Opinion

No, Gender Segregation Doesn’t Prevent Sexual Abuse

The numbers show that there’s no link between how women and men dress and any harm done to them. Such abuse occurs at every level of society, among Jews, Muslims and Christians

Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar
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Ultra-Orthodox women working at a high-tech center in Israel.
Ultra-Orthodox women working at a high-tech center in Israel. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar

In his piece responding to Rafi Walden’s op-ed in which Walden opposes gender segregation, Israel Cohen suggests that secular Israelis have a lot to learn about respect for women from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

“At a time when more and more incidents of sexual harassment in various forms are coming to light, along with damning testimonies about men exploiting their positions of authority against women, the Haredi approach that insists on gender separation appears to make all the more sense,” Cohen writes. “The most efficient way to avoid a repeat of such grave occurrences is simply to prevent unnecessary mingling of the sexes.”

What a perfect solution! We’ll entirely divide society – women here, men there. We’ll dress everyone modestly and solve all our problems. After all, everyone knows that in ultra-Orthodox society, as in other religious communities, separation and modesty totally prevent sexual harassment and abuse.

Cohen adds: “The Haredi approach has proved itself. There are fewer cases of harassment and thus fewer complaints arising from the mingling of the sexes, which is avoided from the start.”

Is he relying on reported data? Has he spoken to young children, adolescents or men and women who’ve suffered sexual abuse or harassment inside or outside the Haredi community? Has he read the shocking testimony posted on the Lo Tishtok Facebook page, which provides a forum on sexual abuse in the Haredi community?

Does he know what has happened in the past, and presumably is still happening, to children at ritual baths? Has he seen the data showing that women (and men) from every society actually suffer harm inside the family and the community, including from people who are supposed to be protecting them?

I too was educated based on that sweet illusion that modest women prevent harm to themselves in the face of men’s evil impulses, but it’s a quick, painful journey to come to one’s senses. The numbers show that there’s no relationship between how women and men dress and any harm done to them.

Such abuse occurs at every level of society, among Jewish men and women as well among their Muslim and Christian counterparts. Long dresses, head coverings and also modest attire among men don’t prevent it. And in religious communities, the harm is twofold because these are generally traditional and partriarchal societies where the perpetrator is more likely to be believed than the victim.

In addition, in every society some cases go unreported, and the recent high-profile cases are just the tip of the iceberg. But the underreporting is particularly widespread in closed and religious communities.

Children, both young and older, may not understand what has happened to them because the conversation about sexuality is limited; sometimes it doesn’t exist at all. The victims don’t know what to call it and the perpetrators exploit that. Also, in closed societies, women and men are afraid that society will punish them rather than the perpetrators.

I agree with Cohen when he writes: “People at the top with lots of status, wealth, influence and power often fail to withstand temptation,” but it’s not just media personalities, the wealthy and people in academia, and it’s not just “those” Americans or “those” secular people. It also includes rabbis, leaders and other people in positions of power in every society who exploit those seeking their help and advice.

The Jewish sages said “ein apotropos la’erayot” – no one is immune from the power of his sexual urges. That’s true in every society. I won’t comment on the disagreement between Cohen and Walden on gender segregation at school and at the workplace. There are two sides to the issue, but I strongly and heavyheartedly object to the claim that separation prevents sexual abuse.

The only thing that can prevent the next case of abuse is a major investment in education for both boys and girls. Cohen’s column is liable to cause more women and men to suffer in silence. Even women who have grown up and work in a segregated society and dress modestly aren’t immune from such harm, which many of them have suffered.

These women may think that maybe they’re the only ones, that maybe they’re the guilty party. They should know that separation and modesty don’t prevent the abuse. They only cover it up.

Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar teaches communications at Sapir Academic College.