Neri Livneh
Photo by Avi Ofer
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Lately it seems like I spend most of my time going to demonstrations and emergency solidarity gatherings. I'd like to say that I go in the hope that the demonstrations have the power to somehow alter the path back to the Dark Ages down which our country is striding, when something that has been taken for granted suddenly becomes something one has to fight for.

While children were singing the Hanukkah song, "Darkness be gone! Give way to the light!" - it seemed that the battle has turned the other way, and that the avatars of darkness are emerging victorious in the struggle between ignorance and religious fundamentalism, and enlightenment, democracy and equal rights for all.

Because of this feeling, for me, going to demonstrations derives primarily from a desire to find a support group for myself.

It was in this spirit that I got up early last Friday to go to a conference organized by the Koah Lenashim (Ken ) association against gender segregation and the exclusion of women from the public domain. On the way there, though, I thought of a few women whom I would like to exclude before our struggle is crowned a success - Anastassia Michaeli, for instance, and Miri Regev. And maybe also Tzipi Hotovely, who supported the right of men and (male ) soldiers to leave any place where women are singing, without considering that one day, because of laws like this, men will also manage to banish her.

Michaeli and Regev did not come to the event, and Hotovely's speech there was interrupted by catcalls. Like many other women present, I simply chose to leave the auditorium. But apart from Hotovely, all the usual suspects showed up at the conference: from Zahava Gal-On to Billy Moscona-Lerman and Shelly Yachimovich, Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni and even Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who defied her father's plan for her to become a seamstress by founding a college so that other women wouldn't have to suffer the way she did in her childhood.

The men were an almost negligible minority at the conference and except for MK Shlomo Molla, no other male MK showed up. Pretty peculiar. And here I naively thought that opposition to gender segregation was just as important an issue for men as for women. But the overwhelmingly female ambience only contributed to the pleasantness of the gathering, which turned out to be the ideal support group. I kept looking around, wondering if there were really any "anti" argument that could be pulled out in a debate on "Equal rights for women: for and against"? Is there really some "pro" argument in favor of shutting our mouths, pushing us to the rear of the bus and erasing us from advertisements?

In a democracy in which equality is a fundamental value, there can be no positive justification for discrimination against women, just as there can be no genuine debate on topics like "Sexual harassment: for and against"; "The Holocaust: pros and cons" or "Trafficking in women: drawbacks vs. advantages." In a democracy there are things that simply cannot be done. But in a theocratic society, one ruled by religion, it is possible apparently, because God's certified interpreters are the ones who decide what is permissible and what is forbidden, and whom should be persecuted and whom should be oppressed.

It boggles my mind that here in Israel, in 2011, there are people who think that this is okay, that it's not so bad - that the ultra-Orthodox have the right to behave in their neighborhoods as they see fit, just as long as it doesn't hurt us, the secular public. Such people need to be told first of all that the approach of cultural pluralism went bankrupt the day we lost our tolerance for customs like "family honor" killings and female circumcision. There are customs that are simply inherently unacceptable, and which a democratic society that claims to uphold the principles of human dignity cannot abide. Second, we long ago lost the war for freedom of religion and worship. Yes, we can still remain secular inside our homes, but in external urban spaces, religious coercion has won.

Anyone who thinks this sort of thing can only happen in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Ashdod, Tiberias and other cities with a large Haredi population is burying his head in the sand. And besides, who said that the secular and enlightened religious publics in Jerusalem no longer have the right to exist? What begins in Haredi neighborhoods with segregated sidewalks eventually spills over into secular areas, ostensibly out of what's called "consideration for Haredi sensitivities." Put simply, this happens because of the "survival interests" of the mayor and the financial interests of commercial enterprises that are trying to adapt themselves to demands that haven't even been presented to them yet - all for fear of the Haredim. But no one ever talks about "consideration for secular sensitivities," as if secular folks have no feelings or values that they support, which in recent months have been trampled as never before.

I was a feminist even before I knew that that's what you call it; I was born into a family where it was clear that a woman not only can but must do something with her life. I wasn't taught that doing something with my life meant turning myself into some sort of empty vessel to be put at a man's service. I learned that lesson years later by watching such fine TV shows as the Israeli version of "Real Housewives," which showed that the path to happiness is immeasurably shortened when you're ready to marry or become the live-in companion of a millionaire - even one who, if it weren't for his money, you would not even want to touch with a 10-foot pole. (I must say, however, that I still don't get why actress Inbar Shenhav appears in that show ).

"Good for them," says my friend Hannah. "How many times have we made men happy for free? At least the show is making a fortune off of it."

I also heard the show's female creator explain that "Real Housewives" is actually a super-feminist program, about women who made their choice from a position of strength.

In the same way, and in the spirit of Aryeh Deri who once proclaimed that "Haredi women are the happiest," one could say that the decision by those women to obey the instructions of those who view them as inferior and as "distractions" that lead to sin also constitutes a feminist choice made from a position of power. But the thing is - it's not.