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The Many Humiliations of Sex Segregation

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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The gender-segregated event at a municipal park in Afula, in northern Israel, on Wednesday, August 15, 2019.
The gender-segregated event at a municipal park in Afula, in northern Israel, on Wednesday, August 15, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

For a few years now I’ve been breaking all the secular-liberal-feminist laws and teaching women-only classes, on the sly. Why? Because I believe that my course has the power to change the consciousness of female ultra-Orthodox students and knock down the partitions between them and language, between them and the world. I have no desire to distance these Haredi women from their world or bring them closer to mine, only to help them express themselves.

But there’s also something selfish about it. With them, I return to my childhood in Bnei Brak and my Haredi Zionist family. These are pleasant memories, for a few reasons.

The main one is that my grandmother, in whose home I was raised, was an independent thinker who violated many prohibitions behind my grandfather’s back and taught me to question everything, even Rogel Alpher’s columns or the secular sensibility that Haaretz editorials occasionally suggest. To ask, for example, whether the segregation of men and women in the public sphere, as at the concert in Afula last week, is necessarily “a black day for gender equality,” as Haaretz put it in its editorial Thursday.

“Why can’t Haredi women go to an event in the public sphere in the way that suits them and not as the Israel Women’s Network has decided is good for them?” an ultra-Orthodox woman asked me at the height of the dispute over the Afula concert.

And like a good liberal girl, I told her that with the exception of a synagogue or private event, the separation of men and women is a violation of the principle of equality. “What equality?” she cried, “You’re the only ones who can enjoy yourselves and we can’t? Why do I have to fund, out of the taxes I pay, events that totally contradict my worldview?”

In contrast to the fantasies of Bezalel Smotrich, I answered her that this isn’t a state based on Jewish religious law, and if she thinks that by permitting sex segregation at a public event she’ll preserve the state’s “Jewishness,” why not allow segregation on the streets of the most devout neighborhoods or ban women from speaking on the radio?

Her reply once again made my own position clear to me: “You don’t really understand the perspective of a religious woman. You see her through your own eyes. Have you ever thought that maybe we’re glad not to be in front, to be able to dance and be joyous without anyone watching us?”

Unwittingly, all the anxiety that women in Haredi society suffer came to light in that description. In forgetting themselves, in submitting to the music, women are liable to fall victim to “predators” on the other side of the fence, and so they must be hidden from prying eyes, separate and protected. Its hard to describe the rage this description stirred in me, a rage that toppled my possibly phenomenological partition.

This too is how I remember my childhood – not only walking hand-in-hand with my grandmother on Friday evening, but also the sense that segregation is a type of humiliation, because the sexual argument lurked everywhere and women were a walking catalyst for sinful thoughts.

No wonder my Haredi friend wants to be left alone with her female friends, just as my female students don’t want to study alongside men. These women got used to seeing themselves as a threat to the social order, and seeing men as a threat to them. So they must be believed when they say that separation wasn’t only forced on them but is also what they want. They were raised to have a talismanic fear of their power to bring on themselves an attack or stir men’s base instincts.

This reduction of women to seductive Liliths is a matter for Haredi society, but the state must not lend a hand to it. That said, as long as I am permitted I won’t stop teaching women separately, because only in these conditions can they liberate their thought from the zealous educational jail, and not only due to the prohibition. They genuinely prefer to keep their distance from men, and I don’t blame them.

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