Word of the Day / Hadarat Nashim

The nuances of Hebrew vowels often allow similar-looking words to convey vastly different meanings. Whether one refers to the glory of women or the exclusion of women requires close attention to two sides of the same linguistic coin.

When the issue of discrimination against women exploded on the Israeli scene last winter, mixing long-simmering issues like sex-segregated busing and the absence of women from billboards in Jerusalem with new trends like ultra-Orthodox men spitting at young girls in Beit Shemesh, the phrase of choice in the local media was not “aflaya” (af-la-YA) or “discrimination,” but “hadarat nashim” (hah-dah-RAHT nah-SHEEM), literally meaning “the exclusion of women,” referring to women and girls being excluded from the public domain.

It comes from the root word “neder,” meaning “oath,” and originally referred to prohibiting something on the basis of an oath. In the late 20thcentury it started to be used in the social sciences to refer to the exclusion of groups from the larger society, and that is the sense in which it’s used here.

What’s particularly interesting about the choice of word is that it is written with exactly the same Hebrew letters (though not the same vowels) as “hadrat,” which comes from the root word for “hadar,” in the sense of “splendor” and “glory” (though not in the sense of “citrus fruit” -- yes, this word is overworked and underpaid).

Board an Israeli bus and you will often see Hebrew stickers reminding passengers to give up the front seats to the elderly. That’s not what the stickers actually say, though – they just cite the part of the biblical verse that reads “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor -- “vehadarta” -- the face of the old man” (Leviticus 19:32).

So if you want to talk about the glory of women, you can go with “hadrat nashim.” But if you’re referring to the ultra-Orthodox sending women to the back of the bus on certain lines -- with the complicity of the drivers of these public buses, by the way -- be sure to pronounce it “hadarat nashim.”