I was walking down the crowded, cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem’s Old City when a bearded man with narrow eyes reached out his hand and tried to grab my breast. I did not know him. I had not made eye contact. I was not acting provocatively—in fact, despite a heat wave that added insult to the already injurious desert summer, I was burning up in the long-sleeved shirt and ankle-length skirt that’s customary for the region. In response, the man with whom I was traveling reached out and struck the stranger’s hand, causing him to trip sideways into the crowd.
Many other women who visit the Holy Land have a story like mine. My orthodox Jewish friend was asked to give up her bus seat when a Haredi (aka ultra-orthodox) male sat next to her; another woman received catcalls while dining al fresco; a third tried to buy watermelon at a market stall when the owner pointed to her breasts and said, “You want to buy my fruit? Well, I like your fruit.”
One woman who overheard Haredi men gossiping about her immodest t-shirt and capris tucked her sleeves under her bra straps and yanked the pants over her knees, then turned to the men and called back, “If you think I was inappropriate before, then you’d better avert your eyes now.”
What I’d like to think about a bit here is why stories like these matter. None of them approach the kinds of gross violations reported in various parts of the Middle East over the past year, such as the near stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the assault of Lara Logan in Egypt, or the alleged gang rape of Eman al Obaidi in Libya. Nor do they approach the disturbing abuses that occur on our own soil: Chris Brown’s attack of Rihanna or Elizabeth Smart’s terrible ordeal, to name just a few.
In light of such cases, one might wonder why incidents like these require attention—there was no long-term harm, no PTSD treatment, no lawsuit. They’re not sensational, and, in turn, not particularly memorable: a woman gave up a bus seat; another had an almost tragic-comical moment with a vendor at a market who probably didn’t think he was being inappropriate at all. So what? With truly horrific reports of violence against women surfacing almost daily, our attention ought to be solely focused on eradicating those kinds of harm.
Or should they? Perhaps the most compelling reason why we should care about such incidences is because it’s these quiet, unremarkable events that open the floodgates to more profound abuses. The logic might proceed that if it’s okay to grab a woman’s breast, then it must be okay to grab other parts of her body. If it’s permissible to tell her where she can sit on a bus, then why not dictate when she can be out of the house or what places she can drive to or what subjects she can study in school. In other words, insidious abuses create the possibility of more grotesque ones. And when such abuses—grotesque or otherwise—occur on land hallowed by three major world religions, not only is it a devastating testament to humanity’s brokenness, but it almost seems to desecrate holy ground, to damage the integrity of the faiths themselves.
It therefore becomes incumbent upon those Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to work together to create a Holy Land that welcomes and affirms women. The first step towards accomplishing this goal might be to recognize that just as violence begins in quiet, insidious ways, so hope is realized in the same manner. That means that there is the possibility for transformation every time a woman speaks about her reality and listeners acknowledge it. It means promoting education because every day that a girl is in school makes her one day wiser, one day less likely to accept injustice.
It’s no secret that violence against women is a global problem—whether the issue is female genital mutilation in Gambia, honor killings in Pakistan, or human trafficking in Kosovo. What might be overlooked is the way in which minor injustices—those as insignificant as an unwanted hand reaching toward a breast—can function as metaphoric gateway drugs to these other kinds of violence. What also might be overshadowed in national and international policy discussions about women’s rights are the roles that faith traditions can play. By joining together, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism may be able to not only prevent the kind of violence that makes news headlines. They may also be able to prevent the subtler incidences that precipitate it.
The Reverend Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is ordained in The Episcopal Church and has taught a variety of educational institutions, including Yale University. She is completing a doctoral degree in practical theology at Boston University, where she researches reproductive loss and assisted reproductive technologies. She is also the author of "God and Harry at Yale: Faith and Fiction in the Classroom" (Unlocking Press, 2010).