Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
She refused to be put on display like cattle — and paid for it with her throne, with her status, and according to the midrash, with her life. Esther, on the other hand, played the game. She was silent for the first four chapters of the book, quiet, docile and pretty as the other dominating male in her life, Mordechai, called the shots and gained political standing. When Esther finally acted, it was by using her feminine charm, her sexuality, to woo the king into pleasing her and killing Haman. To save the Jewish people, she played the seductress. She may have stayed alive and kept her throne – but that’s not necessarily a blessing. She remained in her gilded cage, married to the megalomaniacal wife-killer, for the rest of her life. By being the “insider” in the system, she sacrificed her own freedom. Vashti, the quintessential fighter, may have lost her life, but she may have also kept her dignity.
Women face the insider/outsider dilemma all the time. Should we work hard and sacrifice our integrity (and money) to meet social expectations of female beauty in order to reap the significant social rewards of beauty and sexuality, or should we challenge the system, refuse to turn ourselves into seductresses, and force the world to deal with “real women,” as we are? For example.
In Judaism the insider/outsider dilemma is faced in the most harrowing way by agunot, women who cannot get a Jewish divorce because the system relies on male volition. To stay in the Jewish legal system, agunot give up right to live independently, or to give birth to a Jew, or to be free. They can be free at any moment, but that would entail giving up their status within the Jewish legal system.