In the middle of the day, on a main street in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox man on a bicycle tears off an advertisement from the back of a bus – an ad bearing the image of well-known model and TV host Galit Gutman. Hundreds of similar incidents have occurred in the city during the last year, but this time around it was different: Someone captured the act on video, showing that the exclusion of women in Haredi-dominated Bnei Brak is tolerated, not considered an issue. But Gutman chose to voice her objection clearly.
This has been a stormy year when it comes to the exclusion of women and their presence in the public domain, with two noteworthy examples: One was a sex-segregated government-sponsored event in Afula; the other was a benefit concert featuring only male performers that was organized by Rabbi Elimelech Firer, the ultra-Orthodox founder of the Ezra Lemarpeh medical charity.
The discourse surrounding the Afula event was not the same as that relating to the concert, since two different groups of women were involved: The former involved ultra-Orthodox women outside of central Israel, the latter affected some of the strongest women in Israeli society: female singers whose voices are usually heard.
In every case relating to the exclusion of women in the periphery, most arguments tend to support the right of members of the Haredi community to live their life without interference from liberals, who speak of the right of “those women” to have a choice. And indeed, in those cases the arguments revolve around the question of whether it’s proper that “our” public funds should support gender segregation or whether Haredi society should be allowed to lead its life as it sees fit. This theoretical debate is conducted at a snail’s pace while the exclusion of women continues.
Before the fundraiser organized by Firer (a tribute to singer Shlomo Artzi that was eventually canceled), it was difficult to show that segregation of women had infiltrated the core of Israeli society. Singer Shiri Maimon, who talked about the damage being done to her and her livelihood, demonstrated in her reaction that the phenomenon is here, in our own backyard, and that even powerful women are paying a price. One illustrative fact is that on one list of Israel’s top 20 singers in 2019 there are only two female performers. Maimon and others know that there are many other examples that highlight this reality, but despite that, she chose to speak out about the phenomenon from her personal perspective, as it pertains to herself.
Galit Gutman took a step further, a couple of days ago. She didn’t evade the issue at hand on the pretext that the incident involving her happened in Bnei Brak or that the lawbreaker was a Haredi man. She did not submit resignedly to dictates and was unafraid of being perceived as someone who speaks out against the ultra-Orthodox community. She sent a clear and sharp message, binding together all instances of exclusion, calling out violence against women in the public domain and citing the extreme fanaticism that she says now affects all women.
Gutman used her public standing in order to speak in the name of women in Israel, thus becoming a leader in the struggle against inequality.
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One can continue denying reality and think that these are a few negligible cases that aren’t related to us — or one can remember that just this week, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties issued a demand to rescind the prohibition on sex segregation and the exclusion of women in public.
This is the time to raise one’s voice. We must be united in the campaign against exclusion and use the public power we still have. We must be Galit Gutman.
Yael Miriam Sinai is a lobbyist in the Knesset on behalf of the Israel Women’s Network.