Four Jewish women were arrested yesterday while praying in the women's section at the Western Wall. The police planned to detain them for 24 hours, but they were released in less time on condition that they would not enter the Western Wall Plaza for 50 days. If an indictment is submitted against them, they could face a jail sentence of half a year for being "a danger to public peace" and for holding a religious ceremony that offends the feelings of others.

You no doubt think that this is a religious matter that has no bearing on you. But no. What constituted a real danger to public safety and hurt others' feelings was that the four women put on a tallit - the traditional Jewish prayer shawl - with black stripes. That is to say that what turned their praying into a criminal act was the fact that they used an item of clothing that is considered to be for men.

The tallit is an item that defines the masculinity of the Jewish male - the one who is entitled to touch the Torah, to dance with it, to kiss it and to study it day and night. All of these are forbidden to women, as is the item of clothing that symbolizes them. Six times in the past two years, police have arrested women who prayed at the Western Wall with a tallit. In the year 2000, a draft law was brought before the Knesset which fixed a seven-year prison sentence for any woman who prayed with a tallit. It was removed after passing a preliminary reading, but it was not only ultra-Orthodox men who voted in its favor. Even (current Knesset Speaker, from the Likud ) Reuven Rivlin supported it. Secular men, it seems, are volunteering to do the work for ultra-Orthodox men in all spheres - to maintain the exclusivity of their male symbols and prevent women from using those symbols.

And this is not merely a matter of religion. Just last month, an employer wanted to dismiss his receptionist because she cut her hair short, in a style that was "not suitable for providing service" - meaning it was not feminine enough. About two years ago, a waitress at the Hilton Hotel appealed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because she was obliged, like the other waitresses, to wear a short skirt and was forbidden to wear pants for work. At El Al, too, the air stewardesses had to fight against the obligation to wear high heels.

In the United States, the Ninth Circuit ruled at the beginning of this century that employers can demand of their employees a "professional" exterior appearance, including those that are gender-specific. Thus a female bartender who was fired because she refused to wear makeup was unable to use "equal employment" as a defense. The court did rule that the demands of a female employee could be no more severe than those of a male employee, but it refused to recognize that wearing makeup burdened women more than not wearing makeup burdened men.

In Israel, too, the court has recognized the right of an employer to oblige a young male waiter to cover his arms as opposed to female waiters who are invited to bare their arms. These cases demonstrate that the establishment wishes to ensure the gender differences: that a man should be a man and a woman should be a woman. But what is also clear is that "femininity" - just like "masculinity" - is totally, but totally, unnatural. The difference between the two, however, is that men who are suspected of having "feminine" elements in their appearance may risk being thrown out of the "old boys' club." Women who dare to don traditional signs of authority risk being arrested.

The reason that men preserve the signs of their masculinity with such zealousness is that these symbols allow them to define and preserve masculinity as being worth more than femininity. Just as the tallit symbolizes the right and the sole authority of men to study the Torah, to make judgments about religious law, and to touch the Holy of Holies, so the Western man's suit symbolizes his "rationality," his "professionalism" and his "leadership" - which are all synonyms for masculinity.

The male suit makes it possible for men to maintain exclusivity in discussions on security, economics and leadership. During lectures I gave this week, I was asked to explain the connection between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks about dwarfing the home front and getting women to join in the peace process. The connection is as follows: The imposed gender distinction makes it possible to dwarf the home front and to ensure that women are kept completely out of any debate about an attack on Iran. Understanding matters of security and life and death are also an asset and symbol of masculinity; and secular men, like religious men, do not allow women to step into their holy of holies.