April 23, 2014 · 23 Nisan

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Women’s Rights

In the Book of Esther, two women find themselves in vulnerable positions because of their gender. Vashti pays a high price for her dignity when she is banished from the palace for refusing to dance at the king’s drinking party. Esther, who is chosen as Vashti’s successor in a beauty pageant, fears for her very life in approaching the king without his express request to see her. Women are expendable, merely objects to entertain or to be admired, and can be disposed of at will. The men of the story worry what might happen if women are given too much agency. Memuchan, one of Ahasuerus’s officers, warns the king of the dire consequences of Vashti’s rebellion:

Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come…. If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media…that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus…. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike (Esther 1:16-20).

Memuchan’s anxiety about what would happen if women did not have the proper respect for their husbands seems humorous to us now, but in fact, our world is not so different from the world of Shushan. Discrimination and violence against women are global problems. Women shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of poverty and the effects of war. Like Vashti and Esther, women in developing countries and, in some ways even our own, have limited control over their bodies or their livelihoods.

The Talmud says that Memuchan, who urged King Ahasuerus to exile Vashti, is actually Haman, who urged the king to destroy the Jews (BT Megillah 12b). Arthur Waskow argues that this midrash teaches us powerful lessons about the nature of oppression. He asks,

Do we learn from the Megillah that those who will not treat Jews as human will also not treat women as human? That Haman and Mehuman [sic] are the same oppressor because they do the same oppression? … And that just as the oppression of women and of the Jewish people is intertwined, so their victories are intertwined? That the victory, the freedom of the Jewish people will only come with the victory, the freedom, of womankind? (Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, Summit Books, New York, 1982, page 126)

As we celebrate our victory over oppression, may we also remember those, including millions of women, who are not yet free.

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Program Ideas for Individuals and Families

Give to the Jewish Fund for Justice’s Purim Fund

The Jewish Fund for Justice established the Purim Fund for Women in Poverty in 1988 to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. Organizations supported by the Purim Fund give low-income women the strength, skills and means to take leadership in their communities and organize for livable wage jobs, decent affordable childcare, and economic development opportunities. In honor of Queen Esther’s courageous efforts to save the Jewish people, the Purim Fund also honors the struggles faced by our immigrant mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers when they first landed on these shores--often working in oppressive conditions while struggling to hold their families together. For more information, visit www.jfjustice.org.

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Donate your Old Cell Phone to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The NCADP collects deactivated cell phones (which still allow for 911 calls) to distribute to victims of domestic violence so that they can call for emergency help. Visit their website for more information.

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Distribute Information about Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

Place informational material about a local shelter for victims of spousal abuse in the women's rooms at your synagogue, place of employment, hair salon, and clothing stores—anywhere you can think of. If you need such material, contact any of the groups listed on this page, or the RAC

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Advocate for Women’s Reproductive Rights

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Donate to American Jewish World Service’s Women’s Empowerment Projects

Women living in the developing world shoulder the heaviest burdens of poverty as a result of gender discrimination and social inequality. Yet despite these challenges, women frequently serve as the catalysts for creating positive social change. Through grant making and the Women's Empowerment Fund, AJWS supports programs designed to enable women to become agents of change, empowering them to transform their own lives and create lasting and meaningful change for themselves, their families and their communities. Visit www.ajws.org and click on “Women’s Empowerment” for information on AJWS’s current projects.

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Join Amnesty International’s Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women

By joining AI’s Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women, you will receive information about current women’s rights issues around the globe and about local efforts to combat discrimination and violence. You can also donate to the campaign to ensure its success. Visit www.amnesty.org/actforwomen for more information on how to join.

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Urge African Governments to Ratify the Women’s Rights Protocol

African women made history in 2003 through the adoption of a protocol that specifically protects women’s human rights and breaks new ground in international law. But before the protocol has the force of law, fifteen African governments must ratify it. As of early March 2005, ten countries had ratified the Protocol ( Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Lesotho, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Senegal). African women’s rights organizations are leading an innovative and energetic campaign to get more countries to ratify the protocol. Show your solidarity with them by writing to African heads of state to urge them to ratify the protocol. Visit Human Rights Watch's website for more information.

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Program Ideas for Groups: Religious School Classes, Youth Groups, and Congregations

Organize a Mock Beauty Pageant

(Adapted from loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org/pageant.html)

In the megillah , the king is advised to find a replacement for Queen Vashti by holding a beauty pageant in which all the young women of the kingdom would come and be dressed up and adorned. Esther “won his grace and favor more than all the virgins” (2:17), so she was crowned queen. Traditional beauty pageants value women solely by how well they fit into conventional beauty standards. In the spirit of Purim, subvert this institution by staging a mock beauty pageant. Rather than award women for they way they look, give out “Esther prizes” to women who make a difference in the world.

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Clean Out Your Closets to Benefit Women in Need

The Wardrobe: A Collection of Women's Professional Clothing is a project of the New Haven County Bar Foundation in collaboration with Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a Conservative synagogue, and the Community Action Agency of New Haven. The Wardrobe provides women's professional clothing without charge to participants in Community Action Agency of New Haven's job training programs. This training assists women on welfare prepare to enter or re-enter the workplace. Participants in the programs need appropriate clothing to interview for jobs and to wear in an office setting.

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Hold a Workshop at Your Synagogue on Violence Against Women

(Adapted by Hillel from a program at the University of Miami)

Beginning with a negative interaction between Queen Vashti and King Ahasuerus, the story of Purim provides an opportunity to look more closely at relationship abuse and ways to combat it emotionally and physically. Invite a speaker, have an interactive discussion, or hold a mini self-defense class at your synagogue. Provide information for the women to take home about relationship abuse. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Faith Trust Institute, an organization that offers a wide range of services and resources to provide communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to domestic and sexual abuse, may be helpful in planning your program.

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