Dress Codes and Separate Entrances: Gender Segregation in Israeli Universities Expands Beyond the Classroom

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 Students at Bar-Ilan University in Israel
Students at Bar-Ilan University in Israel Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Without it attracting public attention, gender separation at institutions of higher learning that accommodate ultra-Orthodox students expanded beyond the classroom even though the Council for Higher Education, which regulates the institutions, has limited such separation to the classroom. The council has said that all violations involving gender separation have been addressed and the practices stopped.

Modesty supervisors overseeing the ultra-Orthodox programs have also became commonplace. The council’s guidelines permit dress codes for the programs, within limitations.

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Recent consideration of the policies of the ultra-Orthodox programs by the Council for Higher Education has revealed that many institutions, particularly Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, which has a religious orientation, violated a directive limiting gender segregation to the classroom. Some academic institutions instituted gender segregation at campus entrances, in hallways and in libraries, making it a more natural phenomenon. Despite large-scale violations, the council has made do with a relatively mild response, but a source suggested that prior violations would be taken into account if the violations resurface.

Programs at institutions of higher learning designed to accommodate ultra-Orthodox students come against the backdrop of concern that Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, as it is known Hebrew, needs to be better integrated into Israel’s workforce and that Haredim must be given the education necessary to make that shift. Particular concern has been expressed over the low workplace participation of ultra-Orthodox men, for many of whom the norm has been to engage in full-time religious study as adults rather than entering the labor market.

The message conveyed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the largely Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party, and by officials whom he has appointed appears to be that everything possible should be done to enable special academic programs for ultra-Orthodox students to function, even if they arguably discriminate against women or practice strict gender segregation.

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The council’s discussion of the issue was held two months ago, after it had earlier been taken up by its supervision and enforcement subcommittee. The council rejected a request by Haaretz to make the subcommittee’s report public, but partial minutes of the full council’s discussion provide a sense of the extent to which some institutions of higher learning have accommodated stringent modesty demands.

According to a council decision from 2015, programs for the ultra-Orthodox can separate men and women “within the classroom, not outside it. No separation will be permitted outside the classroom.” As for dress codes and “other modesty demands,” the decision said that any such rules must not “violate human dignity or equality,” and that any “violation of students’ autonomy must not exceed what is necessary to enable ultra-Orthodox students to study” in these programs.

Ono Academic College in IsraelCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

In response to a petition to the High Court of Justice submitted by several academics, and in various other public settings, the council has insisted that gender segregation is indeed limited to the classroom.

Earlier this year, Haaretz reported that at Ono Academic College’s two ultra-Orthodox campuses, in Jerusalem and Or Yehuda, officials were enforcing codes of dress and conduct. For women, these have included detailed instructions about hem and sleeve lengths, what kind of shoes and stockings they should wear and limitations on hair and hair coverings, makeup and jewelry. Students have been required to sign a written commitment to comply with the modesty standards as a condition for admission.

Following criticism by the Council for Higher Education, the college revised its modesty rules and made them less specific. Now, they require students to ensure that their “speech, appearance, social and cultural conduct” is of a kind “befitting the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.”

The Ono College program is not alone. Bar-Ilan University runs a program for ultra-Orthodox students on its main campus, in a building near the campus entrance that faces the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. According to its website, the program offers bachelor’s degrees in psychology and educational administration for women, and in management and economics for men. It also promises complete gender separation, not only during class hours, but also during office hours.

Based on the council’s discussion on the issue, it is clear that Bar-Ilan violated the council’s directive both in its dress code and in its institution of segregation in public areas. The building in which the classes take place has separate entrances for men and women. Its main hallway is segregated, and so is the library.

The council said students who don’t comply with the dress code have been subject to an inquiry or sanctions. The university denied this, however, saying “there have been no proceedings or sanctions against students” for violating the code.

‘Done in the dark’

Senior faculty members at Bar-Ilan were surprised to hear of the policies of the university’s Haredi program. “These things are being done in the dark,” said one faculty member. “We have to clarify, for example, how a decision is made to separate between men and women in the hallways. I hope we will be able to show that such practices are improper and not just because of the directives of the Council for Higher Education, but also because of the university’s own rules. These things are not happening far away from here, on the other side of mountains of darkness, but rather within the academic home of us all.”

One source noted that in the 1980s, Bar-Ilan, the country’s only university with a religious orientation, dropped the requirement that men cover their heads on campus, so the Haredi program represents a shift back towards more religiosity, at least for those in the program. “Instead of protecting the independence of academia, the Council for Higher Education is lending a hand to the abandonment of enlightened values,” the source claimed.

Ono Academic College also received attention in the course of the council’s discussion, for a second time, after it was found to have scheduled men and women on separate days for their use of the classroom buildings and library and to have posted what was termed “discriminatory signage hung around the campus.” According to sources at the college, in the past modesty supervisors directed most of their comments toward women, noting how they wore their hair or the length of their sleeves and skirts or the color of their stockings. In one case, a woman student who came to school on a motorbike was issued a warning.

Other institutions also in violation

The Haredi extension program of the Bezalel School of Art and Design, Ashkelon Academic College, Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, the Ruppin Academic Center and the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem all are said to have issued and enforced modesty rules in violation of CHE guidelines. Hadassah Academic College also reportedly installed separate entrances to the library building and at the Azrieli College, outside individuals reportedly intervened to deal with students who violated the rules.

The minutes of the CHE meeting note that all of the institutions have corrected the violations. As a result, the council decided to “avoid taking any action for now.” The council did drop the hint that if such violations reoccurred, it would take the previous violations into consideration.

In its response for this article, Bar-Ilan University said its programs for Haredi students are in “two separate wings, which have been adapted for the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle – similar to those in the Israeli army and other organizations that view the integration of Haredim as essential to Israel’s social and economic future.” In addition, the university said the claims by the Council for Higher Education regarding violations of guidelines were dealt with immediately, “but in no way reduce the quality of the Bar-Ilan’s work to make academia accessible to the Haredi community.”

The Council of Higher Education said it regularly conducts enforcement and oversight activities at every academic institution, including ultra-Orthodox programs to ensure that they follow the rules. All of the violations reported in this article were identified and corrected as a result of the action taken by the CHE, said the council added.

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