OPINION: I felt humiliated in Stamford Hill #BecauseImfemale

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OPINION: I felt humiliated in Stamford Hill #BecauseImfemale

Eve Sacks, co-chair of trustees of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK, calls for a communal awareness campaign for mainstream British Jewry to understand honour-based abuse.

Young Orthodox Jewish men in Stamford Hill.
Young Orthodox Jewish men in Stamford Hill.

There’s a poster on a billboard in Leicester Square of a Chasidic boy, with long payot, a shaved head and kippah, with the slogan: “Why am I 500 percent more likely to suffer hate crime?#BecauseImJewish.” It is part of a national campaign by the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It’s vital to call out antisemitism, especially after the recent violent attacks in New York. However, the poster of a Chasidic boy reminded me of my first visit to Stamford Hill, and another form of abuse.

I went there for a friend’s son’s barmitzvah. Despite the delicious food, the evening left me with a bad taste. On arrival, it was made clear (by a man who looked away as I asked him directions) that I was to access the venue via the back entrance, by the bins and kitchen. Why? #BecauseImfemale. For the same reason, I couldn’t see what was going on because of the tall, opaque mechitza.

Once I was inside, the women looked at me disapprovingly despite my best efforts to dress modestly. I wore a long, mostly black dress with long sleeves, thick black tights and all my hair was in a beret. I found my friend’s sister, whom I’d met previously. She’d got divorced and left the community and now everyone was gossiping that she’d dared not to cover her hair. She told me that one of her older female relations had told off a teenage girl for wearing thick black tights rather than the beige tights which are the norm in the Satmar community. The girl was crying in the toilets.

Eve Sacks

I didn’t recognise it then, but I recognise it now; this girl was a victim of honour-based abuse, humiliated in front of her family for daring to wear clothing that did not comply with the community’s stringent dress code.

This incident is potentially more damaging to a young person than name calling in the street as it comes from a respected older member of her family (her grandmother), and served as a reminder to the other teenage girls not to break the dress (honour) code.

From my other encounters with people in the Chasidic community, I know of the stigma of breaking the honour code: the 18-year-old woman who had to keep her smartphone hidden, least her parents confiscate it to control her access to the outside world, or the young man who had no choice but to comply with an arranged marriage despite clearly articulating that it wasn’t what he wanted.

From my other encounters with people in the Chasidic community, I know of the stigma of breaking the honour code

The CST is fantastic at collating data and we benefit from its service to the community. But Sikh boys who wear topknots will also suffer anti-religious hate, and they do not benefit from having their experiences recorded in such a methodical and effective way.

That is the nature of data: we can only analyse what we know. The known sits alongside the unknown.

A member of the Chasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill.

It would be foolish to assume that knowing the amount of hate crimes experienced by one minority without knowing the extent experienced by others is a good way of concluding how much more at risk one minority is than another.

It would be equally foolish to conclude that being at risk of a hate crime from outsiders is the only abuse a Chasidic child faces.

It’s time for the mainstream Jewish community to understand the abuse perpetrated in our community.

I see the irony of a public awareness campaign about external hate experienced by Chasidic people, while Chasidic women are subjected to ongoing misogyny internally in the form of degradation and indignity; banned from driving, forced to shave their hair, unable to use contraception without permission from a rabbi and humiliated if they dare to wear the wrong shade of tights – and no one can muster more than a tut or a sigh, while we accept the narrative that Chasidic women are all happy with their situation.

It’s time for the mainstream Jewish community to understand the abuse perpetrated in our community.

We could do with an internal awareness campaign, in our community centres and synagogues, at our Shabbat tables and faith schools.

When I stepped into Stamford Hill, I was personally doubly degraded: first there was misogyny – I had to use the entrance by the bins, told to by the man who looked away as he spoke to me – and second there was judgment from the women despite my modest attire.

But I could walk away at the end of the night. The teenager crying in the lavatory did not have my freedom. Where is she in the data?

Eve Sacks is a board member of Nahamu and co-chair of trustees of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK (JOFA UK).

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