Beyond the Bus

Protesters fighting discrimination against women say the problem isn't limited to the ultra-Orthodox.

Lital Levin
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Lital Levin

Israel hasn't seen a consensus like this on women's rights in a long time. It's only been a few weeks since the phrase "exclusion of women" became a staple of the news pages, and already it's become a catchphrase that calls to mind associations like ultra-Orthodox extremism, religious coercion, the slogan "Iran is here," oppression of women and fear of further escalation.

On the streets, on the Internet, in the media, on university campuses, in the Knesset and in the government, Israelis are protesting the exclusion of women by the ultra-Orthodox. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch have condemned the phenomenon, and last week Kadima jumped on the bandwagon - or should we say on the bus? - with a campaign it is calling "Women in Front: Saying No to the Exclusion of Women."

Women’s right activists. 'Secular society also tends to see women as sex objects,' says a rape crisis center volunteer.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

It almost seems as if the exclusion of women were a specifically ultra-Orthodox hang-up, that in Israel, full equality exists between the sexes, threatened only by sex-segregated bus lines. But many of the women protesting the discrimination reject Netanyahu's statement that it is a "limited phenomenon that does not reflect the entire population," and say the fight against Haredi discrimination should be just the beginning.

"On my way to an accountants conference in Jerusalem I passed through the city's neighborhoods full of Hanukkah celebrations and looked for excluded women," Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of this summer's social protests, wrote on her Facebook page. "I saw no sign of segregation on public transit. It was only when I reached the conference itself that I discovered the true exclusion. In the [conference] hall there was one woman for every 10 men. And on the panel? One woman (myself ) and four men. When we speak of free day care, we must not forget that its objective is not only to reduce social inequality or lessen the financial burden on young families. It is also to allow women to work where they please, and as long as they choose, and to receive maximum support for doing so."

Shaffir's comment is a reminder of a reality of which many of the women leading the protests are already well aware. The "true exclusion," as Shaffir calls it, is in the law and the economic and social structure, not least in its most liberal outposts. While the country was in a frenzy over Israel Defense Forces soldiers walking out of military events featuring female singers, two theory and criticism periodicals identified with the radical left published issues that did not include a single article written by a woman. Not many were bothered by this.

Yet the demonstrations against the most visible forms of discrimination against women - like sex-segregated buses geared toward the ultra-Orthodox, the elimination of women from outdoor advertising campaigns in Jerusalem for fear of angering the ultra-Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox attacks on the students and chaperones of a religious (but non-Haredi ) girls school in Beit Shemesh - pave the way for a struggle against the "true exclusion."

"The struggle against the exclusion of women has gained public legitimacy," said Hadar Shemesh, 31, from Tel Aviv, who organized rotations of women to ride in the front of sex-segregated buses. "Because it is against the ultra-Orthodox, it is very easy for everyone to say, 'They're the ones who are excluding women, not us.'"

And it is easier to protest such tangible exclusion, said Shemesh. "It is a physical struggle that can focus on direct action, whereas fighting against male domination in the theater and the press is much harder," she said. Shemesh hopes that "if there is consistent collaboration among women over a long time, we'll be able to take the struggle one step forward. We need to address ultra-Orthodox exclusion, but just as a basis for something much broader."

Kadima's campaign is directed against the Haredi exclusion of women and what is perceived to be the growing extremism in Israeli values in general. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni said the struggle is not just against the ultra-Orthodox.

"For many years women have been fighting for their place in politics, in the army, and in centers of decision-making," said the opposition leader. "Suddenly, in recent years, after there is no longer a need for the High Court of Justice to settle cases like the [1995] Alice Miller case so that women can apply for pilot training courses and serve with distinction in army units, an opposite development has been taking place. It begins in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and moves to secular ones, all with public funding."

Livni said she did not enter politics with a feminist agenda. "Things that seemed obvious when I was young, for example that women should not serve in certain units, began to seem warped only at a later stage in my life," she said. The election campaign sharpened her vision. "When people said 'It's too much for her' and tried to belittle me, many women became angry, and anger is the beginning of struggle and change. Even if I didn't mean it, it suddenly happened."

College students have also been looking to bring gender discrimination to people's attention, and have received assistance from the Knesset Caucus for Equality between the Sexes and Unico Israel, a group that advocates for gender equality on campus.

"Throughout the year we receive complaints regarding equality, from both women and men, whose long-term results are in fact exclusion of women from the academic sphere," said Unico representative Lirit Gruber. Now that discrimination against women has suddenly become a popular cause, Gruber said there is a "certain feeling of consensus which was perhaps foreign to the feminist sphere over the years."

"I myself believe in collaboration between men and women, based on the belief that equality is a common interest that we should all promote," she said. "The subject that has now come to the foreground encourages collaboration, and I would like to see in it a beginning of collaboration, or a further step in collaboration, and from there go on to address all the disparities."

Last week, Rabbi Menachem Froman, a West Bank religious leader who promotes interfaith dialogue with Palestinians, told Haaretz correspondent Yair Ettinger: "This goes way beyond women's singing ... Secular people ask religious ones, 'Do you see nothing but the sexual aspect of a woman's singing? Why can't you see a woman as a human being?'"

But for Hadas Svirsky, a 29-year-old clinical psychology student who volunteers at a rape crisis center, the ultra-Orthodox conception of women as temptresses is not that different from the pornographic representations that abound in secular society.

"It's the other side of the coin," said Svirsky. "Secular society also tends to see women as sex objects. So it's infuriating to hear the reactions of the prime minister and politicians, who on the one hand are responsible for trampling women's rights and, on the other hand, call exclusion a limited phenomenon that they utterly oppose."

"I think it is important to understand that this is a protest against patriarchal oppression and not against the ultra-Orthodox," she said. "It is no mere coincidence that the ultra-Orthodox exclusion has made its way into the secular public sphere. If we focus the fight on the ultra-Orthodox alone, we're liable to forget that women are excluded from all public arenas."



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