JOFA on the Campus, The View from U of P: Muslim Women, Orthodox Jewish Women and Myself
By Susanna Goldfinger
Last spring, as part of a class project at the University of Pennsylvania, I embarked on a study of its first-year Orthodox Muslim and Jewish female students. Tradition in both these religions dictates that women live either in their fathers' or husbands' homes. For both Orthodox Jewish and Orthodox Muslim women, freshmen year of college is the first clear break in that pattern. I wanted to know: Did Orthodox Muslim women feel the same friction as Orthodox Jewish women as they tread the path between modernity and tradition?
From my research it appeared that while many day-to-day issues for Muslim women were the same as for Jewish women, their relation to the larger community was quite different. They were not defined by the kahal (community) as Jewish women were.
My interest in Muslim women was primarily intellectual; Jewish women like myself captured my personal fascination as they demonstrated how they coped with being an Orthodox Jew on a secular campus. One woman spoke of how the concept of Torah v'avodah determined her course of study. Another woman declared that she did not do anything she didn't believe in and therefore never needed to rationalize her actions. Still another woman confided that she would love to travel to Africa and build huts or sail down the Amazon, but felt that living an Orthodox life would not allow her to realize those dreams.
The feeling of living a double life was a forceful current in many Jewish students' lives. Many women insisted that not going to college was not an acceptable social reality. In fact, a heavily practical and career-oriented rhetoric found its way into most of the women's stated reasons for attending college.
As I transcribed interview after interview, the testimonies of my peers were neither frustrating nor alienating. I was disappointed in the difficulty so many had owning up to their own academic curiosity and ambition. Still, their very presence next to mine in lecture halls, dormitories and dining rooms bound them to me. I was endeared towards this core of students grappling with their identity, forging a traditional community on a secular campus, and pulled closer to my own community with unanticipated intensity.
Susanna Goldfinger is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.