Vashti’s dilemma same as modern-day women

  • queen vashti
Purim is traditionally considered a story of Jewish triumph, celebrating the narrow averting of a nation’s genocide. Yet, the Scroll of Esther opens not with Jewish people, but with the theme of women under patriarchy.
by ADINA ROTH | Mar 09, 2017

In Chapter 1, Queen Vashti is famously summoned to appear before the drunk king Achashverosh and his equally inebriated guests.

Seemingly unwilling to be objectified in front of leering men, Vashti refuses her husband’s invitation. Her assertive refusal sets off ripples of disbelief through the Persian court and Achashverosh is immediately advised to get rid of her, or all the women in Persia will deem it acceptable to contravene their husbands.

Vashti’s singular moment of empowerment backfires as she is removed from her throne and a decree goes out to all the provinces of the Persian Empire that men must rule their households and that women must speak the language of their husbands. Ouch, that revolutionary moment doesn’t seem to end well!

Yet, let’s pause and imagine Vashti’s quandary here: What if she had said yes? Would things have worked out better for her and the women of Persia. One surmises that had she agreed to parade her beauty in front of the drunken guests, she would have perpetuated her own experience of objectification.  

She might have played the “good girl” and she probably would have remained queen. But her story would have been effaced from history. Disempowerment would still be the order of the day. The point is, what choice does Vashti have?

She is damned if she says no and she is damned if she says yes. 

Is this not a similar dilemma that modern women face? Consider the ways in which women’s bodies have been the property of the public eye in the recent American election.

The media commented on Hillary Clinton’s sense of style, often deriding her for not being “feminine” enough, stylish enough. Yet when she attempted to pay more attention to her style, she was accused of spending “too much” on clothes and she was criticised for being disconnected from the people.

Clinton refused to play into stereotypical expectations of feminine beauty and she suffered for her saying “no”. On the other hand, Melania Trump, with her modelling career and her fashion business, tows a more stereotypically “feminine” line of beauty. 

Yet, the media has unscrupulously gazed on Melania and critiqued her for revealing too much. If Hillary did not care enough, Melania cared too much!

These women embody Vashti’s dilemma: Vashti was dethroned for not performing and one could say that Hillary was denounced by some for not conforming to the traditional expectations of how a woman should dress.

Yet, Melania who openly celebrates fashion and “feminine” beauty, is equally ravaged. This makes me think how much has changed for women since Persia circa 486 BCE?   

Vashti’s dilemma sums it up: Bowing out or opting in, women leaders are always subject to a particular kind of gaze and scrutiny. Is there a way out of this?

Perhaps the carnival style holiday of Purim gives us a clue as to how women might be able to manage this dichotomous dilemma presented by patriarchy.

Purim is the holiday of disguise and dress-up, where we reveal hidden aspects of ourselves as we conceal others.  The fun nature of dress-up belies much deeper messages about identity and self, surface and depth; that we are somehow always revealing some parts and concealing others, that all of life is a mask and that we shouldn’t take anything too seriously.

The deeper work then invites each person to move inwards and trust that beneath the multiple masks we wear for the world, a deeper authenticity exists which neither the media, nor the leering King Achashverosh can touch.

In other words, we need to be less intimidated by the external gaze of the other and in some ways flout the constant scrutiny by revealing and concealing. We need to be dancing this way and that, all the time remembering that like Esther a deeper secret remains hidden. This secret is an essence that is incumbent on each person to journey and discover.

That deeper secret subverts the most dogged of gazes. Inviolable, perhaps it is the only way out of Vashti’s dilemma.  



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