After #metoo, I have seen many people claim that yichud and tznius will protect women from assault. That we should take greater care in our halachic observance, and through these measures, protect ourselves. I don’t agree. I cannot.
This is my story.
The first time I was physically groped was in Mea Shearim. In a currency exchange shop, while one man had all the money I had painstakingly saved up over a year to buy my husband a Gemara with, his friend came around the counter to “play with” my daughter, who I was wearing in a carrier on my chest. But in his “playing with” her, he kept touching my breasts. Subtly, at first, but over and over, and no matter how much I moved away, he kept following me and continuing.
His friend took a long time, miscounted my money, dragged the encounter out. I didn’t say anything. How could I? If I yelled for help, who would believe me? It was my word against theirs, two against one, and I would have been the “hysterical” woman speaking motzei shem rah. I knew, in a sharp moment of clarity, there was no help to be gained by speaking out – only the humiliation of hearing that I was a liar. So I froze.
I don’t often go places without anyone else. Usually I have my husband. Growing up, I was extremely sheltered and almost never without my parents. I grew up not using public transportation. But this one time that I was alone (not on purpose – my husband stopped to talk to someone else and I went on without him to find an exchange place) I was assaulted. And you know what’s messed up? I spent weeks feeling like it was my fault because my mitpachat had slid back on my head, revealing a bit of my hairline. I felt like I was punished for not being careful enough.
There are men in the community who are abusers. They know the halachos. And they exploit them. With two men, there isn’t yichud! Especially not with the shop door open. They set up these situations where they have power over their targets, and can exploit them. They use their observance of Halacha as a shield – no, they use it as a TOOL to abuse women with. And that’s not okay.
We have to change how we think and talk about tznius, about yichud, about even lashon hara. I’m afraid to go down that street again. My agoraphobia is worse every time I remember what happened. Sometimes I won’t go in shops if there aren’t other customers now, because I’m too scared. And those men? I’m sure they’ve done that to countless other women. We can’t keep using Halacha as a weapon to keep religious women silent and oppressed.
Please don’t think these Mitzvot don’t matter to me. They matter more than I can describe. I love the Torah, because I love HaKadosh Baruch Hu. But the Mitzvot matter because Mitzvot are what HaShem asks of us, not because that’s how women should protect themselves from abuse. When we make adherence to Halacha (let alone chumros) about preventing abuse, we make sexual assault a punishment for women not being religious enough. We shift blame from the perpetrators to the victims. We are weaponizing their abuse against them, and distancing them from Torah and HaShem. How many abuse victims go off the derech because of this kind of attitude? I don’t know the numbers, but I know people who have. I know people who have internalized the pain of hearing that G-d says they deserve to be raped for not adhering to Halacha perfectly.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know, not really, how to change things. All I know is that we need to recognize that there are men in the community who are using Halacha as a vehicle for exploiting women (and children, and honestly anyone else they have power over). That’s a problem. And people like Mayim Bialik who suggest that modesty is a “self protective measure” are missing the fact that someone else will always be a little less tznius, who doesn’t hold of all the same chumros. Someone who fits in a little less well. Someone who is in a vulnerable position.
HaShem doesn’t want our adherence to the laws of yichud, when we use those laws to corner women in a currency exchange shop.
“Yet they seek Me daily and they wish to know My ways, like a nation that performed righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of its God: they ask Me ordinances of righteousness; they desire nearness to God…Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high…Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate.”
“An appalling and horrible thing has come about in the land.”
There is no pain like that of the Torah as a knife through the soul and a desecration of the body. Yichud isn’t safety. It never was.