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August 3, 2017 by

An Emoji Worth a Thousand Words: One Orthodox Woman Uses Humor to Become Visible

Flatbush Jewish Journal

Flatbush Jewish Journal

When Hillary Clinton’s face was covered by the image of a hand in a 2016 copy of an Orthodox newspaper, I choked on my coffee. In the age of ‘woke’ and social activism, concealing the former presidential candidate, in all her strength and pant-suited glory, seemed downright bizarre. I immediately took to Facebook to lambast the ridiculousness of this photo. “Gloria Steinem would be so proud I tell ya,” I posted, earning just one like and one comment.

Unlike me, Adina Miles, an Orthodox 29-year-old mother of two, has the pluck and the platform to get hundreds of people talking about how absurd it is to conceal women’s faces in conservative Jewish publications.

It all started when Miles created @FlatbushGirl, an Instagram account documenting the everyday life of an Orthodox woman—comedic mishaps when baking challah, and shopping for jewelry with an opinionated mother-in-law. After posting several clever and relatable videos for the Orthodox community, Miles’s account swiftly accumulated thousands of followers. Miles then decided to leverage her newfound public persona to create a cleaner environment in Flatbush, the epicenter of Brooklyn’s Orthodox community. She partnered with Councilman Chaim Deutsch of Brooklyn to paint over local graffiti, and posed near him (and other community activists) in a photo for the Flatbush Jewish Journal (FJJ).

But Miles’s proud moment was eclipsed when the publication informed her that her face needed to be blurred, and that they could publish only the words “FlatbushBoy” and not “FlatbushGirl.” Knowing how stringent the Orthodox community is with women’s modesty, Miles realized that convincing the editor to do otherwise would be futile. Instead, Miles chose to slap on the “tears of joy” emoji (the world’s most popular) on her beaming face. An appropriate selection, given that her immediate reaction to the publication’s request was to laugh at its absurdity. Miles then posted about her experience with the FJJ on her Instagram story, and her tongue-in-cheek use of the emoji grabbed the attention of a NY Daily News writer. Shortly thereafter, Miles was flooded by questions from publications fascinated by the way she playfully–and confidently–challenged a subculture that has been blurring women’s faces for years (with barely a murmur of defiance from its readership).

Raised Orthodox, I’ve questioned the occasional disenfranchisement of my community’s women as well. In an effort to seek answers, I was mockingly branded as a feminist (a word infamously loaded with dark connotations among fundamentalists) and began to feel increasingly alienated. But I also knew that meeting with a sister subversive like Miles would validate the qualms I had about a society that, whether purposefully or not, causes many of its women to feel diminished.

In person, Adina Miles is just as warm, effusive, and pleasantly verbose as she is on her Instagram videos. Her style, including oversized, bejewelled sunglasses and a dress designed with hot pink hearts, seems intentionally whimsical. In our conversation, Miles was infectiously enthusiastic about discussing blurred women’s faces in Orthodox publications, and almost immediately dived into the conflicts engendered when her FJJ photo was published.

One thorn in her side is all the online vitriol. After non-Jewish media outlets covered her story, many Orthodox women whipped out their cyber-boxing-gloves and took several jabs at her on social media:

“You’re an attention-whore for doing all of this!”

“How can you dress the way you do?”

Miles dresses according to the Torah’s modesty laws and raises her family according to the tenets of Orthodoxy, but her colorful, fitted clothing and boisterous personality continue to inspire a slew of baseless slut-shaming. The steeped-in-misogyny comment that irks Miles the most is: “How can your husband let you post all these Instagram videos? A real Yeshivah man would not allow this of his wife.”

“My husband totally supports what I do,” she said, rolling her eyes in response. “In fact, we both have similar commentary on the community and we create Instagram videos together.”

Miles is also baffled by how wary other Orthodox women are of joining forces to combat the issue of female invisibility in their own culture’s media. When attempting to collaborate with other Orthodox media personalities, Miles receives significant pushback. One female Instagrammer asserted, “You should focus on more important issues like the fact that some frum women can’t receive a gett.” (A gett is a divorce document in Jewish religious law, which must be presented by a husband to his wife to effectuate their divorce.)

“It’s obviously important that women be untied from the constraints of the gett,” Miles said “But what this person doesn’t understand is that the issue of covering women’s faces in newspapers is rooted in the same warped tree that the gett issue is rooted in—the tree of diminishing women.” Miles added, “Addressing the issue of women’s invisibility in the media will even the playing field so that women can become less victimized in general. In doing this, it’ll be easier for all sorts of women’s issues to be fixed, including the gett issue.”

While Miles is excited that the wider public is growing aware of female invisibility in the Orthodox media, she understands, to an extent, why her community is aggrieved by her talking to the press. “I do have fans who agree that blurring women’s faces is wrong, but they tell me that I’m fixing this issue in the wrong way,” Miles said. She explained that many are concerned that the non-Orthodox public will use Miles’s press as fodder to further criticize a religious lifestyle, and paint hyperbolic images of female oppression in the community. At this point in the conversation, Miles grows passionate. “I know why my community is worried that I’m talking to the press, but what other way is there to fix this issue without bringing awareness to it first?”

“It’s frustratingly contradictory,” Miles sighed, “because religious women do have power in the community. We’ve come very far. We’re given the red carpet in terms of running the home and using whatever creative talents we have to enhance that part of our life. We also have lots of women going to college and having full careers. But why, when it comes to the issue of women in the media, are we light years behind?”

Decades ago, Orthodox women had their faces exposed in publications. Relatively recently, however, some have been arguing that the words “Behold Sarah was in the tent” (Genesis 18:9) reflect that Sarah effected change from within the confines of her home—and did not revolutionize the world by proselytizing in public. Upon hearing this, Miles vehemently shook her head. “You can’t twist and weaponize words of beauty from the Torah to oppress a whole gender! Look at pictures of rabbis’ wives in Artscroll books. All their faces are revealed. We never used to hide them, but now we are.”

“Let me make this clear. I don’t think Orthodox women are generally subjugated,” she pressed, “but for some very odd reason, we have been regressing in this one area of visibility in the media, and we desperately need to change that. If we don’t show strong, intelligent women’s faces in our newspapers, who will the young Orthodox girls see? The Kardashians on social media? Duck-face selfies?”

On the positive side, for every troll attacking Miles, there are hundreds of exuberant fans loving her material. During our conversation in a local Flatbush coffee shop, one woman recognized Miles and cried, “Flatbush Girl!” The woman, a middle-aged Orthodox fan wearing a blonde wig and a big grin, walked over to our table and thanked Miles for the recent video she uploaded on Instagram. The video is a riff on how Jewish women sweat twice as much as usual managing the children during summer vacation in the Catskills, while their husbands, who stay in the city to work during the week, have an entire house to themselves to man-spread and dump their empty beer bottles. “Did you know that this woman is famous?” the fan told one of the baristas, as she pointed to Miles.

Miles is definitely more talented than she gives herself credit for. “I don’t think I’m funny, I just know how to act and use caricature as a way to drive home a deeper message.” Miles is also deeply inquisitive. “I would love to take a beginner’s course in the history of feminism. I never heard of Lilith magazine before and wish I did.” It turns out, however, that Miles has a Master’s degree in Medieval Literature from Brooklyn College, which further proves her renegade status among Orthodox women (who usually work toward degrees that are more marketable, like nursing and speech pathology).

As we parted ways, Miles commented that she loved what I was wearing. I purposefully opted for a t-shirt with a picture of Lucille Ball on it to meet with her. “This may be cheesy,” I said, “but I wore this tee because you’re like a budding Orthodox Lucille Ball. You’ve got an underlying feminist streak to all your antics.”

Miles was flattered and continued to say, “What I like most about Lucy is how she used her absurdity to symbolize the patriarchy of her time. Do you remember that famous scene when Lucy stuffed her mouth with chocolates in a chocolate factory to the point where she couldn’t even talk? Not only is that hilarious to watch, but it’s also a brilliant metaphor for how women’s voices were suppressed.”

Indeed, if Miles continues to disregard the vitriol that seeks to silence her, she, too, can stand beside the many female comics who have used humor to empower women—whether it’s through stand-up, sketches, satire, or through the presence of one seemingly innocuous emoji.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.