With Esther’s voice, fighting violence against women

On Mar. 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a day intended to celebrate the economic and social advances made by women, while at the same time drawing attention to areas that still need action. It is striking that this year the day falls so close to Purim.

The proximity is not lost on us. We remember Vashti, who was killed for disobeying her husband. We celebrate Esther, who spoke out.

Not every woman has the ability to speak. Not every woman has access to education. Not every woman can go about her day without fear of violence.

It is for her that we must now speak.

We know the stories. We know that one in every three women will experience violence at some point in her life. We know that 1 billion women and girls are affected by violence, including rape, domestic violence, acid burning, human trafficking, dowry deaths and so-called honor killings. In times of conflict, rape is often used as a weapon of war.

The terrible consequences of this epidemic of violence rob countries of the contributions and talent of half their populations. Violence takes the lives of millions of women and girls and denies countless others their dignity and their right to live safe, productive lives. No country is immune. Violence crosses all national borders and affects women of all ages, social groups, religions and economic, racial and ethnic groups.

The Obama administration has taken key steps to support millions of women and girls by establishing the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department, releasing the United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and developing a government-wide strategy to uplift and coordinate efforts to address gender-based violence in U.S. programs abroad. This comprehensive strategy improves existing foreign assistance programs with the goal of helping to prevent, reduce and ultimately end violence against women.

But it’s not enough to create a strategy — the U.S. Congress must take a stand against violence against women globally to effect true change. The International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) will make existing efforts to stop violence against women more integrated, effective and efficient, placing women at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

The legislation would direct the U.S. government to implement its strategy to reduce violence against women in at least five countries where violence is severe. The bill would also permanently authorize the Office of Global Women’s Issues, an important move that will ensure the prioritization of women and girls in future administrations.

I-VAWA would also allow women’s organizations abroad to finally get the help they deserve. Programmatic support and capacity building will focus on both prevention, such as economic opportunity programs and public education campaigns to change attitudes, and intervention, such as health care for women who have been raped and who may become infected with HIV/AIDS. U.S. government agencies that engage in foreign assistance work overseas would be required to take all possible steps in their programming to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and to be coordinated in these efforts.

Addressing violence against women is crucial to global development and stability. When women and girls thrive, societies are more likely to prosper, reduce rates of HIV and AIDS, decrease child and maternal mortality, and increase participatory and democratic governments — all of which makes U.S. assistance dollars go farther. U.S. security — and the security of all countries — is only enhanced when the status of women is elevated.

I-VAWA is championed by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), two powerful Jewish women leaders. The legislation was introduced in the House this past June and now has six Republican co-sponsors and will shortly be reintroduced in the Senate. This is now the fourth Congress to address this legislation. How many times does it need to be considered before it is passed?  On the heels of passing a strong, bipartisan Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, Congress has a historic opportunity to focus on women worldwide and finally pass I-VAWA.

This Purim, let’s remember Vashti, honor Esther and use our voices to stop violence against women and girls around the globe.

(Lori Weinstein is CEO of Jewish Women International, which is a steering committee member of the Coalition to End Violence Against Women and Girls Globally and the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women.)

Purim’s other woman: Vashti, the queen who kept her clothes on

When it comes to the story of Purim, Queen Esther has received lots of attention. All the little girls want to play her in the Purim spiel. She’s brave, beautiful, loving and heroic: the quintessential female biblical role model.

But what about the other brave, role model Queen of Persia? What about Vashti?

Vashti is a proto-feminist who has been unfairly maligned by “mainstream media” and Jews everywhere.

Myself included. When I was 9, I wrote a song about Vashti, set to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two.” The lyrics were:

Vashti, Vashti, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy, and it’s all because of you.
I told you to entertain us,
But you said, “Kiss my tuchis.”
Now get in here, or else you should fear
For the life span that’s left to you.

Growing up in the 1990s, I have been a passionate, self-avowed feminist from an almost comically young age, and even at 9 considered myself quite adept at detecting gender bias and sexism. I was well-versed in the ongoing fight for gender equality and the subtle side-effects of gender discrimination. So sensitive was my internal radar for sexism and gendered political issues that I sometimes picked up on nonexistent clues (for example, I was convinced that Shaggy’s 2000 pop song “It Wasn’t Me” was a sorry excuse for a rape allegation defense). I was also big on supporting the underdog. Around the time that I wrote my Purim song, I did my first school research project. Topic suggestions included things like “Abraham Lincoln” and “dinosaurs.” I opted to research four under-represented female suffragettes, women whose contributions I felt had been under-emphasized in our history textbooks.

“Vashti Deposed,”1890, oil on canvas, by Ernest Normand.

And yet I never stopped to consider Vashti’s side of the story. It didn’t occur to me that Vashti had been a feminist worthy of admiration. Although I thought that King Ahasuerus was unprincipled and boorish and that Vashti’s punishment — deposal and quite likely death — was unfair and unwarranted, I don’t remember ever feeling all that bad for her. It was my understanding that Vashti had been arrogant, vain, even wicked, and really, she probably shouldn’t have made such a fuss about something as minor as a request to attend a party. Didn’t she know about the importance of picking your battles?

I had no idea that Ahasuerus had been drunk for 180 days and that his summons included the demand that Vashti parade around naked in front of his drunken, male guests.

Until recently, my understanding of Vashti was fairly closely aligned with the depiction in Debbie Friedman’s “A Purim Musical.” In “Vashti’s Song,” Vashti explains, “I never like to go to parties when I’m the only woman there. When I said no to Ahasuerus, I really didn’t know he’d care. … He wanted to show them my lovely face. I didn’t feel like dressing up in satin frills and lace. Perhaps it was a pretty silly thing for me to do — no woman wants to be a single act!”

But, as it turns out, Vashti did know that Ahasuerus would care, and the summons had nothing to do with frills, lace or Vashti’s face.

Although I can chant a great V’ahavta, I can’t even speak Hebrew like a fifth-grader. My Purim education came from stories adapted for English-speaking Hebrew schoolchildren, songs and skits. I knew they took some artistic license with the Purim story, but I assumed that the essential elements of the narrative and characters I knew were drawn from the megillah.

When I actually read the Book of Esther, I was surprised to discover that Vashti, as the Book of Esther presents her, was a far cry from the Vashti I knew.

In the Book of Esther, Vashti is a brave woman who risked her life for her beliefs. She was a woman who did pick her battles — and this was not a small matter of a single party. By refusing the king’s summons, Vashti was taking a stand for women’s rights. King Ahasuerus and his advisers — especially Haman — understood this and that was why they advised the king to depose Vashti immediately. If he did not, it would send a message to all of Persia’s men and women that it is acceptable for a woman to disobey her husband’s orders. Male sovereignty would be jeopardized. And so Vashti was deposed (and likely killed), and King Ahasuerus commenced a search for a new wife. And the rest, as they say, was history. Or legend.

The unflattering descriptions of Vashti’s character originate not in the actual Book of Esther but from later commentary. Talmudic scholars came up with a host of theories and explanations about Vashti and her fate, theories that ranged from unfounded to absurd:

Rashi theorizes that Vashti said no because she was suffering from a sudden-onset case of leprosy. M’nos Halevi agrees, claiming that “leprosy was punishment for her conceited manner.” Other scholars suggest that Vashti was suffering from a different affliction: the sudden growth of a tail.

Both the leprosy and the tail theories are grounded in the inventive idea that Vashti refused the summons not out of principle and dignity, but rather because she was ashamed of her body and her appearance and didn’t want to reveal a deformation. The megillah offers no evidence to support this; on the contrary, in it, Vashti is described as beautiful.

Why were rabbinic scholars so eager to prove that Vashti was wicked, conceited, deserving of her fate?

Perhaps because it simplifies the story of Purim and its attendant moral concerns. For Esther to rise, Vashti must first fall, and if Vashti’s fall was deserved and justified, the story is a lot cleaner. We don’t get distracted by empathy for the first queen, and we can move easily forward with the narrative and onto its central concern: the Jews. Furthermore, talmudic scholars were themselves a part of and complicit with a male-dominated social order, so they were unlikely to approve of Vashti’s attempt to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Negative portraits of Vashti persist to this day, but there is a gradually expanding movement to repair and redeem Vashti’s public image.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe were among Vashti’s earliest defenders. Stowe described Vashti’s refusal of the king’s summons as “the first stand for women’s rights,” and Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation … by her disobedience.”

But if Vashti is a feminist role model, does that mean Esther, who — dare I put it this way? — slept her way to the top and was obedient and subservient to the king, is not? Especially since Esther’s strategy for saving the Jewish people involved not just praying and fasting but also getting the king drunk and deliberately arousing his jealousy.

The short — and feminist — answer is that Esther didn’t have a choice. Today, thanks to centuries of women (and men) who have fought for women’s rights, women occupy positions of power across all different fields. Today, sleeping your way to the top is far more likely to land you in the middle (at best) than working your way there.

The town of Shushan is big enough for two female heroes. And it’s high time that Vashti receives the appreciation and respect that she deserves, as a woman who said no. It’s time to celebrate Vashti for having the courage to stand up to a drunken and demanding king, just as we celebrate Esther for persuading that same drunken king to free the Jews.

And who are the modern-day Vashtis?

Lena Dunham might be one of them.

Dunham is the 26-year-old creator and star of the HBO hit “Girls.” Her character, Hannah Horvath, spends a lot of time naked on screen; in fact, in this season’s Episode 5, I’m pretty sure Hannah spends more time out of clothes than in them. So the comparison with Vashti, who was deposed for refusing to appear nude, might seem counterintuitive.

But Vashti wasn’t a prude. She owned her sexuality. So, too, does Dunham, and her nudity on “Girls” is on her own terms; she’s not inhibited by the fact that she doesn’t have the typical body of a nude female lead. Hannah — and Dunham — are provocative, bold and uncompromising. So was Vashti. And so, I suspect, are many of the young women who are fans of the show. You go, “Girls.”

Next step? “Vashti: The Movie.”

Viva Vashti

“Vashti’s the only one in the Purim story who should be congratulated,” my son Danny, 12, says.

You may recall that King Ahasuerus, who had been sumptuously drinking and feasting with his Shushan subjects for seven days, ordered his chamberlains to “bring Vashti the queen before the king wearing the royal crown [some sources say wearing only the crown], to show off to the people and the officials her beauty” (Megillah 1:11).

But Vashti, whose self-respect would never allow her to participate in a “Girls Gone Wild” video or a Super Bowl half-time show, refused.

Ahasuerus “therefore became very incensed and his anger burned in him” (Megillah 1:12). He consulted his legal experts who advised that “Vashti never again appear before King Ahasuerus” (Megillah 1:19). This was interpreted to mean, at best, she was banished or, at worst, beheaded.

“She died for what she believed in,” Danny adds.

And how was this courageous death rewarded? By total vilification by the talmudic rabbis, obvious adherents of the “no good deed goes unpunished” theory.

These rabbis claimed that she deserved to die, postulating that she was cruel and arrogant and, in fact, had forced Jewish maidens, while disrobed, to spin and weave for her on Shabbat. Or that because her grandfather was the notorious Nebuchadnezzar, who had destroyed the First Temple, she planned to prevent Ahasuerus from allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

Other rabbis claimed she was an exhibitionist who would have relished parading naked but was self-conscious because leprosy had broken out on her body or, in another version, because the angel Gabriel had pinned a tail on her.

And from what basis do these far-fetched explanations emanate? The hardly incendiary line “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment conveyed by the chamberlains” (Megillah 1:12).

Indeed, to appropriate a popular bumper sticker, if you’re not outraged by Vashti’s bad rap, you’re not paying attention.

Interestingly, Mordechai also takes a contrary stand in the story, refusing to bow down to Haman, who had been promoted to Ahasuerus’ chief adviser. Day after day, the king’s servants asked, “Why do you disobey the King’s command?” (Megillah 3:3). But Mordechai “did not heed them” (Megillah 3:4).

But while Vashti is condemned for standing up for her beliefs, Mordechai is praised, never mind that his act of defiance so enrages Haman that he schemes to murder not just Mordechai but every Jew in the kingdom.

“But otherwise there wouldn’t be a story,” my ever-practical husband, Larry, says.

“Maybe there shouldn’t be a story,” I answer.

Not for this holiday, which can’t decide if it’s a cartoon, a satire or another near-historical rendition of the near-annihilation of the Jews. This holiday that exhorts us to drink until we don’t know the difference between “blessed by Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman” and that applauds the murder of 75,000 innocent Persian citizens.

And, most disturbing to me, this holiday that promulgates the belief that women should be soft-spoken and obedient.

Ahasuerus and his experts aren’t upset merely by what they perceive as Vashti’s solo act of insubordination. Rather, they are concerned that all the women in the kingdom will follow Vashti’s assertive lead. And so they advise that an irrevocable decree be proclaimed in all the land that “all the wives will show respect to their husbands, great and small alike … and … every man should rule in his own home” (Megillah 1:20-22).

I understand that the story of Purim, whether fictional or not, takes place in a certain historical and sociological context.

But I also understand, more than 2,000 years later, that the anti-feminist values it espouses need to be exposed loudly, clearly and even stridently, especially when the rights of women worldwide continue to be constricted.

Purim presents us with an opportunity to increase awareness of female repression and exploitation by congratulating Vashti on her refusal to be a sex object, as my son, Danny, suggests — and by realizing that this story of excess, absurdity and superficiality, contrary to popular belief, is not in good fun. Rather, it is as vicious and insidious as any Jewish American Princess, dumb blonde or other ethnic or gender joke, and it doesn’t lend itself to defenses such as “lighten up.”

As the lone female in a house of four sons, ages 12, 14, 16 and 20, I’ve worked hard to deconstruct the story of Purim. I know I’ve succeeded when I hear Jeremy, 14, complain, “Mom, you’ve already ruined Purim for us.”

“Good,” I say, for my goal is to raise four enlightened sons who relate to females respectfully and equally. And my secondary goal is to eventually have four daughters-in-law who don’t despise me.

The Megillah tells us that more than 2,000 years ago the unexpected happened. This year, it’s time for the unexpected to happen again, the transformation of Vashti from villainess to valiant heroine.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and is the mother of four sons.