after all. For example Peggy Phelan famously writes, “If representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.” I don’t know that I agree that *not* representing women is a good long-term solution to the problems of their objectification, even without the religious/cultural implications of modesty laws, but that particular feminist argument is a historical context that is absent from Professor Bell’s post.

    I don’t object to her objection, I just wish it had been more nuanced.

  • bambambigelow

    ^^ what he said.

  • Carole Bell

    I appreciate the thought that went in this response, and I’d like to address a few of the concerns. I’m no expert in Hasidic culture. This much is true. But I do understand the power of images and political symbols. And in our media driven culture, images can be intensely powerful. We know, for example, that many readers will never look beyond the headline, picture, and perhaps the first paragraph of a news article or beyond the front page. That’s why so much attention is heaped on what goes above the fold and within those key areas of media real estate. We also know from research that the images that accompany news stories can greatly impact what audiences learn from those stories. Therefore the depiction of leadership within the photos that accompany a major news story can be a particularly powerful element. It’s not as simple as saying that visibility equates to equality. But invisibility and separation can certainly diminish the perception of a social group’s status in society. This is one reason the representation of minorities is so fiercely contested in our culture. Looking at it another way, exposure doesn’t guarantee political success (just ask failed CA gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman), but lack of exposure can certainly curtail it.

    Furthermore, my support of religious freedom is strong, but in no way is it absolute, nor do I believe it should be. Surely we all understand that this does not extend to turning a blind eye to practices that would cause physical harm to adherents or violate the laws that we must all operate within. I do not mean to say that modesty laws rise to the level of harm; I simply want to raise the idea that there are always limits. What’s more, my belief that the practice of religion should be unfettered by government intervention is one thing– the French law banning the niqab in public life is repulsive to me for example. But freedom to practice does not mean freedom from reasoned critique. That goes as much for the Protestant Christianity in which I was raised as for any other religious practice. The continued use of the symbolic veil in the Christian marriage ceremonies troubles me as well and was, tangentially, the starting point for the conversation that inspired this post.

    Finally, there is an underlying line of reasoning in the post that is particularly concerning to me and that is the assumption of cultural bias being part and parcel of this criticism. Surely, we don’t think only those inside the religion have a right to criticize it? I think we have to be willing to at least contemplate the possibility that there might be tension between the egalitarian instincts that drive feminism and a completely relativistic, nonjudgmental pluralistic cultural ideal. I’m highly aware that there is a great deal of debate around modesty laws for women and a line of argument that contends there is freedom in modesty. In truth my thinking on this goes beyond what I indicated in this brief post, and I should have been more nuanced. I believe there is chauvinism inherent in modesty laws that impose heavy “protective” restrictions unequally on women relative to men. I’ve read Islamic feminist writing on both sides of this debate and interviewed a journalist, Asra Nomani, who is one of the more public voices on this issue. That there’s diversity in feminist thinking about the veil is a good thing. There isn’t, however, a clear consensus on this. And that diversity of thinking does not negate or in any way undermine the critique that removing women from the picture has the potential effect of erasing or at least diminishing the perceived role of women in this historic moment. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that because there are some “western”, “secular” feminists on the other side of this issue somehow automatically renders that line of thinking more authoritative. For someone opposed to cultural bias, I’m a bit confused as to why it should.

  • I will politely disagree with the statement made by Joseph Shahadi, where he quote Peggy Phelan.

    Representational visibility is not what governs people’s perceptions. POSITIVE and authoritative representational visibility does. Arguing that naked pictures of white girls online allows people to have a positive view of white women is not correct. It has, however, led to the belief that white women are easy.

    It is important that women be seen being involved in situations like these so that old misogynistic views of women and their propensity for being frail physically and emotionally and therefore unable to handle situations like these, are squashed.

  • @Carole Bell
    I appreciate that you responded to my comment and that you have fleshed out your thinking on this. Still, I think perhaps you are talking past several of my points. Of course you are right about the impact of “particular chunks of media real estate” in general. But again, this is an argument more suited to portrayals of women in–say– the New York Times than Der Tzitung, a local paper that serves the needs of a relatively small religious community.

    More importantly the (rhetorical?) question “Surely, we don’t think only those inside the religion have a right to criticize it?”seems disingenuous in this context. Jews are a historically oppressed group in the West. Is it so difficult to understand that criticisms of such a group must be undertaken within an awareness of that history? I think you *are* aware of this, which perhaps accounts for the fact that you–strangely, I thought– never name the religious group you are critiquing in your original post. And further, despite the explicitly Jewish context of this case write about the Islamic veil(?), a tangent I confess I do not understand. But this question of “who gets to say what” is almost certainly beside the point in this case: There has been lively debate among Jews themselves following Der Tzitung’s decision to remove Clinton and Thomason from the press photo. So I’m unclear what exactly is gained by weighing in from the outside? What might a non-Jew add to this conversation?

    You are right that my main difficulty with your original post comes from what I perceive as your cultural bias. Your characterization of modesty laws as merely “protective” is reductive. Such practices are always much more complex than that. But instead of trying to understand them from within their various contexts you are instead imposing your own values on them. That is, by definition, cultural bias. As I said, I share your discomfort with the exclusion of these important women from this image. I am not defending modesty laws–I have no relationship with these practices whatsoever. But my point is: neither do you.

    As far as the argument made by some western secular feminists that representation does not lead to social power for women–you have misunderstood me. I am not arguing in favor of this view but rather noting that it complicates your argument in an important way–and that you excluded it from your original post. The important point here is that there is as little agreement among western secular feminists about representation, objectification of women and social power as there is among Jews vis a vis modesty. I objected to your initial post because it seems to me that you have oversimplified both secular feminism and the religious modesty laws.

  • sjelly

    Journalism requires honesty. Either do not publish the picture, acknowledging that you haven’t published it because there are women in the picture, or excise the women saying you’ve excised the women because of your religious beliefs. Anything else is dishonest. Orthodox modesty doesn’t require denying the EXISTENCE of women. Prejudice and misogyny, however, entirely account for this episode. Trying to deflect criticism by blaming one’s religion is at best cowardly.

  • Marie

    You are right that my main difficulty with your original post comes from what I perceive as your cultural bias. Your characterization of modesty laws as merely “protective” is reductive. Such practices are always much more complex than that. But instead of trying to understand them from within their various contexts you are instead imposing your own values on them. That is, by definition, cultural bias. As I said, I share your discomfort with the exclusion of these important women from this image. I am not defending modesty laws–I have no relationship with these practices whatsoever. But my point is: neither do you.

  • Tietie Tebania

    I will politely disagree with the statement made by Carole Bell
    that, we also know from research that the images that accompany news stories can greatly impact what audiences learn from those stories.

    Thank you All

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