Monday 26 December 2011

Gender Segregation Pushed Too Far

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Despite many indications that Israel is a country that appears to promote gender equality more than most other countries around the world, there have been worrying signs of greater gender segregation creeping into some aspects of Israeli society recently.  Israel's Golda Meir was only the third female prime minister in the world, and Israeli women are required to serve in the Israeli army in the same way as their male counterparts.  These are all indications of Israel's progressive approach to women.  Yet this is the same country which closes off entire streets to the use of women, and requires them to sit at the back of the bus while their male counterparts sit at the front.

Ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem and elsewhere around Israel, have been increasingly trying to enforce greater gender segregation.  There is also already fairly strict gender segregation enforced in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods such as Jerusalem's Mea Shearim.  This is tolerable inasmuch as those who are subject to the segregation, are those who subscribe to it.  For the people living in Mea Shearim, gender segregation is part of their belief system and lifestyle.  Women are raised with this from birth, attend separate schools and are readied to take on separate traditional roles in the home and society.  Visitors to Mea Shearim know that this is the way in which things work in this neighbourhood, and are invited to stay away if this is objectionable to them.

The problem arises when supporters of gender segregation allow this to creep out into the general public, thereby affecting those who do not subscribe to it.  This has already long been the case in Jerusalem, with advertisers refusing to show images of women on buses and billboards for fear of them being defaced by ultra-Orthodox protestors.  Despite a court order prohibiting gender segregation in specific streets, even in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, residents of Mea Shearim set up separation barriers on Mea Shearim Street and Shivtei Yisrael Street during the recent Succot holiday.  The hard-line Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect were holding events relating to the holiday on locations in these streets, and were prohibiting women from approaching even near to these locations.

Two recent events have brought the gender segregation to a head, and have forced politicians and religious leaders to speak out on the issue.  The first event was a walkout of a military ceremony by religious soldiers when women soldiers began to sing at the ceremony.  The protestors subscribe to the so-called "kol isha" prohibition, which forbids males from hearing women sing.  The IDF's general staff has refused to back down on this issue.  The protesting soldiers were not given permission to leave the ceremony , and have been disciplined for their behaviour.  The military authorities have refused to heed calls to ban singing by women in future ceremonies.  This has brought the military into direct conflict with some ultra-Orthodox groups.

The second incident took place on a bus that was designated as a gender-separate service, something that has become more popular in Israel in recent years.  This means that women are required to sit at the back of the bus, while their male counterparts get to sit in the front.  Upon entering the bus, Tanya Rosenblit was requested by one of the religious males to sit in the ladies' section at the bank.  In a protest which was reminiscent of the actions by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, Tanya refused to relocate to the back of the bus.  This sparked a stand-off in which the bus was halted and the police called.  In a statement after the incident, Rosenblit said that she had shown respect by dressing modestly because she knew she was going into a religious area.  She refused, however, to be humiliated by being forced to sit at the back of the bus.  She has taken on a somewhat heroic status in the eyes of many, by being prepared to stand up to the religious coercion, something that few women have been prepared to do.

Israeli Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, came out recently saying that religious people are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, but they have no right to impose their views on the general public and in public areas.  Prime Minister Netanyahu announced at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting that Israel is a liberal democracy, and that public spaces are made available to men and women to use equally in a safe and open way.  The police will arrest those who spit, raise their hand or harass others.  These statements will sadly have no bearing at all on those who perpetrate gender segregation.  They do not respect these leaders, nor take note of anything they say.  They subscribe only to the leadership of the rabbinical leaders of their sects, and will only be guided by their statements.

It is ironic that these events take place at the same time that it is announced that no fewer than 5 female pilots and navigators, the most ever, will graduate from this year's air force flight instruction course.  It is only 16 short years since Alice Miller succeeded in challenging the prohibition on women being admitted to the flight instruction course.  Since then, many women have graduated from this course to serve their country with great distinction.  This year, 5 more women will join their distinguished ranks.  This is closer to the Israel that most of us know, a country which does support the equality of women in our society and which does encourage women to play a full role.

Despite the insistence by religious groups to enforce greater gender segregation and become more extreme in their views and actions, it seems unlikely that the greater public and the politicians will tolerate this.  While this does not mean that religious groups will be forced to dilute their religious observance, it simply means that they will be forced to limit their extreme views to their own environments, while allowing others to live their lives without being dictated to.  Surely this is the correct answer.

1 comment:

Meir Recanati said...

the haredi community have a double agenda, in my community of ramat aviv gimmel, they have taken over our community center as a yeshiva and thus new religious families have moved into the area trying to change our way of life, and are surprised when we object, lets put the shoes on the other foot by moving into meir shaarim and try to introduce our secular life to these same haredis, they wont like it also. My proposal is to transfer all haredi cities to the palestinian authority so they can practice their way of life and leave us alone in secular peace.