No to the 'Modesty Patrols'

Allowing gender segregation on university campuses will only lead to discrimination against women in other realms of life

A straight line connects the “modesty supervisors” on the ultra-Orthodox campuses of Ono Academic College and the testimony of female soldiers that they have been required to make themselves invisible around ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The willingness of various government authorities to comply with the demand to separate men and women only entrenches the phenomenon deeper.

There is no such thing as the “temporary exclusion” of half the population; there is no reason for this trend to fade away of its own accord in the future. On the contrary, experience shows that official cooperation with discrimination against women empowers such discrimination and leads to it seeping into other realms of life – education, the army, the workplace and public space.

Until a few weeks ago the modesty rules on the ultra-Orthodox campuses operated by Ono Academic College in Jerusalem and Or Yehuda defined skirt and sleeve length, stocking and shoe style, and permissible makeup and jewelry. The rules – one of the conditions for acceptance – did not stop at defining clothing. “The appearance, dress and modesty of the Torah-observant woman is not measured in centimeters and is not limited only to the realm of clothing,” the rules state. “Rather, it encompasses all areas of life – speech, walk, cultural and social behavior.” The rules also contain a warning: Non-compliance with the rules “can lead to expulsion.” Giving responsibility for enforcement of the rules to quite senior officials on the campuses is the obvious next step. .

Liberty and equality are among the basic principles of the academic world. Rules like these contradict both. As a result of criticism by the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the rules were amended into a declaration demanding that students’ “speech, appearance and social and cultural behavior” conform to the Haredi way of life. But the sanctions have not disappeared: Those who break the rules risk expulsion from school.

Those who support the demand for gender separation say that this is a necessary condition for the development of higher education for the ultra-Orthodox, and that the damage to the basic academic principles is proportionate. The first part of this claim unconditionally accepts the ultra-Orthodox position and the second part is baseless. Modesty rules and the demand to expand gender separation in academic institutions show that the threat to those principles is far from marginal.

The testimony of female soldiers to attorneys of the Israel Religious Action Center – about being instructed to “disappear” when there are ultra-Orthodox soldiers around – should sound a warning.

The rights of women and their place in society cannot be the price of integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society – neither in higher education nor in the army. The various authorities should stop cooperating both formally and informally with the demand for gender separation – by ignoring complaints about it or by showing “understanding” for the ultra-Orthodox position.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel