In the first organized effort of its sort, around 20 women and men signed a petition to the Rahat Municipal Council demanding that it stops holding gender-segregated cultural events, two weeks after Bedouin women were ordered to sit at the back during a choir performance of famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum's songs.
Posted signs around the municipal culture hall directed men to the front rows and women to the balcony, with ushers hired to enforce the gender mandate. The announcer warned that he would not begin the show until the audience was seated “in accordance with the rules.” Apparently, the demand came in the context of pressure from the Islamic Movement, which opposed holding a performance for a mixed audience of men and women.
The cultural center in Rahat, the first to have been erected in a Bedouin community, was dedicated about a month ago in the presence of President Isaac Herzog. On the afternoon of March 5, the Siraj Choir, based in Rameh in Israel's north, performed their program “Lady Umm Kulthum” to a 400-strong audience. The concert was organized by the non-profit organization Hajar Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, which operates bilingual educational institutions in Be’er Sheva.
“I came to the performance full of enthusiasm,” said Dr. Rawia Aburabia, a scholar of gender studies and law at Sapir Academic College. “After a festive reception, with coffee and cakes, we heard an announcement – in Arabic only – that men have to go in though one entrance, which leads to the front of the auditorium, and women and families must use another entrance, leading to the rear.”
Women who attended the performance say that Jewish and Arab women from northern Israel who took seats in the front rows were not asked to move to the back. “Gender separation is enforced selectively – only on the Bedouin women,” said Aburabia. “There was complaining but all in all order was maintained, partly because of the moderator’s announcement that the performance would not begin until everyone obeys the seating rules.”
She added that she would not have bought tickets had she known that Bedouin women would be required to sit in the back. “They are trying to enforce a norm that is unacceptable to me,” she said. “I felt humiliated. They are assigning me a different seat just because I am a woman? No one would have agreed to such a division between Jews and Arabs. In a case like that, the very same Bedouin men who sat in the front rows would have been the first to protest.”
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“It’s infuriating that they sent us to the back. It wasn’t our choice,” said Hanan Alkrinawi, director of a program for at-risk youth on behalf of the Welfare Ministry. “I know every single one of the men who sat in the front rows: Why can he sit there and I can’t? We mix in the labor market and we do not accept being off to the side or at the back. They are claiming that this is the tradition. But it is the men who created it. If we keep silent, the situation will not change.”
In the days following the concert, Dr. Aburabia sought to put an end to gender segregation at future events. “It was a stunning performance, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth,” she related. “It’s possible to write an article or a post on Facebook, but I have decided to emphasize the extent to which the segregation – and the means of applying pressure to the audience – are illegal.”
Alongside eighteen other Bedouin men and women, she published a letter demanding that the council “fulfill its obligation and actively prevent this invalid practice from taking root in the culture hall in Rahat.”
Rahat’s Mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban has confirmed that the event was indeed gender-segregated. “Tradition requires separation between men and women, both on happy occasions and in mourning,” he said. “This is the first time there has been an event like this in Rahat, and we didn’t want to risk having social problems without separating. It isn’t connected to the law. In our community women prefer to sit at the back, even at happy occasions and even if a woman has come there with her husband. This is their choice. The ushers were only for the local people. I don’t force anything on the Jewish women. This is our tradition, and it is necessary to respect it.”
According to Hajar CEO Sam Schub, “There was sensitivity among local officials in Rahat, who wanted separate seating. Ultimately though, this was a marginal thing. Although there were signs and ushers, the audience members sat wherever they wanted. No one was compelled. It’s regrettable to hear about women who feel they were forced to move. We should see the whole event as a positive thing, including the protest against the segregation."
In reply to a query from Haaretz, the Justice Ministry has said it would investigate.