Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem's Women Have Won Some Battles, but the Struggle for Equality Is Not Yet Over

It's been a year since the fight against exclusion of women on ads began, and victories are noted; but despite Jerusalem marathon posters featuring a woman, Bar Rafaeli appearing on billboards, and recent success by Women of the Wall, the capital's feminist campaign still has a ways to go.

Some 18 months after a group of activists began fighting the exclusion of women from billboards in Jerusalem, the fighters have declared victory.

One of the centerpieces of Wednesday's Jerusalem Day holiday has always been the Jerusalem March. When the city advertised it two years ago, it did so with an illustration rather than pictures of actual people, just as it did with many other advertisements at that time. Last year, a woman did appear in ads for the Jerusalem marathon, but only behind a man, and in some of the ads she was cut off entirely. Yet in ads for this year’s Jerusalem marathon, which took place in March, a woman in running clothes was front and center.

Model Bar Refaeli has also begun appearing on billboards in the capital, after years of absence. Women have similarly shown up in ads for health clubs, clothing and theater performances. A few of these ads have been vandalized, but so far, it looks as if the women are here to stay.

Nevertheless, several activists said, the feminist battle in the city still has a ways to go.

“The issue of excluding women is a result of growing religious extremism,” said city councilwoman Rachel Azaria of the Yerushalmim faction, who is one of the leaders of the battle against exclusion of women from photos in public. “But we discovered that, as with all religious extremism, it’s a small group that imposes its will on everyone. The moment we stood up and confronted these things, they changed.”

Aside from the reappearance of women on billboards, Azaria listed other victories. At last fall’s Sukkot festivities in the Mea She’arim neighborhood, there was no divider on the streets to separate men and women, as there had been in previous years. And while there are still “ultra-kosher” buses − where, because most of the clientele is ultra-Orthodox, women are forced to sit in the back − there are fewer of them.

Advertisements on buses in the capital still contain no women, but they also have no men: Under a new agreement signed by the Canaan advertising agency and the Egged bus company, ads in Jerusalem now include no human figures at all.

Jerusalem’s Kolben Dance Company, which for years practiced with the curtains drawn so that religious passersby wouldn’t be offended by the sight of women dancers, now practices with the curtains open.

And the Women of the Wall organization recently won a sweeping court victory that recognized their right to wear prayer shawls and read the Torah at the Western Wall.

But these successes have only encouraged the capital’s feminists to embark on new battles. One of these revolves around mikvehs ‏(ritual baths‏). Two new organizations, called Tovlot and Advot, are protesting the fact that these baths, which mainly serve women, are largely controlled by Haredi men.

“On the physical level, there are mikvehs with problems of aesthetics, cleanliness and crowding, but it continues with the relationship between the bath attendants and the bathers,” said Na’ama Plesser, one of the founders of Tovlot. “A woman comes to the mikveh at a very vulnerable moment, and there are women who need a different kind of sensitivity.”

Specifically, she said, the bath attendants are almost all Haredi women, but many of the women who use the mikveh are not Haredi, or even Orthodox.

Jerusalem has always been the capital of religious feminism. It has Orthodox synagogues with egalitarian prayer services and women’s yeshivas that train women to plead cases in rabbinical courts, answer questions of Jewish law or write a Torah. Naomi Tsur, one of Jerusalem’s two deputy mayors and, like Azaria, herself an Orthodox Jew, said religious women are also now taking the lead on certain other issues: For instance, a group of Haredi women from the Romema neighborhood are fighting an environmentalist battle to preserve the Romema brook.

But not everything is rosy on the capital’s feminist front − especially in the eyes of those who come from outside the city. Lili Pergamenikov, a student at Hebrew University who is from Rishon Letzion, recently set up a student support group for women who feel uncomfortable with Jerusalem’s different public atmosphere.

“I come from a very homogeneous place,” she explained. “You look like everyone else, you have the same opinions. Here, when you get on a bus wearing a short skirt, people stare at you, and it makes you uncomfortable.”

Yet even veteran Jerusalemites say they feel uncomfortable in some city neighborhoods, such as the Haredi heartlands of Mea She’arim and Geula, which are plastered with posters warning women, “Don’t pass through our neighborhood in immodest dress.”

“Even if I’m dressed extremely modestly but I have a bit of color in my dress, there’s a very unpleasant atmosphere,” said city councilwoman Laura Wharton ‏(Meretz‏). “A person shouldn’t have to fear walking down the street. Until I know I can go wherever I want however I want, we won’t be a normal city.” 

Emil Salman
Olivier Fitoussi