Sunday 15 May 2011

Airbrushing out Women

The US Secretary of State sat in the war room as her troops closed in on Osama, monitoring developments carefully with senior operational chiefs including the Director of Counterterrorism. The manner of Osama's taking off has raised moral concerns, but the fact that the US secretary of state, being female, “doesn't have a wee tail like little boys do,” (as a recently seen Edwardian manual of nursery management says) is a matter of fact that would, you’d think, raise no religious or moral concerns.

But you'd be wrong. The sight of Hillary Clinton in role as Secretary of state and Audrey Tomason as Director of Counterterrorism so offended Der Zeitung, a Brooklyn based hasidic newspaper, that it airbrushed them out — a time-consuming operation, but necessary to protect their readers from the dreadful sight of women in positions of authority.

I am sure the newspaper notionally admits these woman exist. Some animals have to cover their eyes so they can't be seen. In that spirit, the paper airbrushed the women out of what soon became one of the most famous images in the world. This was a crass and obvious thing to do, presumably because the satisfaction of the few in their silo outweighed for them the millions beyond their silo who would find their behaviour reprehensible.

Der Zeitung’s reaction was a real give away:
Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.
In other words, if we don’t consider it disparaging, it isn’t, because we say so. What tosh! The newspaper went on to say its photo editor did not realize he was violating White House copyright conditions.
“We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department,”
So hang 0n, DZ still does not acknowledge its journalistic sin of manipulating the truth, let alone its somewhat medieval attitude to half the human race. As one is usually told by Unreconstructed Discriminators in every sphere of life, this had, of course, nothing to do with women being women — a piece of self-deception that always gives the game away from the start. The reality is that discriminatory is as discriminatory does. All else is self-deception.

Instead Der Zeitung took refuge behind a screen of faux-religiousity. I say “faux” because I take it from the fact that back in the Iron Age there was no need to airbrush the judge Deborah out of the Book of Judges, that the Eternal himself does not feel the same collywobbles about this as his more zealous minders.

So we see the capacity of Religion to become part of the problem, a smokescreen to cover unreality rather than a means of engaging with Eternal reality, including that of the present. Soon those who take this path are safely tucked up in their own religious disneyland in which the thing they most fear is kept out of sight. Their religion thus becomes a cover for fantasy, an alternative world, ultimately an insanity licence.

And just as all of us this side of the pond smirk away at the gormless folly of Die Zeitung, perhaps we need to reflect on our own more ingrained cultural sticking points about women. 30 years after equal pay legislation came in, womens’ earnings still lag significantly behind those of little boys with wee tails, the British Boardroom is still largely a male preserve, and, dash it all, we have all just enjoyed a lovely wedding in which the only female voice in an hour of liturgy was that of the Bride, as though that were normal. We all still have some way to travel ourselves before we arrive at the world of Ephesians 2.


Ray Barnes said...

So very true, and when the Church of England leads the way it is just remotely possible that others might follow.

UKViewer said...

I suppose that the quote 'Judge as you would be judged' is appropriate.

The Church might well be judged on the outcome of the current provision for Women in the Episcopate as it moves through the Diocesan Synods back to General Synod next year.

In my view, Parliament would not accept anything less then full blown equality for women.

Lesley said...

What an excellent post - thank-you Bishop.

BlackPhi said...

"... necessary to protect their readers from the dreadful sight of women in positions of authority." - not correct: they don't publish pictures of women full stop, the 'authority' bit is irrelevent and inflammatory.

For an explanation of where Der Zeitung is coming from, see href="" this article, which includes:-

"The Hasidim have strict segregation customs, that isn't required by Jewish law, in order to keep stronger guidelines in the above Shulchen Urech mentioned. Therefore hasidic Jewish magazines and newspapers will never have any female picture, even of an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic women."

Whilst I may not agree with their qualms, and certainly not with their distortion of a purportedly factual picture, I don't see that as sufficient reason to misrepresent and mock their beliefs. I suspect (maybe unfairly) that the underlying point of the post is really about internal Anglican politics; an arena where there is already far too much of this going on.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Phil for an interesting link. I appreciate the kindness of your intent, but I don't believe religious privilege is the universal get out of jail free card. Consider sincere people who want to exorcise their young children or, for that matter, sincere people who used to tell us in South Africa that racial discrimination was mandated by the Bible as the curse of Ham.

This story raises for me two kinds of interest:

(1) if we simply accept all religious particularity on its own terms as a cloak for maliciousness, to use a Biblical phrase, that's bad news for all religions.

(2) This story is a powerful expression of the psychology of discrimination, with the profuse denials that disparaging women is disparaging women as long as we do it. If I punch you on the nose, I have punched you on the nose. To say that I don't consider I did it, or that God told me to do it, or that I didn't intend to, is rubbish, and such thinking has long been a central part of discriminatory wrongdoing.

BlackPhi said...

There are some very 'Western liberal' cultural assumptions buried in there, I think, Alan. Most notably that treating the female image with modesty is somehow malicious, or disparaging. The counter-argument that Western cultures disparage women in the way that we objectify and sexualise them - even from a very young age - is perfectly defensible.

That both approaches get abused by fallen people in deeply fallen societies is no justification for getting stuck in an automatic 'Der Zeitung-reader bad, Guardian-reader good' rut.

The religious 'get out of jail free card' point is, of course, a fair one, especially in the light of the self-serving Manhattan and Westminster Declarations, but shouldn't it also apply to cultural 'get out of jail free cards' idolising individualism and self-expression?

That they say "modesty" and you apparently read "authority" is a communication issue which maybe reflects the reality of a lot of religious discourse today. If religious groups can't even communicate with one another, it's little wonder that we are so bad at getting any meaningful dialogue with those outside organised religion. I was at a talk by Bishop Cray last year where he cited research which showed that, on a typical Sunday in England, around 11 out of every 12 people stay away from church. Here in Caversham I suspect it's even more. We say "Good News", they say "So what?"; fair question, I reckon.

Erika Baker said...

Did the article itself mention those women or where they "only" airbrushed out of the photo?

It would concern me even more if their names weren't mentioned, because that turns the news into actual misinformation in the name of religion.

Vinaigrette girl said...

+Alan, thank you for this post.

You might be interested in this, with a quote from a rabbi on Jewish Week:

And for others who might want to read up on some of the logical problems with the defense of religious sexism:

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

As sometimes happens with this blog, we are beung taken to some interesting reflective places — many thanks! Erika, I'm afraid the paper is probably in yiddish (Hebrew script and archaic German type language) and I can't reliably read it. It does seem to me, however that there is a difference between an editorial decision to leave out mentioning that the secretary of state was in the war rom (I don't know whether she did anything active there), and simply airbrushing her out because of her gender. VG, Rabbi Miller's comments put the deceit and false witness involved in this act in a proper Jewish context, and I'm most grateful for the link.

Phil, I just don't get it. Of course I carry cultural assumptions of Western culture, as incidentally, do most people in Brooklyn. Nobody is suggesting that this group need do anything immodest; indeed they have no need to publish any photo of anyone. The fact they chose to publish a falsehood is in itself morally questionable, for the reasons given by Rabbi Miller. I agree about seexualising children in teh West but just can't see how this has anything to do with modesty at all. Rubbing out someone's image wholesale does not enhance their modesty — it obliterates them. I cannot understand anyone feeling that the appearance of either woman in the photograph, neither of whom are hasidim, was in any sense sexualy provocative. Any suggestion it is implies that to be seen as immodest, all a woman has to do is, er, exist? That has two vicious and immoral consequences:
(a) it reduces the woman to a mere object of desire, who cannot help being that, regardless of anything she may or may not do, or even her physical appearance.
(b) It absolves men from any responsibility for how they look on a woman. Instead of learning how to look on a woman with respect, it teaches men that females are inherently obects for male desire who have to be hidden from sight.

It is also sexist. If it weren't there would be a prohibition on images of men to avoid the danger of women looking on them and firing up with inappropriate passsion. So male modesty does not require visual obliteration, but female modesty does. Since we are in Brooklyn — hot dog!

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for your reply.
You say “It does seem to me, however that there is a difference between an editorial decision to leave out mentioning that the secretary of state was in the war room (I don't know whether she did anything active there), and simply airbrushing her out because of her gender.”

The aim of my question had been slightly different. If, for example, they gave a whole paragraph to the Secretary of State making sure she and her involvement were mentioned, then airbrushing her out of the photo is not quite as appalling as obliterating her from story and photo completely.
If this is really only about pictorial images of women and not about their positions and responsibilities I can live it more easily than if it is genuinely about pretending we don’t exist and actively falsifying news that should be reported and creating a pretend universe for readers.

BlackPhi said...

Something like ten years ago the UK Evangelical Alliance published a paper on transgender issues. They were heavily, and rightly, criticised because they deliberately excluded transgender people from their consultations (this is the best link I can find). Basically the EA's view appeared to be that transgender people were going against the Bible, so their views weren't worth listening to.

Much of the coverage of this Der Zeitung issue seems to be predicated on the idea that they are against gender equality therefore they aren't worth listening to. Just as in the EA case, there can be no dialogue because one side isn't even willing to consider that those on the other side might be reasonable people with some sort of rational basis for their views.

'Modesty' is a serious concern for an awful lot of people across the world. You could continue busily defending your position against their heresy and they can do the same against yours, in a devilish dialogue of the deaf. Or you could start by considering why such people consider modesty important, indeed what they even mean by 'modesty' and whether it is the same as your meaning, and then explore what common ground there might be, and where differences arise. Maybe even, with courtesy, explore where and why 'modesty' can end up turning into something dark and oppressive; but only after you can see things from their side of the fence.

As religion attacks religion, and churchian party attacks churchian party, it all just supports many secularists' claim that religion of any sort has no place in the modern world.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erika, I just don't know, not being a yiddish reader, but I understand your distinction.

Phil, the point I was trying to make about sexism is that if modesty compels people not to be photographed, a point of view I don't agree with but can understand, then it applies to both men and women. A non-sexist paper wouldn't be able to publish photographs of men either.

I have more sympathy with what you're suggesting, for example, in relation to Muslim women having a right to wear a burqa if they believe modesty requires it, which I see in English rather than French terms. Bu this should be something they choose, not something pasted on them with Photoshop without their knowledge or consent.

What I can't really see is how this has anything at all, in the context of the public culture of Brooklyn in which it was played out, to do with modesty.

As far as atheists go, if they observe religion being used as a licence for unacceptable behaviour, they have every right to call religious people out. What undermines our point of view in the pubic square if that happens isn't the critical comment of the atheists but our own bad behaviour, and we only have ourselves to blame if we have brought their own religion into disrepute.

Loo said...

Dear Bishop et al,

I am in the process of writing an essay on sexism in the Church. We inherited our patriarchy from the Jews. Although Christians are no longer bound by the law of the Torah, it has permeated an injustice fought by Julian of Norwich, Hildergard, and other women 'told to keep silence in Church'.
Trust me sexism is very ripe today:
I ended up defending the female chaplain in the hospital when a midwife declared she was 'old fashioned' and liked to see a man in those positions.
My daughter, whom is a Cathedral chorister, only gets 20% of fees for private education, the boys get 50%
The local evangelical Anglican church has one woman in it's staff, I was asked to pray that we had a male replacement for the vicar, as 'we already had one of those women'.
I was told to 'know my place, and to honour my husband' when I went to a local community church.
I wave goodbye to those whom have left the Anglican Communion for the Catholic Ordinariate with the knowledge they hate my gender.
Thirty years ago I preached in the Methodist Church against even my own family's prejudice. Time to put our own house in order before we criticise those whom airbrush women out? At least they are up front with their religious bias, they do not have to fight a plethora of sexism with a traditional institution that needs to smell the coffee.
My daughter's solo the other day was the Magnificat. I sat with tears as she sang, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour'. God chose a lowly handmaiden to be the bearer of 'The Word'. After the resurrection Christ's first commission was to a woman.
But I am preaching to the converted here I guess?

Felicity Pickup said...

I wonder why the photo editor failed to leave some indication that two other person's images had been in the original picture but had been removed to avoid giving offense to readers. Why instead was, as far as I can make out, the photo further enhanced to cover up this editing work?

Anonymous said...

While as a matter of personal opinion as an orthodox Jew I might be inclined to share Bishop Alan's view that the picture should not have been chopped it nonetheless leaves a bad taste in my mouth to read a senior western Christian cleric expound upon acceptable and unacceptable Jewish beliefs and how we should read scripture. The sign off with Ephesians 2 seems especially worrying. Does Bishop Alan imagine that sexism should be solved by the mass conversion of Hasidic Jews to his brand of Christianity? If so perhaps he would like to enlighten us on 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Corinthians 11:7-9, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Titus 2:4 or are those sections a less successful stick to beat DZ with?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anonymous — btw please feel free to use your name here — I don't imagine anything of the sort you are suggesting, indeed I find the whole thought bizarre and abusive. I was interested in the anthropology of what was going on there, and no, I am not a Fundamentalist, so the passages you suggested from the New Testament would strike me unsuitable sticks to beat anyone with. I don't actually think Holy Books are sticks to beat people with anyway, so I think I agree with your last point. Christians who use those texts to airbrush women out, of whom there are a few no doubt (but they don't publish DZ) strike me as equally naïve about anthropology. Sexism has no necessary connection with religion, unless people choose to link the two...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Loo, many thanks for hitting the nail squarely on the head. I wish we would stop pretending about this, and behave in a way that was aligned with basic Gospel values. It's not an abstract issue, but a failure of love that hurts real people and discredits the gospel we profess.

Felicity, I don't know the answer. A lot of effort has gone into this, when a simple decision not to publish a well known image that others had published would, one would think, have sufficed.

Sorry about my tardiness in replying _ I've been away in germany, and many thanks for both comments.

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