Israeli Mom Finds Out That Gender Separation Is Alive and Well in the Coronavirus Era, Too

'No, this group is open only to boys,' a call-center employee reportedly said about an online course, though the Science Ministry denies that this is the policy

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A student takes online classes at home, with his companions, using the Zoom app during the coronavirus outbreak in El Masnou, north of Barcelona, Spain, April 2, 2020.
Illustration of Zoom app usage during the coronavirus outbreak.Credit: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Or Kashti

A few days ago, Tali Barel tried to sign up her two children, ages 8 and 11, for an online course teaching PowerPoint offered by the Science Ministry during the coronavirus crisis. The distance learning course was open to people from all over Israel, and the request from Barel – who lives near Gedera in the south– was sent to the ministry’s “digital center” in Bnei Brak.

When an employee of the center phoned her to complete the registration process, Barel said her son had changed his mind but her daughter was still interested.

“No, this group is open only to boys,” she was told. When she insisted on signing her daughter up, the representative asked: “Would you want a married woman to be in a group with men?”

In fact, the director of the digital center told Haaretz that some courses are held separately because some people ask for it. “It’s possible to respect people’s beliefs,” the director said.

The Science Ministry said: “There has not been and will not be a policy of separation in online courses.” It added that it is trying to act with “a high cultural sensitivity and responsiveness to the unique needs of the target population.”

In recent weeks, the ministry has offered a range of courses and seminars in digital literacy – from building apps and websites to software training – and some of the courses are intended for children. The ministry’s digital center has moved online and operates using Zoom. The courses are free and every group has 10 to 15 participants.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and children stand behind barred windows in the Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on March 2, 2020.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Barel says the service representative from the center in Bnei Brak – a largely ultra-Orthodox town – was shocked by her request to register her daughter in a group with boys. “I didn’t understand why an 8-year-old girl can’t sign up for an online course and her brother can,” Barel said.

According to a woman who wanted to find out about PowerPoint courses for 8- to 12-year-olds, the head of the digital center, Dasi Matan, confirmed that some of the courses are segregated by gender.

But Matan told Haaretz that this was a one-time occurrence resulting from “insane demand from boys …. Sometimes it happens, maybe because of friends bringing friends, but it has no connection to segregation. We actually are very careful that there are participants from all sorts of places all over Israel. Our groups are mixed.”

But later Matan said there are religious people who ask for gender-segregated courses, “and we accept that. We’re trying to answer such requests. It’s possible to respect people’s beliefs, certainly when the goal is to increase the number of participants and find them positive activities. The course may be on Zoom and not in one-to-one meetings, but sometimes separation is a condition of the parent, and if I can help them, why not?”

The Science Ministry said it does not have a segregation policy in online courses – not for gender, religion, ethnic background or any other background.

All the courses at all ages and levels are open to everyone, “and this is how we are providing an answer to a national need,” it said,  adding that any comments supporting segregation by the employee in Bnei Brak “do not represent the spirit of the ministry and its activities.”

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