Just the other day, the media was rightfully in an uproar after a Republican senatorial hopeful stupidly suggested that "legitimate" rape rarely results in a pregnancy. Within hours of this verbal blunder, nearly every conceivable politician, Republican or Democrat, denounced the congressman for his insensitivity, while many, including the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, ordered that he drop out of the race for his brazenly offensive words. But in addition to bringing the probable downfall of a once auspicious politician, this media frenzy opened the door to an important national conversation regarding the role that men play in debating women's issues.
The problem of men representing women on women's issues is something that seems to expand well beyond America's religious communities and has its roots deep in our political history. As it currently stands, there are 76 women in the United States House of Representatives and 17 women in the Senate for a total representation of less than 18 percent of Congress. And while these types of numbers would seem high for minority groups, women represent a 51 percent majority of the American people. But even more disturbing is the lack of female voices present in important conversations about obviously female-related issues like birth control and abortion. The Congressional Judiciary Committee consists mostly of men.
While women in Orthodox Jewish circles generally refrain from halakhic (Jewish legal) decision making and studying Talmud, many tractates clearly appear more suited for their study than for men's. In modern times, we should find it downright bizarre and immoral when men persistently instruct women about what to do with their bodies. We are living comfortably in an age that calls for equality between the sexes, and it is time for every religion to properly recognize that.
Last year, a young Jewish woman published an article in my publication about the religious taboo surrounding female masturbation in the Orthodox community. In her provocative but respectful words, she attempted to address the issue from a woman's perspective by citing several reputable Orthodox texts in addition to providing several anecdotal tales of the psychological ramifications resulting from harmful misinformation.
I found this seemingly provocative piece important because it showed that Orthodox women can independently address women's issues. And although this was, admittedly, a step away from the traditional format for discussing halakhic issues, many readers found this form of conversation constructive.
Although women are no longer barred from participating in politics and other areas of our society, they are still grossly underrepresented on many issues that matter exclusively to them. When one looks at the American political environment, it becomes apparent that our society has a way to go before we can achieve sincere equality. To fight this unfortunate reality, I believe that when segments of the Orthodox community begin to grant halakhic, religious authority to women on women's issues, we must encourage them at all costs.
Thinking back to my days studying in yeshiva where we occasionally learned about women's issues, I can't help but think that I could have been using that time to study something more appropriate. The problem of men interloping in women's issues isn't something new, and it spans well beyond the Orthodox community. But like the author of the masturbation article, many Orthodox Jewish women are prepared to take these issues into their own hands. With the support of the rest of the community, we can ensure that their efforts succeed by creating an environment that supports true gender equality.