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Life Arts

Socialized into Subservience

By       Message Mary Wentworth     Permalink
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In her 2011 book, Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman writes about growing up in the nineties and the early years of this century in a Satmar community in Williamsburg, a rundown industrial area of Brooklyn, New York.

Derived from the Hungarian name for Saint Mary, Satmars are an off-shoot Hasidic sect established by a rabbi after WWII. Satmars believe that the Holocaust was God's punishment of Jews for assimilation and Zionism. Accordingly, they opposed the establishment of the state of Israel.

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The rabbi's own rules for his particular followers are intermingled with those practiced by other orthodox Jews as well as people of other faiths. A number of the latter have long been practicers of the patriarchy, a worldwide system based on the oppression of women.

The theme that runs through Feldman's childhood and into her teen years is her questioning of the sect's narrow view of how a religious life must be lived and the practices, particularly restrictive for women, that adherents are required to follow.

Having been snookered into an arranged marriage to a mentally-challenged man, her British-born mother left the community when her daughter was still young. Feldman lived with her paternal grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy, because her father could not care for her since he, himself, relied on the community to look after him. As she grew older, she asked why the family had never sought support services for him:

"Bubby says that a problem child is a punishment; Zeidy says it's a test from God. To treat a problem is to evade the suffering that God felt you deserved." Also, "Bubby says, when you start figuring out why a problem is a problem, and you start putting terrifying labels on it, then suddenly, everyone knows there is a problem, and tell me, says Bubby, tell me, who will then marry all your other children, when you have a son with a medically diagnosed problem? Better not to know, she says. Better just to accept God's plan." [P.100]

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In this instance, accepting "God's plan" enabled Bubby and Zeidy to marry off their eldest son -- no questions asked -- so that they could then arrange marriages for his younger siblings whose lives had been put on hold until he married.

Although Feldman does not connect the oppression of Satmar women with patriarchal tenets that had been well-established before the three major monotheistic religions emerged, there is an unmistakable similarity between the two.

Patriarchs had established the institution of marriage before the keeping of historical records began. Giving each man his own fiefdom, marriage divided the world into two spheres -- women lived out their lives in the private realm under the absolute control of their husbands/fathers while the public arena was reserved for men. Marriage was intended to guarantee to the husband that any children born of the union were his. It may also have been a way of avoiding fighting by the men over women.

Certainly the three major religions have found that this institution has been useful in providing the structure that allows the faith to maintain order, flourish, and grow, strengthening the power of their particular doctrines. Women's oppression within these religions is presented as having been ordained by the powerful but invisible male deity. God, himself, for example, created woman with a womb, dooming her to the biology-is-destiny premise that child-bearing is her only reason for being.

For centuries, the trick has been to prevent women from examining religious texts like the Bible or the Torah or the Koran. In Feldman's case, community leaders, known as rebbes, promulgate additional rules based on their own interpretations. In other situations, popes, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and lay leaders carry on this work, explaining the meaning to their male followers whose obligation is to hand it on to their wives/daughters.

It is no accident that through the ages women have had to fight to obtain an education for themselves and their daughters. This struggle is by no means behind us as millions of women throughout the world remain illiterate, having either a minimal education or none at all.  

This exclusion of women from religious study led to the following resolution in the July 19th statement in 1848 by the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York:

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"Resolved, That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her." (

In the Satmar community, young men spend their days studying the Torah and Talmud, debating the meanings and implications while learning the rules about gender relationships. They are discouraged from "fraternizing" with girls; talking with them is seen as a waste of time. [P.64]

The rise of the patriarchy occurred when groups of people began to settle down more or less permanently in areas like the Middle East's fertile crescent. Men came to recognize that women's reproductive capacity was as valuable an asset to them as that of their newly-domesticated animals. The victors in tribal wars killed the defeated males but captured the women, integrating them into their own tribes. Women became chattel to be bargained for, sold, captured in war, placed into prostitution, or given away.

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Now retired and a writer, I am a feminist and political activist, a radical Democrat (have come to dislike the term "progressive"), and a blogger. Have done political tours of Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, West and East (way back when)Germany, China, (more...)

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