You May Not See It, but ultra-Orthodox Women Are Angry

Four types of physical and invisible partitions erase and humiliate ultra-Orthodox women, but it's all women who suffer

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A girl peeks behind a curtain that separates men and women near the tomb of Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, Netivot, Israel, January 13, 2016.
A girl peeks behind a curtain that separates men and women near the tomb of Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, Netivot, Israel, January 13, 2016.Credit: AP
Estee Rieder-Indursky
Estee Rieder-Indursky

I was born into being behind the mehitza. Ultra-Orthodox, you know, FFB (frum from birth). The mehitza, or partition, was always there, exactly where it should be. First, in the synagogue. My father, of blessed memory, prayed at Hayishuv Hehadash Yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Until third grade, when I was about 8, I prayed next to him. Ahead of the Days of Awe in fourth grade, the legendary yeshiva head, Rabbi Yehudah (Yidel) Kolodetsky, told my father that maybe it was already “pahst nisht” – not appropriate – and it was time I moved to the women’s section. My father gave Rav Yidel the honor of putting me in my place – my new place – and the rabbi sold me on the idea that it was going to be a major upgrade.

“You are moving into the first row of the women’s section,” he explained. I guess I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, so he tossed me another bonus: “It’s the front row next to the rabbaniyot” – the rabbis’ wives. The rabbi, the bane of the boys’ existence, went with me to the storeroom to choose a shtender, a bookstand, at exactly the right height for a girl of 9. He also let me “choose” where I wanted to sit in the front row. I chose to sit next to my mother, and made friends with the mehitza.

The women’s section in our yeshiva was toward the back of the large sanctuary. The mehitza was made of wood and was about 1.5 meters high; above it was a curtain that was perforated in just the right way: I could hear very well and saw everything that happened. I could lean on the mehitza and place my hand and head on it and cry – a front-row privilege. I liked the services and the powerful yeshiva scene of 300 young men singing and shouting together with the person leading the prayers. The transition to being behind the mehitza was smooth.

The mehitza was always there: in big banquet halls and at the small-scale venues where Hasidic relatives held celebrations. We would go as a family, enter the hall together and then split up and meet again, standing on both sides of the mehitza. The mehitza was friendly there, too – not hermetic; you could move it and talk around it. Expanding when possible, narrowing when necessary.

It’s hard for me to remember exactly when this happened, but suddenly there was a mehitza everywhere. It is a second kind of mehitza, one that is no longer friendly. It’s opaque. Sometimes it’s made of plywood; sometimes it’s an actual wall; sometimes it’s only virtual, but no less divisive than a wall. Suddenly women are not only separated: They are erased by it. Their pictures do not appear in books or newspapers; their names are abbreviated to one letter in announcements and ads. Suddenly, we no longer enter the hall together with the men – there’s a special entrance for women, an afterthought, by way of a dark and dank alleyway. There’s also separation on buses. Women’s faces disappear, whether we’re talking about political leaders in newspaper stories or stickers on shampoo bottles.

Having been born next to the mehitza, I know that this newer version – the one that erases, discriminates and humiliates – is not mandated by halakha (traditional religious law). Nor are other modesty “solutions” that erase, suppress, omit, suffocate and silence. And despite that clear knowledge, from the moment this mehitza arrived, there has been no real choice. In a closed society, which educates one in obedience, which sanctifies values of the “good daughter” and the “virtue of silence” and implements mechanisms of enforcement, there is really no alternative but to take one’s place behind the mehitza.

As part of my doctoral research, for the past few years I have been interviewing Haredi women about their struggles against exclusion. They describe a range of feelings: from cringing when riding in the back on mehadrin (strictly kosher) buses, to anger when their name is erased from an announcement publicizing the fact that they have obtained an academic degree. But there’s also consent. Tacit consent.

A partition at the Western Wall.Credit: Michal Fattal

One woman told me a story that especially infuriated me. She works in the Bnei Brak Municipality, where the previous mayor was from the strict Ger Hasidic sect. One of his initiatives, she related, called for a mehitza to be erected at meetings of municipal employees. Her response was simple, she said: “It’s not so important for me to see the men, and he [the mayor] must not see women – so what difference does it make if I show a little consideration?”

I admit that I did not behave according to the obligatory ethical rules for research; instead, I exploded: “What do you mean, ‘What difference does it make if I show a little consideration’?” I asked her. After all, if the mehitza were to be set up, in another few years no one would have remembered that it was intended only to show consideration for a mayor from the Ger sect – and it would have become the norm. The rule. It also would have been replicated. Expanded, copy-pasted. Fortunately, the initiative was never implemented thanks to the fact that there are non-Haredi women working in the Bnei Brak Municipality, among them religious-Zionist women, and they absolutely vetoed the idea.

A third mehitza, a metaphorical one that is also not required by halakha, can be found in the Knesset, courtesy of the parties that exclude women. Those parties are part of the government, and the fear is that, “If we don’t give the Haredim what they want, they won’t join.”

During the election to the Assembly of Representatives in 1920, in Mandatory Palestine, there were those who wanted to set up separate polling stations for men and women, and have every man’s vote counted twice. Fortunately, that didn’t catch on.

A century has passed since then, but not much appears to have changed. There is not one woman representing a Haredi party in the Knesset or serving on a municipal council. There are zero ultra-Orthodox women in decision-making positions. A petition to the High Court of Justice several years ago led to an amendment in the constitution of the Agudat Yisrael party, so that women may now join it as members, but the party made it clear that the situation on the ground was not about to change: There would be no women in its ranks. If women want to run, they will need authorization from the Council of Torah Sages. In the meantime, women are not standing in line to go through that heartwarming experience.

The big problem is that this particular mehitza is not recognized as a problem of Israeli society in general. It’s a problem solely of Haredi women, which they need to solve on their own.

A gender-separated staircase in Beit Shemesh. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

“When you are 500,000 Haredi women demanding representation, the problem will solve itself,” a woman who is a former Labor MK told me, when I and several colleagues approached her to discuss political cooperation.

“If we force women on the Haredim, tomorrow others will force Arabs on us,” a female MK from Habayit Hayehudi said.

“I’m not interested in meeting with you women,” a woman MK from Likud added. The one person we got along with wonderfully was Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman – sisters-in-arms in our respective religious, exclusionary societies. One that exploits the liberal values of the surrounding state to extend the boundaries of exclusion.

Mehitzas, then, have a tendency to expand. In the past, the Haredi feminist campaign, based on the slogan “No Voice, No Vote,” in which we threatened to boycott elections, used pictures of male Haredi lawmakers working shoulder to shoulder with secular female MKs. Today even that spectacle is not trivial. When the previous Knesset convened, MK Michael Malkieli, of Shas, asked not to be seated next to a woman in the plenum. His request was granted.

The fourth mehitza is hidden from the eye, but it definitely exists. It is present in every corner of Israel: from the playlists on Army Radio, where male musicians get more airplay than women, to the coalition negotiating teams in the wake of an election, from the panel discussions in academia to articles about the person of the decade. Women in Israel, in general, are lagging behind. Their voices are silenced. They are absent from the decision-making centers, from all the centers of power. When they want to protest, sanctions are imposed on them. Even women politicians are subjected to attacks. Just look at the reactions when Likud MK Michal Shir dared express support for Gideon Sa’ar (in the party’s leadership primary); or the agressively sexist attacks on social media on Mizrahi social activist Emilie Moatti, a candidate on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate.

There are feminists who find it difficult to accommodate the complexities of religious feminism, certainly the Haredi version. I often hear people say that I am not a “real” feminist. That there is no such thing as a feminist who submissively accepts the obligation to cover her hair. That there is no such thing as feminism that accepts a partition in the synagogue. But I will not apologize for my way of life. There is a clear difference between the halakhic mehitza and cultural and political mehitzas. A mehitza that prevents Haredi women from participating in politics or that gives preference to male singers in a playlist, and separates women and men on public transport, is one and the same mehitza. It must be fought fiercely.

It’s easy to say that exclusion of women is nisht fon unzereh – not our problem. It’s only their problem. But the struggle against women’s exclusion in Israel needs to be reframed. Action must be taken to eradicate the exclusion that exists above all in the Knesset. We need to work toward equal representation of women in all parties, including the Haredi ones. Understanding that the root of the phenomenon in general lies in the exclusion of women in those Haredi parties is the key to the solution. Ignoring its existence will lead to a more masculine and more extreme Knesset, which will eventually enshrine the separation and exclusion in legislation. Otherwise, we will wake up to the funeral of the pluralistic domain in Israel. A divided funeral, of course.

Estee Rieder-Indursky is a Haredi feminist activist, a doctoral student in the School of Cultural Studies of Tel Aviv University and a board member at Itach Ma'aki - Women Lawyers for Social Justice.

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