January 22, 2019

Meet the 2018 HBI Gilda Slifka Summer Interns

By Lily Fisher Gomberg

Every summer, HBI welcomes interns from across the country and world who complete original research related to the HBI mission of fresh thinking about Jews and gender worldwide and support the work of scholars affiliated with HBI and Brandeis. During the eight-week program, the interns also attend educational lunch sessions with scholars, visit Jewish sites of interest in the Greater Boston area including Mayyim Hayyim, and a walking tour of Jewish Boston. The Gilda Slifka HBI Summer Internship is supported by a generous gift from Gilda Slifka. Meet the 2018 interns and their work.

LILY FISHER GOMBERG is a rising junior at Brandeis University with a major in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and minors in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and History. This summer, she is working on a project about what makes erotica and erotic writing Jewish, and what impact Jewish erotica has on sexuality education for Jews. Gomberg is also the blog assistant at the HBI’s blog, Fresh Ideas,  so keep an eye on the blog for more of her thoughts on Jewish women and gender. After her graduation, Gomberg plans to work on medically-accurate, halachically-acceptable sexuality education programming for pluralistic Jewish day schools, and then attend Reconstructing Judaism to become a rabbi and engage in pastoral counseling. Gomberg hopes that her internship at HBI will give her more depth of understanding of the specific issues facing Jewish Women in an academic sense, and she can’t wait to learn with everyone at HBI.

REBECCA HERSCH is a rising senior at Brandeis University with majors in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology, and a minor in Religious Studies. She just returned from a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. This summer, Hersch will begin research on her senior thesis. She is studying the ways that feminist and gender perspectives structure interfaith dialogue, especially in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, and organization that builds bridges between Jewish and muslim women, and she is seeking to reconsider interfaith dialogue from a feminist perspective. She will also be working with Jenny Sartori of the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) on a revitalization project of the online Encyclopedia of Jewish Women at the JWA. After she graduates, Hersch hopes to become a professor of sociology, and study the intersection of Jewish studies with sociology.

NAIMA HIRSCH just completed her third semester at Hunter College with majors in English and Elementary Education and a minor in Women and Gender Studies. This summer, she will follow a passion for poetry that she has had since the age of six. At HBI, she will work on a poetry chapbook with poems about the different ways that she interacts with her identities as a Jew and as a woman. She is excited to explore the ways in which her other identities fall into these categories, and to continue to write poetry. Hirsch will also work with Penina Adelman of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis on her fictionalized family memoir titled Rebels in the Family. She is currently researching the experience of steerage passengers traveling from Russia to Ellis Island, to help Adelman write about her family’s experience on that voyage. After university, Hirsch hopes to attend rabbinical school, as well as work with Klal Yisrael and teach Torah to children.

LAURA KATZ is a rising senior at Brandeis University with majors in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Theatre Arts, and a minor in Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST). This summer, she plans to research Jewish women and poetry, and analyze Rachel the Poetess’ poetry through the lens of feminist texts and theory. Laura believes that this is important because poetry can save the lives of women, so she believes writing poetry to be a great feminist act. Also at HBI this summer, she will work with Dalia Wassner, a research associate at HBI, on her project Mariana Yampolsky’s Mexican Art: Captured Moments in Latin America’s Socialist Landscape. The project focuses on the Mexican renaissance that occurred after the revolution, and especially on photographer Mariana Yampolsky. It is especially important to Katz because she just returned from a semester abroad in Latin America. After her graduation, Katz hopes to become a reform rabbi and use the pulpit to talk about social issues and to harness the power of the Jewish community. As a rabbi and Jewish educator, Katz also hopes to involve theatre/creative arts skills to help people reconnect with their Judaism.

ARIELLA BECK LEVISOHN is a rising senior at Brandeis University, with majors in Biology, Health Science Society and Policy, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She just returned from Copenhagen, where she spent a semester abroad for Health Science Society & Policy. This summer she will begin work on her senior thesis in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, which will be on sexuality education in Modern Orthodox high schools. Her research at HBI will focus on finding the existing literature and interviews. In the fall, she plans to conduct original interviews. This project is inspired by her high school senior independent project about how her school, Gann Academy, taught sexuality education. She is currently working with a teacher from her high school on a follow-up project for the women’s minyan at Gann Academy. This summer, she will also work with Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of her home congregation, Shaarei Tefillah, on his project Is this Baby Jewish? Rabbinic Law Examines Assisted Reproductive Technologies. The project, which is about assisted reproductive technology and halachic responses, is a perfect intersection of Levisohn’s interests in women’s health and fertility and Judaism. After she graduates, she hopes to work in public health for several years before going back to school for a joint degree in public health and medicine.

SAMANTHA PICKETTE is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University in the American Studies department, with strong ties to the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. Her dissertation is about stereotypes of Jewish women in 20th-century American literature and film, and this summer she plans to write the third chapter. That chapter will focus on three novels written by Jewish women in the 1970s which work to undermine the definition of the “Jewish American princess” and the “Jewish mother” that Philip Roth established and thus give Jewish women a voice. The three books that she will focus on are Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, The Launching of Barbara Fabrikant by Louise Blecher Rose, and Fat Emily by Susan Ries. This summer, Pickette will also work with Brandeis Professor Sylvia Fishman on her project The Intersection of Gender and Jewishness in The New Wave of American Jewish Writers, which is a series of articles, organized thematically, on younger American Jewish writers who are writing about Jewish topics. After she completes her PhD, Pickette hopes to become a professor to combine her love of reading, writing, and researching with her love of teaching.

ALI SENAL just graduated from Muhlenberg College with majors in Jewish Studies and Theatre, with a concentration in Acting. At HBI, she will continue work on a photostory of Orthodox synagogues based on location of mechitza, and mapping performance of religious identity in Orthodox women. To make her project more accessible, she plans to create a website, as well as short write-ups of pieces of the project. This summer, Senal will also work with Brandeis Professor Laura Jockusch on her project A Victim of Her Time: The Lives of Stella Goldschlag – Gestapo Informer and Holocaust Survivor. This project will ultimately be a memoir of Stella Goldschlag’s life through trials, and argue that Goldschlag was convicted because she was Jewish, because she was a woman, and because the testimony against her was emotional testimony from victims. Senal will contribute to the project by finding literature, and by transcribing the non-German testimonies against Goldschlag. This fall she hopes to work as a Jewish professional, and in the near future she plans to go back to school for a master’s in Jewish studies and a doctorate in performance studies.

ELENA SILESKY just completed her second of three semesters as a master’s student at Brandeis University in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. She is beginning work this summer on her thesis, which will be an oral history of the Sephardic Jewish community in Seattle, WA focusing on the role of the Sephardic women in the community in maintaining traditions and roles. Silesky grew up in this community, although not Orthodox, and she is excited to learn more about the third-largest Sephardic community in the United States. She will also work with Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe to build a class called Jewish Feminisms and Legal Theory. Once Silesky completes her master’s, she hopes to return to Seattle and work either with a non-profit organization or continue with academia.

Lily Fisher Gomberg is the summer blogger for Fresh Ideas. She is a rising junior at Brandeis University. 

A Fringe of Her Own: An Interview with Tamar Paley

Editor’s Note: Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, interviewed Tamar Paley, an Israeli artist and jewelry designer, about her project, A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women currently on view at the Kniznick Gallery at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts.Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive. You can read the original article in its entirety here.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Jerusalem in a very progressive community. As a teen, I began to understand that my experience was unusual. The fact that I had a bat mitzvah in which I read from the Torah and made my own tallit––these were not things that other girls were doing. For my friends and me, the uniqueness of our experience as Progressive Jews in Israel became a big part of our identities.

Ever since high school, Judaism has been part of my art. I was an art major in high school and even then, I would be creating pieces and suddenly incorporating all kinds of biblical verses. When I started to study jewelry design, I kind of kept my religious identity on the down low. My school, Shankar, is a very secular, liberal, artsy place where we just didn’t talk about Judaism.

As I was approaching my final year of school and starting to think about my thesis project, I decided I wanted to use this opportunity to say something about issues that matter to me. And it just hit me: I’m going to make ritual objects for women. I’d get to talk about feminism and women’s issues and religious pluralism, and I’d do it through objects that connect to the body. That tied together everything I’d been studying about jewelry design and using different materials and Jewish text and all these things that I love. It was just perfect.

Some of my teachers, though, were surprised. They said, “Oh, you’re religious? How did we not know that? And if you’re not religious, why do you care about ritual objects?” I explained that these are issues that I think about and care about a lot. I’m not religious in the way that they understand that identity, but I do feel deeply connected to Judaism––it’s a big part of my life. It felt like I was coming out as a Progressive Jewish woman.

How do you understand the relationship between jewelry and ritual objects?

I like the connection between ritual objects and silversmithing. It goes way back––kiddush cups and candlesticks and menorahs and all that. So the craft within this field of ritual objects has always been there. But the objects that I chose to work with were mainly those that you wear: tallit (prayer shawl), tzizit (ritual fringes), and tefillin (phylacteries). I chose these pieces because they are the most controversial for women. The ritual objects that we use in the home are a little less gendered and more widely used among women. But we still have a hard time with the ones that are worn in public and on the body. And that really tied in with jewelry: how does this object that I choose to wear affect me and how I am choosing to present myself? How can I wear it and where can I wear it?

"CHEST TEFILLIN"

Silver 925, Lucite, Printed textile, gold foil, printed parchment. Photographed by Ya Studio – Yasmin & Arye Photographers

 

From a technical perspective, I took apart these ritual objects and rebuilt them to be modern and desirable––something that a woman would see and want to wear. I wanted to take away the controversy surrounding these objects. For me personally––even as a woman who grew up in a really progressive environment––I have a hard time wearing a kippah or putting on tefillin, so I wanted to understand my own discomfort and offer some alternatives.

What was your process in creating the objects?

I started from the conceptual: if women had a say in the creation of these ritual objects, how would they look and feel? I began by trying to figure out how women around me today are experiencing their spirituality. And as a jewelry designer, I was also thinking about how this material feels on the body, where it is worn, what are the gestures that come with wearing this object.

I wanted to give a voice to all the different ways that women in my life are experiencing their Judaism. And I wanted to reevaluate what these objects mean and find out what’s relevant about them. So I sent out a questionnaire of ten questions to women in my network. I tried to get as wide a range of answers as possible. Receiving their responses was amazing! I was so overwhelmed and moved by everything these women wrote. The biggest takeaway was that many women experience their Judaism in a private, inner way. I asked the question “If you could create a ritual object for yourself, what would it be?” A lot of women said it would be something they could keep private or expose at their will. So that’s why I started to create containers for the texts, and to focus on inner parts of the body, like the inner arm. For example, on the tallit piece ––where the text of the atara (the collar) is usually on the outside, in my piece it’s on the inside. I also played with typography so that the text wouldn’t be immediately legible.

All the texts that I use are pieces that women sent to me. Many are texts about gratitude and thankfulness, and also a lot of texts about guarding or protecting––which is really interesting considering the rise of #MeToo. It was also important to me to change all the text into language that was gendered feminine.

I thought a lot about the material, too. I searched for sources that dictated the requirements for the materials of ritual objects––you know, that would say, “this needs to be made out of leather” and have these specific dimensions. But I didn’t find many of those. The original texts say things like “it should be a sign on your hand and a sign between your eyes” but we don’t necessarily have more guidelines for what it should look like. So that gave me permission to make changes. Maybe leather straps aren’t relevant anymore, in a time when not everyone is comfortable wearing leather.

Am I changing the essence of these ritual objects by changing their form? Can I feel more comfortable with the meaning of an object just by redesigning it? These were the questions I asked myself as a designer. Maybe if I altered the shape or the material, I could allow someone to reconnect with these objects. It may sound kitschy, but I believe I can make social change through my design.

To continue reading, click here.

“A Fringe of Her Own” is on exhibit at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis through June 22, 2018

In Judaism, Death, as Life, is with People

This is reprinted with the author’s permission from the Arizona Jewish Post.

By Gila Silverman

My mother died a day before Shavuot, two years ago. Three months later, at Yom Kippur services, I knew that I was finally an adult (at age 49) because, for the first time ever, I stayed in the sanctuary for the Yizkor memorial service. A year ago, at Passover, after making her recipes without her, I sobbed through Yizkor, painfully aware that I was sitting in her seat at her synagogue and she should have been there.

This year, during Passover Yizkor, to my great surprise, I found myself crying again, because it hit me — yet again, but as if for the first time — that for the rest of my life, I will be staying in the room for Yizkor, that I will always now be among the mourners. In an article reflecting on her 50-year career as a bereavement researcher, my mother wrote: “It became simpler when I stopped thinking of grief as an illness that ends. In its own way, grief lasts a lifetime. There is no universal or fixed schedule for grieving…. Children tell us that their grief changes as they mature. However, the death of a parent is with them for the rest of their lives.” My mother knew this from her research; she also knew it from Jewish tradition.

Jewish mourning is guided by two principles — kavod hamet and nichum aveilim — honoring the dead and comforting the mourners. Neither of these can be done alone. Like so much of Jewish life, we need other people to respond Jewishly to death. A well-known book describing life in the shtetls is called “Life is with People.” And from a Jewish perspective, death is also with people.  Mourning is by definition a lonely experience, as we try to adjust to a life without someone who was important to us. But Judaism ensures that we are not alone throughout this process. From the moment of death, actually from the moments preceding death, through the funeral, and the shiva, through the month or year of saying kaddish, and to the ongoing rememberings of yahrzeit and Yizkor, if we mourn as Jews, we don’t do so alone. In fact, we can’t do so alone.

This week, as I mark the completion of my second year without my mother, I will light a yahrzeit candle and make my way to a minyan to say kaddish. Then, a few days later, I will go back to the synagogue and, once again, stay in the room for Yizkor. The Yizkor prayers remind us that even after someone dies, they too are still “with people” ­­— their memories are still with us and they are still part of our communities. On this day, as we celebrate receiving the Torah that made us a people, we will also remember those who have come before us, and those who are no longer with us. We will recite the names of our dead, and give them a place in the community and in our prayers, knowing that who we are, and who we will be, incorporates them too.

My mother spent her professional life studying the mourning process. She taught that grief is not a process of letting go or of moving on; rather, it is a process of accommodating to a new life, and finding a way to continue a relationship with someone who is no longer physically present. We are lucky that Judaism provides us with a clear guide for how to do that. Five times a year — on the yahrzeit, and during the Yizkor services at Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot — we officially pause to acknowledge those continuing relationships, and to bring them into our community’s sacred gathering. In our quiet moments alone at home, most of us remember, every day, those who have died. But because Jewish life is with people, we also need to remember them when we are together. Unlike mainstream America, where grief is supposed to be a private process, from which we “recover” quickly, Judaism recognizes that grief is a normal part of human life, which lasts throughout our lifetimes, and which we do not try to hide or run away from.

As we come together this week, to celebrate the Torah and to remember our ancestors, both personal and communal, may those relationships continue to enrich and guide our lives. May the souls of all those we love be bound up in the web of life, and may all of their memories be a blessing to us.

Gila Silverman, a 2017 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is a research associate at The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, and a visiting scholar at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.

 

 

The Journey of Dorka Berger: From Childhood in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz to Incarceration in Mandate Palestine

By Leslie Starobin

For over a decade, I have been conversing with Dorka Berger née Altman about her childhood in the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz and her journey to Mandate Palestine in 1946. In her Polish diary, she refers to this geographic region as Ziemia Obiecana—the Promised Land. In conversational Hebrew, she refers to it as Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. The warmth of these biblical designations stands in contrast to the welcome Dorka received when she landed in Haifa. The British apprehended the young Holocaust survivor and transported her to the Atlit Detainee Camp 15 kilometers south of the port city. Disembarking from a military vehicle, Dorka surveyed the scene. “Again, barbed wire?”

Last summer I visited Dorka in Jerusalem and presented her with the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. The catalogue accompanied a 2017 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Viewing this visual tome sparked Dorka’s memory of the Altman family’s final days in the ghetto before their passage to Auschwitz in cattle cars.

One of the most striking photographs in the collection was taken during the liquidation of the Łódź Ghetto in August 1944. Ross had photographed the deportation from a crack in a wall in a storeroom across from the train depot. Afterwards, he buried his negatives in the ground so they could be dug up later to serve as indisputable evidence of Nazi crimes. In the foreground of this particular picture, a Jewish policeman clutches a suitcase. Behind him is a densely packed crowd of Jews. After seeing this photograph in the book, Dorka recalled that no Jewish policemen stood on guard when they arrived at the station—only German soldiers. “They even helped Ima get up onto the platform from the ground.” On the loading dock, a Nazi scooped jam onto square sheets of newspaper. “Everyone got a little loaf of bread—it was like a treasure that fell from the sky—and a teaspoon of jam. Everyone said, ‘Even a drop should not fall. Even a drop gives you strength. It’s jam, it’s sugar.’ They licked the paper, so nothing would be lost.”

Months after Dorka and I perused this book of photographs, her own wartime chronicle resurfaced. Long forgotten, the Diary of Dwojra Altman turned up in the archives of the Jewish Historical Commission in Warsaw. An Israeli Ph.D. student discovered a copy of it while doing research in Poland. Recognizing the surname, he reached out to Dorka’s sons in Jerusalem. They contacted my husband, who is Dorka’s nephew. I shared the diary with a native Polish speaker who assisted with the English translation.

Reading it, I discovered that Dorka had noted the date of the transport to Auschwitz—August 17, 1944. On the opening page of her diary, inaugurated on July 2, 1945 in Łódź where the Altman sisters returned after liberation, Dorka venerated her parents who perished in Auschwitz. A few pages later, Dorka acknowledged their loss and expressed her hopes for the future:

I will never see my beloved parents again. I know that all too well. But if it were possible to go to Ima’s grave, to Aba’s, to pray for their souls, or at least to cry my eyes, I would feel a lot better in my heart…. I miss them terribly…. I can’t speak of this [to] my sisters, so as not to remind them, although they are suffering as much as me…. They think about our future existence…. I would just like to leave this country, which created so much evil for me, such complete tragedy for me. Possibly in the Promised Land it will be better for me.

Exactly one year later, Dorka glimpsed the shores of Zion from the deck of the Birya, the Turkish vessel she boarded near Marseilles, France for the journey to Eretz Yisrael. As the sun rose on July 2, 1946, a cry broke out among the ma’apilim—illegal immigrants—on the ship. We stood up like one person and together we started to sing ‘HaTikva’ from all of our hearts,” Dorka said. “Now, when I hear ‘HaTikva,’ I am used to it, but then it was very emotional. Even with confused words, a thousand people [were] singing from their hearts.”

Unbeknownst to the British authorities guarding the entry to the port of Haifa, an American reporter named I.F. Stone had embarked on the journey. “The journalist took a megaphone and pointed it towards the British. He shouted to them in their language. ‘Whoever listens to such a “HaTikva” knows that you cannot defeat these people.’”

In a recent conversation by Skype, I asked Dorka why she didn’t bring the diary to Eretz Yisrael in 1946. “We were told [by Haganah emissaries leading the Bricha—the escape from Europe] that we would not be able to carry many things on the journey.” A representative of one of the Jewish agencies assisting survivors in Poland offered to take the journal from her and deposit it in a safe place in Warsaw.

Today Dorka regularly speaks to visiting groups at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence, Dorka described her passage on the Birya to an attentive crowd of Israelis and reminisced about her incarceration at Atlit in July 1946.

“The British soldiers were intense,” Dorka recalled in our June conversation, “but not threatening.” The British permitted nearby kibbutznikim to visit the camp everyday and mingle with the newcomers. “We loved them very much. They taught us songs in Hebrew. We would go very near to the soldiers, singing ‘Kalaniot,’” a Hebrew folk song about anemones ablaze in the valley. The bloom of the flowers matched the red of the soldiers’ berets. The tune had become the code song to alert Jewish fighters about the advance of British forces, but Dorka and the other ma’apilim were unaware of the cipher. “We annoyed them [the soldiers]. They were nervous. Because they were nervous, it was funny for us. We were young,” Dorka said.

Then, less than two weeks after Dorka arrived in Mandate Palestine, the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel on July 22. At Atlit, Dorka heard few details about the explosion other than something “big” had happened in Jerusalem.

A few weeks later, Dorka moved to the contested city. A representative from Agudat Yisrael, one of the ultra-Orthodox political parties facilitating Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine, arrived at Atlit and requested to bring Dorka to Jerusalem to study. At Penina Bet Yakov, a girls’ boarding school, female teachers greeted her. “They say here comes a new girl. She speaks Polish. Who wants to be her friend? Another time a Hungarian girl arrives. The next time a Romanian girl arrives.” Then a German girl entered the classroom. “She looks at me. I look at her.”

A year earlier, when Dorka began chronicling her wartime memories, she could not have imagined reconnecting with this schoolmate from the Łódź ghetto. To her confidante—the diary, Dorka had disclosed, “I don’t have any friends. They all fell victims of Majdanek and Auschwitz. I’m the only one from my class still here, possibly by accident, or saved by a miracle.”

The two survivors became lifelong friends.

With the discovery of the Diary of Dwojra Altman, I am compiling an essay—juxtaposing singular excerpts from the journal with edited passages from my recorded conversations with Dorka. While I write about her wartime experiences, I often look at Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. No matter how chilling the deportation scene is, an educator at Yad Vashem points out in a video, Ross’s picture “cannot show us what happened inside the cattle cars or what happened when the Jews of Łódź arrived at their final destination—Auschwitz. For this historical information, we rely on the testimonies of survivors.”

 

New Media and Fourth-Wave Feminism

By Shlomit Lir

Almost 10 years ago, I initiated a conference at Bar Ilan University, The Internet as a Platform for a Feminist Social Revolution, where I brought forth a view of new media’s potential for initiating a great feminist change. At the time this view was not uncommon among women activists who specialized in internet technologies and were aware of the power of the net to disseminate ideas to the public. I had been writing at that time about the internet as a tool for the fourth wave of feminism, and as a way of overcoming the traditional gatekeepers which excluded women and their ideas from the social discourse. I was fascinated by the ability to have a public arena for the voices of women and for forming support groups in private digital forums that allow the sharing of stories, experiences and feelings.

Looking back, I am much less optimistic. It is not that I think that the vision manifested in the conference’s title was completely erroneous, or that the net is not an initiator of a new feminist wave, but I recognize the power of the backlash. I am more aware that it is possible to use the net to mislead the masses and reproduce oppressive mechanisms and that feminists turning to the internet as a means for change need to be prepared.

In 2011, in Israel, the internet played a major role in what came to be known as the “Camps Protest” — a mass demonstration which brought, at one point, a half a million people to the streets in a march against the high cost of housing. The protest was inspiring not only because it was the first mass Israeli protest organized on Facebook but also because it was instigated and mainly led by women.

The vision of a feminist social revolution that was referred to in the 2009 conference’s name did not come true that summer in Israel. However, the Camps Protest did bring about a greater awareness of social justice. At the same time, it demonstrated how women can gain public power and leadership positions through online and offline activism, but also how they can lose this power once the issues they are promoting are no longer in the public eye. Daphni Leef, who was the lead organizer of a tent camp in central Tel Aviv, moved to the background of public events once the protests where over, while Stav Shaffir, another protest leader, preserved her public influence by moving from grassroots to the establishment and becoming a member of Knesset.

The power of the internet as an engine for social change was also apparent in the Arab Spring — a grassroots protest where women played major roles in planning, promoting and participating in demonstrations. In addition to mass events, smaller protests led by women in the Arab world gained recognition through the net. In Saudi Arabia, women filmed themselves driving, despite the official prohibition, and posted the video clips to Twitter. In Iran, women are bravely removing their hijabs in public, and online platforms are being used to spread the photos of their protest around the world.

Again, the lesson is not only the ways women can use the internet to promote social change. The events show how, instead of talking in terms of a revolution which brings about social change, it is often more accurate to talk in terms of a long process – with many setbacks. After more more than 10 years, Saudi women gained a promise that they would be allowed to drive by June 2018. In Iran, no change has been perceived – yet. After great hardships, the Arab Spring paved, in some countries, new paths allowing more liberation. In others, the change is yet to come.

While some of the women activists, such as Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, gained worldwide recognition for promoting change, others, like the women who led the demonstrations in Egypt, returned to what is considered their traditional roles once the protests ended.

The reality of a long and arduous process of change, in which the net is one of many factors, is also apparent in the #metoo movement. This movement, which was originally initiated in 2006 by the social activist Tarana Burke on Myspace, has leapt into worldwide consciousness in 2017.

The power of the #metoo movement is not in question. It is a milestone in feminist history, showing how it is possible to advance feminist and social progress through digital grapevines, where the voice of one woman who shares her experiences inspires others to do the same, thus, creating a critical mass that cannot be ignored — at least for some time.

The ability to create universal change in regards to sexual harassment, social justice, and welfare policies demonstrates how a discourse that was previously limited to a relatively small group of activists has the potential to become an inseparable part of the public agenda with the help of digital means.

It is undeniable that social media plays an important role in assisting women in finding a voice, becoming socially active and more publicly involved. It allows an open platform for the voices of oppressed and marginalized groups, who are often silenced by male dominance in the traditional media.

With open and accessible communication channels, women of all walks of life can share their worldview without the obstacles of geography and time. They can create interactive and immediate contact with activists from around the world in a manner which helps feminist ideas to turn viral. There is no doubt that Facebook pages, groups and blogs have become focal points for discussion and influence among feminists. Online campaigns against sexist commercials create online protest actions that bring different voices to center stage and often get immediate results. Traditional media, which does not want to lag behind, reports on the events that take place on social media, enabling feminist concepts to gain a place in the larger public conscious.

However, the greater the progress, the greater the backlash. Aside from the ability to create some of the ideal conditions for an alternative public sphere, to manage a public democratic discourse, and be a source of social change that challenges patriarchal social forms, the internet often reproduces women’s and minorities’ oppression and sometimes magnifies it.

Just as we struggled many years ago with print encyclopedias that often excluded important female voices, data shows that we continue to struggle online as the same dynamic is repeated on Wikipedia. Again, as research demonstrates, human knowledge often becomes equated with male knowledge through covert mechanisms of exclusion.

Parallel to advertising that demeans women, the internet allows free unrestricted consumption of pornography. It is all too easy to put out a false narrative that will be shared virally as if it were true, causing grave harm.  And, it too easy for fake users to create identities devoted to cyberbullying and sexual harassment online. In the wrong hands, the internet becomes a tool of ruling the masses through simplistic tweets that are designed to create an impression and heat up the crowds instead of enabling serious discussion and thought.

The Way Forward

In order to lead the new wave of feminism, there is a need to initiate procedures for promoting the visibility and voices of women in cyberspace. My research shows that digital literacy which seems easy and obvious to many, poses an obstacle for women who did not overcome the digital divide or who feel left behind by a world that had advanced without them. There are many voices that are still not heard and which can be lost to her-story simply because of technological gaps and discomfort. We must make these voices heard by teaching more women digital literacy and encouraging them to participate and share their stories.

It is in our power to change the discourse, not to surrender to the reproduction of old power structures, to pornography, to exclusion, and to weakening representations of women. It is in our power to be prepared for backlashes. The act of creating a new world of representations of active, powerful, thinking women — that reflects the billions of women who make the world a better place — lies on our shoulders. It is upon us to write, to show our strengths, and to produce a new visual language. The sooner we embrace technology as a tool for voice in workshops for programing and for writing online so women gain fluency and comfort in this medium, the greater the influence can be.

Technology waits for no one. As in offline reality, those who go in first make the rules. We need to make sure women are on board.

Shlomit Lir, a visiting scholar at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, is a gender and digital media researcher. Her Ph.D., “Gendering Digital Identity: The Establishment of Voice Among Female Activists in New Media Platforms,” is based on research examining the processes of establishing the public self as an aspect of women’s entrance into the digital sphere. Lir is the initiator and CEO of Women Activists Online, an initiative designed to promote women leadership by the use of social media. Among the books she has edited are In Visible Ink (Hebrew, 2015) and To My Sister: Mizrahi Feminist Identity (Hebrew, 2007).

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)