The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs organises a series of Henriette van Lynden lectures with the covering theme: The Arabic world. On Thursday the 14th they invited three guest speakers to discuss gender segregation in Israel. The first speaker was Tamar El Or from the Hebrew University. The second was Orly Erez-Likhovksi from the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), and the last speaker, Rabbi Dov Lipman, was present thanks to modern technology via a Skype connection from Israel. The general topic of the evening was ultra-orthodoxy, liberal protest and women’s rights in Israel.
To the back of the bus
Most people probably remember the story of a woman in Israel who was forced to sit in the back of the bus. Despite the fact that she was wearing a caste on her leg and the back of the bus was very crowded, she was dismissed by ultra-orthodox men of sitting with them in the front. Or the story of the little girl who was spit on by ultra-orthodox men, as they claimed she was not dressed modestly enough. The international media declined this radical gender segregation and especially oppression of women. Fingers were pointed directly at the extreme religious feature of these men, but according to the three speakers women’s oppression and strict gender segregation has never been a part of Judaism. It is a fairly modern phenomenon. How do we have to understand this development?
Tamar El Or pointed out the rather significant paradox of the success of the ultra-orthodox. They pretend they are living the true, traditional Jewish form of life. This becomes visible within their everyday life; specific guidelines for clothing, strict norms and being highly religious. However, it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Their increasingly strict strategy of being ultra-orthodox has never been seen before. After the Holocaust the Jews formed a minor community that had to be rebuild. In order to differentiate themselves from other cultures the ultra-orthodox counteracted with an extreme form of enclosure. Cultural institutions like schools that preserved the Jewish culture were lost during the war. In order to rebuild their culture the ideal type of man became a scholar. Girls were educated to wish for a marriage with a scholar, regardless if this would mean being fairly poor. The patriarchy of the ultra-orthodox held the community in poverty. Women were not participating at the labour market and men were not educated outside the field of the academic world.
Fear of secularisation
Still, the community increased and became too big for the districts in the cities of Israel. New towns were build by which the ultra-orthodox started to travel from their home to work. The men, but also the women, became relied on public transportation. Whereas first, the ultra-orthodox enclosed themselves within their own communities, now had to intermingle within the majority of the secular Israeli population. With their women moving in the public sphere, new needs were demanded to keep control over their patriarchal ideals. In the fear of confronting the changes in society the ultra-orthodox restricted the women. This way they signify they are still standing as a community counteracting the secular majority. According to Orly Erez-Likhovski there is no possibility for them to loosen up, because of the fear of being claimed that they are not religious enough. Instead there is a trend of radicalisation. The thread of secularisation increased the gender segregation within the ultra-orthodox community. Having segregated bus lines in which women have to sit in the back and men in the front, is just one of many examples.
Women are a minority within a minority. All the decisions are made by men, due to the patriarchy of the ultra-orthodox. This way the modesty rules are made by men, to protect the men. Women have to sit in the back of the bus, and not the other way around, because the men should not be able to look at women to prevent them from impure thoughts. Within this mechanism the freedom of women is limited, as this is the easiest way to signify there is still power control within the ultra-orthodox community. It is a problematic situation in Israel for all parties. Until what level should practices of minorities be allowed? Also, can a secular woman speak for an ultra-orthodox woman? And what if an ultra-orthodox woman says she has no issue with gender segregation? Is it possible for her to agree on patriarchy or is she a victim? The supreme court of Israel declared in 2011 that forced gender segregation must be abolished. The IRAC has monitored the bus lines since, and for the present it can be said things have changed for the positive. However, patterns remain and the ultra-orthodox community being isolated, brews extremism as Rabbi Dov Lipman points out. It is therefore not possible to state gender segregation will disappear in the near future, according to all three speakers.
Maartje Smits studies Cultural Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen and is doing her internship at Aletta E-Quality.