Israeli women fight gender segregation with music

The Guardian, JERUSALEM

Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - Page 6

The performers were mostly women, as was the audience. On a cold December night in the center of Jerusalem, they sang, swayed and danced, united in outrage at the exclusion of women and growing gender segregation in the public arena.

“We won’t stop singing or showing women’s faces or dancing until this ugly phenomenon which is foreign to Judaism or to any democratic society has vanished,” said Micky Gidzin, of Be Free Israel, the organizers of the musical protest. “This issue is a symbol of what kind of society we want to be.”

“The values of a minority are increasingly encroaching on public life,” added Sue Grodetsky, a participant in the event.

The minority is zealous ultra--orthodox, or Haredi, Jews. Their demands for gender segregation and the exclusion and boycotting of women in the public sphere led to criticism recently by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At a private meeting in Washington, according to reports, she said the vilification of women was reminiscent of extremist regimes and that the practice of separating women and men on public buses reminded her of racial segregation in the US south in the 1950s.

Despite an Israeli court ruling outlawing enforced segregation on buses earlier this year, “voluntary segregation” is permitted. Women mainly sit at the back and men mainly at the front on some buses in Jerusalem.

Some supermarkets, post offices and medical centers have separate entrances, lines or waiting areas for men and women. Women have been barred from speaking at funerals or attending burials.

There is gender segregation at about two-thirds of state-run religious elementary schools.

With the blessing of rabbis, religious soldiers have walked out of ceremonies at which women soldiers sing or dance. Advertisers have bowed to Haredi pressure to remove images of women from posters and billboards. Many that have continued to show women have been ripped down or defaced.

A bookshop, Manny’s, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Haredi area, recently acceded to demands by a local extremist Haredi group following a campaign in which the store’s windows were smashed dozens of times, glue was poured into locks and bags of excrement dumped inside.

Now a sign addressed “To our lady customers” says: “Please enter my store in modest clothes. Modest clothes include closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirts, no tight-fitting clothes.”

The Haredim targeted a professional dance studio, where women could be seem through large windows rehearsing their steps.

In October, a Jerusalem city councilor went to court to force the police to stop the Haredim erecting barriers down the middle of a public street to separate men and women during the religious festival of Sukkot.

“We will not tolerate an extremist group dictating the way we live,” the petition said

The councilor, Rachel Azaria, was fired from the council’s ruling coalition for bringing a legal action against her own authority.

The ultra-orthodox are a growing sector of Jerusalem’s population, currently more than 20 percent, and is rising fast because of their high birth rate. They demand modest dress, the separation of men and women in public and a prohibition on women singing or dancing in mixed groups because it may arouse impure thoughts.

However, the campaign to “erase” women from the public arena is being driven by zealous Haredi sects, to the dismay of many ultra-orthodox and modern orthodox as well as secular Jews.

“It’s a mistake to see Haredi society as monolithic,” said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of The Unmaking of Israel. “What we’re seeing is the actions of the most hardline elements. Within the community, legitimacy comes from how strict you are. So it’s hard for more moderate elements to openly oppose the extremists.”

There had always been gender segregation within the ultra--orthodox community, he said.

“But what we’re seeing is an insistence on a more stringent interpretation and a stronger expression of that publicly,” he added.

That stronger expression “has damaged the image of Jerusalem,” Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur said. “The city council is working very hard to correct that.”

However, she said, many of the issues were cultural, not legal.

“On the buses, if men choose to sit at the front and women at the back, what can you do? You can’t force them to mix. Or there is nothing in law to stop a woman going to a man’s till in a supermarket, but if she’s from the community she probably won’t want to. She accepts a whole cultural code which dictates how she lives. This is a cultural clash,” Tsur said.

According to Tsur, the situation is improving. Last week, the national transplant center launched a billboard campaign in Jerusalem featuring women after being criticized for using only images of men in its previous advertisements.

Religious and secular Jews opposed to the extremist Haredim are becoming more vocal, according to Shira Ben Sasson Furstenberg, of the New Israel Fund, which has helped finance campaigns and projects.

“The issue here is about choice and the need to enable and respect choice,” Furstenberg said.

Things were getting a little better, she said, but there was a long way to go.

“We’re starting to see the flowers that come before the fruits,” she said.