I’m looking at myself in a window to make sure my outfit is okay. I am looking at my reflection to make sure I still recognize myself. I’m in Bnei Barak, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood next to Tel Aviv. I threw out my full-length mirror years ago, and checking my appearance in a window has become a foreign concept to me. However, I am about to enter into a room full of Ultra-Orthodox women with whom I am starting a facilitation course based on feminism, I find my own internalized homophobia returning to my consciousness. I thought I had gotten rid of it completely, as it hasn’t crossed my mind in years. Yet, today, when the course organizer asks that the secular women dress modestly, I find myself throwing on my tightest pair of jeans and most feminine shirt, because while I am not sure how modest it is, I do know that it makes me look girly instead of butch. So I am looking to make sure I still recognize myself as the person I have become. I do, more or less, and so I walk inside the building, my discomfort following in my shadow.
We start the first class by presenting ourselves through our professional careers and goals. I am surprised by the Ultra-orthodox women in the class, most who are leaders in the movement Not Elected, Not Voting, in which they decided against voting in the recent elections since no ultra-orthodox party allows for women to run in the election. There are thousands in the movement, representing a small minority of women making their voices heard against the prevailing political parties. They are also facing harsh backlash, according to the stories they told the group.
One woman has opened up a resource center for divorced women, another runs a career center for Haredi women. A third pulls out an over-sized textbook about feminism and says she’s writing her thesis using feminist theory, but that she hasn’t ever actually learned it, so she is reading up on it.
I don’t know what I expected, but this was not it. I have worked with Haredi community in the past, and my experience was very different. I certainly try not to pre-judge, but encountering these women demonstrated how much ignorance and misconceptions I had about this community.
When my turn comes around, I explain that I am an LGBTQ activist, and that I am looking to do more work with women, because homophobia and misogyny are systems that work in unison. Therefore, I want to spend more time focusing on societal issues surrounding women.
The woman with the book shakes her head fervently. Is she agreeing with me? Does she realize I outed myself?
I hear myself word vomiting “I am sorry if I seem uncomfortable, but this setting is foreign to me, and my identity is a big part of my activism, but I don’t mean to offend anyone.”
I immediately regretted what I had said. I have never before apologized for being myself, so why would I start now? So as not to offend people who may disagree with my lifestyle? I felt as though I had belittled myself.
“You don’t need to apologize to us,” one woman says. “We are the LGBT community of the Ultra-orthodox. We are pushing for our voices to be heard, we aren’t just being accepted by our community.”
Again, I am shocked. They heard, understood and even identified with what I had said. They are facing issues of acceptance not dissimilar to those the LGBTQ community has faced throughout our struggles.
The one with the book chimes in, “We aren’t just the LGBTs, we are the queers!”
Everyone breaks out in laughter.
In that moment, I realize that they have succeeded where I had initially failed. I had been so focused on my own discomfort and on being accepted by the group, that I had not taken into consideration how I was pre-judging them and their beliefs. I assumed that because of their religious background, they would be unaccepting of my identity, forgetting that there is a rainbow of colors in every community and society.
I took a deep breath as I continued my laugh and made a decision. I will listen, respect, and argue when necessary. I will work to tackle my stereotypes against the Haredi community. When I do stereotype, I will push through that judgement and choose to actively believe and understand the other women sitting in the circle with me. I won’t choose their voice for them.
Most importantly, I will work as their ally, fighting next to them against the oppression they face (and in the way they see fit).
When the class ended, I got up and the woman with book approached me. She held out her hand and said “I’m Rachel*, nice to meet you. Don’t feel like you are in the margins, we want you here.”
I shook her hand and replied “I want you here too.”