Gender segregation - Levac
Gender segregation in a street in the Romema neighborhood of Jerusalem. Photo by Alex Levac
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There once was a shop in Bnei Brak that sold bras, but whose window displayed watches. The husband of the woman who sold the bras was a watchmaker. From morning to evening he would sit there in his black suit, and his thick beard would hover over a small desk in a corner of the crowded shop as he repaired watches. Women would come and go, measuring bras behind a screen, while men who had come to have their watches fixed would wait near the shop's entrance. No one cried "Gevalt!"

Today it is hard to imagine lingerie - which the ultra-Orthodox believe could arouse lustful thoughts - being sold at a shop on a central street in an ultra-Orthodox community without there being a separate side entrance for women, and protests outside.

Gender segregation has always existed in the Haredi community. For years, however, it was restricted to specific areas: first and foremost, synagogues and educational institutions, but also banquet halls and public bathing sites - such as swimming pools and beaches - where separate hours were designated for men and women. Even in these areas, though, the segregation was never hermetic. Gaps could always be found: the plaza in front of the synagogue where all worshipers could gather, or a banquet hall partition that was moved aside so that young men and women could socialize.

These days, however, the walls seem higher and the demand for gender segregation insatiable. When considered together with near-daily decrees concerning modesty, conduct and attire, such as in the current battle being waged against T-shirts, this trend suggests that Haredi extremists are becoming increasingly dominant.

The most widespread expression of this is the emergence of "mehadrin" bus lines, where the front section of the vehicle is for men only, and women are forced to sit in the back. This phenomenon began about a decade ago in the Haredi city of Betar Ilit, and from there spread to other communities. Today there are gender-segregated bus lines connecting all of Israel's major ultra-Orthodox communities. In 2008, in the wake of incidents of violence and offensive remarks directed at women who did not obey the rules of gender segregation, Jerusalem writer Naomi Ragen and the Israel Religious Action Center appealed to the High Court of Justice to declare the mehadrin bus lines illegal. The appeal is still pending.

According to a survey that the appellants commissioned from Hiddush, an organization that lobbies for "religious freedom and equality," there are today 63 gender-segregated bus routes in the country, a few of which are run by the Egged company, but most by companies which only offer mehadrin lines. Egged also operates regular bus lines that pass through Haredi communities in Jerusalem, whose residents unofficially enforce gender segregation, imposing it on all passengers.

Meanwhile, an interministerial committee set up in 2008 in the wake of the High Court appeal has ruled that the mehadrin bus lines are illegal and that gender segregation violates the principle of human dignity and freedom. Nonetheless, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is ignoring the committee's conclusions. Last February, the appeal was followed up in the High Court because the committee's conclusions were not implemented; it ruled that further mehadrin lines must not be created and the state was given an extension in order to present its reasons for not enforcing the law. The courtroom deliberations will take place in a few weeks.

Playground hours

The trend toward increasing gender segregation is evident as well in various local initiatives in Haredi communities and neighborhoods. In Komemiyut, a small ultra-Orthodox moshav in the Negev, separate hours have been designated for boys and girls at the public playground. In a dental clinic subsidized by the Chabad Hasidic sect in Mea She'arim, men and women have been allotted separate days; a similar system exists now at a branch of the Clalit health maintenance organization on Jerusalem's Strauss Street.

It is not surprising therefore that gyms in ultra-Orthodox communities have separate hours for men and women. However, for the past two years there have been separate checkout lines for men and women in some of the small supermarkets operated by the Gur Hasidic sect for its members. The same regime is enforced in the local mini-mart in Jerusalem's Ramot Dalet neighborhood, the idea being that men and women should not wait together.

Debate over the issue of gender segregation has also raised the question of whether women should see only female doctors. For many Haredi women, this is already a natural preference. "It is much more pleasant and far less embarrassing to see a female physician," says M. of Jerusalem. However, she adds, if a woman has to see a male specialist, she should not be prohibited from doing so.

"It is hard to resist the messages being conveyed by people who are considered religious Jews and who are extremely devout," notes A., a Haredi who opposes gender segregation on buses. "After all, you can't allow yourself to be seen as someone who is not so strict about religious observance."

This is also the reason why A. and other Haredim who speak out on the subject refuse to be identified. Those who criticize gender segregation, explains A., face the possibility of being harassed and threatened.

The internal debate in the Haredi community on this issue is conducted within the anonymity afforded by the Internet.

"Did you all think that it would end with the buses?" asks one person in an online discussion on the gender segregation being enforced in the Ramot Dalet market. "Most of the residents in the neighborhood oppose the initiative, like the participants in this forum and like everyone else. However, this majority is silent, too silent. We are not happy with the situation. But where are all of you? By the time the sidewalks become gender-segregated and the streets become gender-segregated, and cities become gender-segregated, and even the air we breathe becomes gender-segregated, it will be too late for any of us to stop this thing."

During the recent Sukkot festival, Rachel Azaria, a representative of Tnuat Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites Movement ) on Jerusalem City Council, appealed to the High Court against gender segregation in Mea She'arim. She argues that gender segregation invariably comes at the expense of women, who, as a result "are being excluded and whose rights are being undermined."

For example, on buses, if the rear section is full, it is the women who are forced to stand, rather than be allowed to sit in the front section that has been designated for male passengers, even if there are empty seats there.

"The Haredim are always trying to decide for the rest of us, but we must define the boundaries," says Azaria. She is particularly disturbed by the fact that the army maintains female-free settings in places where Haredi male soldiers are serving. Azaria says that while recruiting ultra-Orthodox men into compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces is important, it should not come at the expense of women who wish to serve. In the wake of what is happening on the Haredi street in Israel, these trends are gradually penetrating the Modern Orthodox Jewish community here as well, she argues.

The goal is exclusion

The idea of gender segregation was not invented by Haredi Jews. It has existed since the dawn of history, explains Hebrew University sociology professor Tamar Elor, who argues that, wherever it is enforced, the intention is not innocent, but instead reflects the desire to exclude women.

"There has always been gender segregation," says Elor. "There is the domestic sphere, where women conduct their lives, and there is the public sphere, where men are dominant. This is the case primarily in the Middle East, but not just there."

As is the case with the segregation of blacks and whites and Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, she explains, the underlying reason is political and is linked to hierarchy. "The question," explains Elor, "is who gets all the prestige and who controls whom."

Moreover, she adds, "in the past, women were regarded as property like the sheep and the land; thus their segregation, like the supervision accompanying that segregation, was simply a case of fencing-off and preserving property. The segregation coexisted with a division of functions that was traditionally described as natural, such as motherhood, child care or, on the other hand, going to work and earning a living."

In addition to direct, physical separation, ideologies have been created that are connected to the issue of modesty of conduct and attire. "Women were perceived as an entity that must be protected," Elor points out, "and they were a source of male anxiety. The concealment of a woman and her being kept at home were thus intended to protect her from the gaze of another man."

Sometimes, she adds, this protection actually made life easier for women. For example, in crowded cities like Cairo and Mexico City, where women are habitually harassed, female-only subway cars are meant to protect a woman from the danger of a man rubbing his body against hers or even pinching her. But, says Elor, this is only a temporary solution and should be accompanied by work to prevent the need for it.

Leah, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Jerusalem, welcomes gender segregation, which, she says, "can eliminate the possibility of women and young girls being harassed." She claims that her daughter was recently sexually harassed on a bus and, as a result, got off before her stop. "Had the bus been segregated, that would never have happened."

The issue of modesty in conduct and attire has always given rise to elaborate social systems. According to A., separation of the sexes in the ultra-Orthodox world has been turned into a fait accompli by the actions of extremists within the Eda Haredit, a grouping of some of the more extreme Haredi sects. He says the "fanatics look daily for new measures of stringency and for new decrees in order to leave their imprint on their society. They naturally tend to dominate the discourse, the public sphere and the legitimate range of diverse opinions."

Furthermore, A. claims that such people are "remarkably cynical and sophisticated." In his view, a public opinion survey would reveal that there is no real demand for gender segregation on buses or in stores. Says A.: "The problem is that, according to an unwritten law in the ultra-Orthodox community, it is improper to oppose something that is perceived as connected to piety, which is how [gender] segregation is presented. Thus, for instance, no rabbi would rule against the veiling of women until it was discovered that the [rabbi's wife] who was the leader of the 'veiled women' regularly abused her children; then, but only then, did the rabbis say that wearing a veil did not belong to the realm of Jewish religious law. Similarly, no rabbi has dared to speak out against the fanatics of the Eda Haredit, who represent their campaign as a religious duty. As a result, it appears that segregation has filtered down into everyday life. In Betar Ilit, a woman who gets on a bus automatically looks for a seat in the back. A young boy growing up in that city will never have been in a world without gender segregation. In places where politicos, with the rabbis' tacit agreement, force the state's hand, this kind of thing succeeds."

Nonetheless, A. says he's optimistic. The gender segregation trend will not continue to grow for very much longer, he estimates, because the "fanatics will finally come up against a solid brick wall." He argues that "the Haredi public is fed up with those people who are leading it by the nose."

According to Prof. Elor, members of the younger generation in the Haredi community are more aware of the disparity between their own way of life and the stringent rabbinical rulings that they consider irrelevant.

"Outwardly," she notes, "they have no choice. That is, when they are in the public sphere. However, they make their own choices in the private sphere. Thus, in the face of a reality where more and more stringent demands are constantly being made, these young people create their own 'free-fly zones,' in which they declare, 'We are the ones who decide. We will surf the Internet, we will see movies via the computer. We will make our own decisions.'"