Last September Meytal Lamour received a summons to attend a defensive driving course. When she tried to register she discovered that the classes scheduled for the immediate future and close to her home were for men only.
“Does it sound reasonable to you not to allow me to take a course at a time and place that suits me just because I’m a woman?” she asked the customer service representative, who laughed in embarrassment.
In contrast to many others who complain and move on, or, worse, Lamour wouldn't accept the explanation that it’s okay to provide courses to Orthodox men who refuse to sit in a class with women for a few hours. She didn’t just post her displeasure on Facebook.
Last week she sued the Transportation Ministry and the Merkaz Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, a religious organization that won the bid to operate defensive driving courses. Her anger turned into action.
Lamour turned to the gender segregation hotline, operated by the Israel Women's Network which has decided to file a class action suit. This petition sets a precedent in its argument that government policies that permit segregation in compulsory courses do women real harm.
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The petition challenges the policy on the basis of a law that prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It argues that the existence of segregated courses limits the availability of mixed-gender courses, and that consideration given to religious sentiment is affecting the lives of a large secular public.
This is not a theoretical issue. Ask any female lecturer whose livelihood has been affected by the expansion of segregated academic courses provided to ultra-Orthodox students.
Last year Lamour was living and working in the center of the country. A soon as she got the summons she searched for a nearby location.
“I looked for something convenient, hoping to get it done quickly. I saw a vacancy in Ramat Gan in October, but the screen message said it was for men only. It was hard for me as a feminist to see such a message” she said.
In her Facebook post she described her conversation with the customer service representative which reflected how gender segregation is perceived as an almost obvious part of life.
“I don’t know when you checked but there is no space” Lamour was told. She replied that she was online and there was space, “but only for people without a uterus.”
“Oh yes, it’s a course for men only,” replied the representative. “There was a mixed-gender one but you needed to sign up earlier.”
Lamour’s explanation that she tried to register right after getting the summons was rejected. It was her problem. “The segregated courses were specifically designed for religious people who want that. It’s perfectly legitimate,” another representative said.
Not taking the course can result in a suspension of your driver's license. It seems that last October, men enjoyed ample opportunities to take this compulsory course at the Ramat Gan branch whereas the mixed-gender courses had not even a single opening.
Lamour was offered to register in another city and told to stop being angry about discrimination. “You shouldn’t view it that way,” the rep told Lamour. A manager from Bnei Akiva who called following the Facebook post asked her, in the spirit of the approaching holidays, not to feel resentment and to take the incident lightly.
Lamour said there was no space in Tel Aviv either, with the only other option near her home in Ma'agan Michael being Hadera. But mixed-gender courses were only available there three months later there, the petition says. She took that class, and the manager (from Bnei Akiva) was astounded to hear about the segregation in Ramat Gan.
“A haredi man was in one of our classes. He sat in the first row and no women sat next to him. We don't look to offend anyone, but segregation is still illegal, discriminatory and humiliating.”
Following the post and the petition, Merkaz Yeshivot Bnei Akiva changed its website so that it no longer specifies whether classes are gender-segregated or not. But when you file an application you must specify your gender, and then you're notified whether there are any availabilities. But asking an applicant to specify their gender is against the law, the petition says.
“Whereas this used to be restricted to places of worship or where parts of the body are exposed, the government has now adopted the position whereby any mixing of the sexes is forbidden,” says Hagai Kalai, the attorney who filed the lawsuit.
It’s unclear whether the demand for segregation came from the Transportation Ministry or whether it was a grass-roots initiative. It doesn’t matter, since government acquiescence not only lends it normalcy but leads to expanding demand, in academia, the army, in workplaces, at schools.
There are also modesty requirements seeping into secular schools, whereby high school girls get sent home for wearing shorts, as in a case reported on last week.
The ministry did not respond to a letter from the Israel Women's Network. Course operators said the Ramat Gan branch served residents of ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak until recently, until another branch was opened in the ultra-Orthodox city.
“Out of 300 courses across the country only four are segregated, in Bnei Brak, for the convenience of residents there and with the Transportation Ministry’s approval,” they said.
The actual figures on how many of the driver's courses were mixed or segregated in Ramat Gan and Hadera last year will be determined in court. The operators say there were 35 segregated courses in Ramat Gan and none in Hadera.
The number of for-men only classes offered was not matched by an equivalent number of classes solely for women, which means that the segregation is tantamount to inequality in services provided.
The segregation provides more resources and opportunities to men, and secular people may have to choose gender-separate classes out of necessity. In this way, the secular public is affirming the practice of gender segregation.
A small number of segregated courses is also unjustifiable, since even “a bit of discrimination” is wrong. Anyone doubting this should think about the idea of shutting out various ethnic groups from a class. When the state makes gender an issue in areas unrelated to gender, such as driving lessons, the demand for segregation is affirmed and thereby spreads to other walks of life.
“The legitimacy given to segregation scares me,” says Lamour. “I don’t want any monetary compensation, only that the court say clearly that this is illegal and that those responsible are held accountable. I decided to take action since we’re moving to a bad place,” says Lamour.”
The Transportation Ministry would not comment on the story, saying it would respond to these claims to the court.