Unless we are personally exposed to something or hear about it first hand, it is entirely possible that we never know of its existence or prevalence. This is true for sexual assault, unusual illnesses, and even things that happen in our neighbors’ homes.
Most people forget this, however.
Every time I write about breast cancer in the Haredi sector, I get two kinds of responses. One is thanking me for getting the word out to a population that needs to hear it. I get this from survivors of breast cancer – or the families of those who did not survive, from doctors who see women unaware they are ill, healthcare professionals who ask me for advice on reaching their local Haredi communities in order to increase women’s screening compliance, and people asking if they can translate my words into other languages for their home communities.
The other set of responses I get are from people accusing me of inaccuracy, of tarnishing an entire sector, of making things sound worse than they really are. I am told that I exaggerate, that I say things that aren’t true, and that I clearly have an agenda.
Well, I do.
My agenda is fighting a phenomenon where women’s health is endangered because of a culture of silence. A culture where women are absent from health pamphlets or billboards. A culture where women’s names aren’t written and breast cancer is called “the women’s disease.”
I have been told that this culture does not exist, that what I am saying is simply not true. Some People pass my articles around for the sake of tearing them apart, indignant that I have said things that are so patently false.
But my friends, you are wrong. The society of which I speak is not Anglo Haredim in Har Nof, or Ramat Bet Shemesh. It is not one of English-speaking Haredim from Western societies at all. That population values – or at least tolerates – openness and secular education — certainly when it comes to health. It is also not the community of Israeli Haredim who are worldly and aware of, if not involved in, current events. I am not speaking of the homes where Haredi magazines such as Mishpacha and Bina can be found.
I am speaking of a community where the only publication allowed for consumption is Yated Neeman, in which no woman’s image, or even first name is printed.
I am speaking of communities where girls do not know the names for their body parts. Where 12-year-old girls are not told about menstruation until they find blood on themselves, and then only in hushed tones, as though it is something to be ashamed of.
I am speaking of communities where sex is learned of for the first time right before one’s wedding, after a life of not being allowed to even speak with someone of the opposite sex.
I am speaking of communities where women’s bodies are necessarily hidden, lest men sin.
I am speaking of communities where women live in poverty, and caring for themselves and their health — beyond whatever caring is done for their families — is a luxury, or at least, at the bottom of their list.
That YOU aren’t familiar with this community, that you have never experienced life there, or met its members, does not mean it that it is not real. Whether you believe it or not, the phenomenon exists and persists.
If you don’t want me writing about it, if you think I’m airing dirty laundry, or sharing a concern that doesn’t belong in the greater public sphere, or you don’t want the details in the pixels of The Times of Israel, then think what you yourself can do to help eliminate the problem.
Can you help by putting pamphlets in your mikveh? Can you talk about how important this is? Can you help combat the rabbis who prevented self-screening pamphlets from being placed in the mikveh in order to ensure that nobody’s ‘mikveh night’ was “ruined” in the event that a woman found a lump? Can you help change the culture of erasing women in your local circulars and magazines? Can you protest the notion that women and girls cannot be seen in print?
Perhaps you think this is not related. But it is. All of it.
Making the names of body parts taboo and not printing a woman’s name is part and parcel of a culture that erases women and tells them the exact parameters of their place.
These are the women I write about. These are the girls without a champion. They are the reason I write this story.
The next time someone tells you that what I write about the Beit Din isn’t true…
or that women aren’t really being erased…
or that the death rate from breast cancer isn’t really higher in the Haredi community (for a number of factors)…
do me a favor?
Don’t tell me.
I’ve got too much work to do.