Building a Safer World for Women and Girls

This week, as I've watched news unfold in Afghanistan -- a crisis on so many levels -- my mind keeps returning to the country's women and girls. I can't even begin to fathom what life will be like for them now that they are once again living under Taliban rule. Yesterday, I read one news report proclaiming that "there are no women in the streets" of Kabul, and another explaining that burqa prices have surged tenfold in recent days.

This week, as I've watched news unfold in Afghanistan -- a crisis on so many levels -- my mind keeps returning to the country's women and girls. I can't even begin to fathom what life will be like for them now that they are once again living under Taliban rule. Yesterday, I read one news report proclaiming that "there are no women in the streets" of Kabul, and another explaining that burqa prices have surged tenfold in recent days.

Several years ago, I attended a screening of "What Tomorrow Brings," a film about Razia Jan and the school she opened for girls in Afghanistan (click here to learn more to rent/purchase access to the film or to support Razia's Ray of Hope). I still vividly remember how hard the girls in the film worked to get to school... not only how early they had to wake up and how far they had to travel to get there (although also that!), but what an uphill battle some of them had to fight just to prove to their families and to society-at-large that girls should receive an education at all. I've been thinking a lot this week about those motivated students whose stories touched me deeply, and I wonder what will become of their dreams and aspirations. I also fear for their physical and emotional safety under a regime that has a history of "egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage" (according to the U.S. State Department's archives).  

Speaking of violence against women, Parashat Ki Teitzei opens with a text that has always disturbed me. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 reads:

"When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her."

Many traditional Jewish commentators from across the centuries have interpreted this passage relatively positively. They have argued that this text indicates that -- in contrast to many of the surrounding societies -- ancient Israelite culture actively tried to limit and tame sexual violence that accompanied men's wartime actions. In that sense, perhaps these commandments do represent a step in the right direction.

But, it has always bothered me that this text assumes that it is speaking to an exclusively male audience, and that it seems utterly uninterested in the woman's perspective. I wonder: what is the captive woman thinking and feeling, whose side is she on, and what might her desires be? By accepting this text as is, are we too accepting of a gender hierarchy that harms and undermines the agency of women? Are we complicit in turning women into objects of men's desire, rather than recognizing their full humanity?

Most of the time, it feels like our lives have advanced far beyond the ancient case law that Ki Teitze considers. In my lifetime, thankfully, I have never had to worry about being taken captive in war, nor have I even had to question (either for myself or for my daughters) access to basic freedoms such as driving a car or wearing the clothing I choose or my right to attend school. But, this week we are reminded just how real and terrifying the threats are to women living under Taliban rule and in other oppressive settings around the world; sadly, these are not problems of the past. Gender-based violence, too, is particularly egregious under certain regimes, but it is present everywhere and too often just swept into dark corners.

In the face of extreme threat to the women and girls of Afghanistan, what can we do to help? First, while we may not be able to block the new Taliban regime, we can absolutely put pressure on our own government to try to get as many Afghans as possible -- of all genders, and particularly those who are most threatened -- to safety. HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) is working on this on behalf of the American Jewish community -- and you can click here to read their statement on the Afghanistan Crisis and here to join their call to action by advocating, staying informed, volunteering or donating. Locally, HIAS's Seattle resettlement partner is JFS (Jewish Family Service), which has already put out an urgent call for help as "special immigrant visa holders" arrive in the U.S. Financial donations are always welcome (click here, and put "Refugees" in the comment box), on-call volunteers are needed (particularly folks with flexible schedules, able to lift 50 lbs, and/or have a reliable large vehicle), or you can purchase supplies like diapers, car seats and more from their Amazon wishlist.

It also seems that this new Taliban government is interested in proving itself more tolerant of women's rights than in the past; consistent international pressure may help in this regard too.

On a different but related front, this also seems like an opportune time to mention that closer to home, there are many ways to help to address gender-based violence. JFS's Project DVORA serves survivors of such violence here in our community with emotional support, safety planning and navigating logistical hurdles -- if you are ever in need of help, please know that DVORA and Kavana are both safe places to turn! Additionally, there are countless other amazing organizations in our community that also work to support women and to ensure safety, human rights, dignity, and access to education for all... both locally and further afield.

In a dvar torah on Parashat Ki Teitzei that she wrote for AJWS (the American Jewish World Service), Rachel Farbiarz concluded:

"We have well passed the threshold where our parshah's humane aspirations for the captive 'woman of beautiful form' can be left to languish in the implications of the text... If the Torah cannot herevoice the unequivocal condemnation of sexual violence during war, then it is up to us -- now -- to do so in its name."

Indeed, let us condemn gender-based violence, and work to build healthy communities at home, and a safer world for women and girls everywhere.

Kein y'hi ratzon (so may it be),

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum