Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Women's Rights Under Attack in Israel

A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request, or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women.”
So said Israel’s Supreme Court Justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, in a ruling he gave in 2010, in response to an outcry over gender segregation being enforced on Israel’s buses that served mostly ultra-orthodox areas of Jerusalem.
‘Voluntary segregation,’ with passenger consent, however, is still permitted.
On these bus routes, women boarding from the back and staying there, whilst the men fill the front, is not an uncommon sight.
This issue was given extra prominence a couple of weeks ago when, in a closed lecture in Washington, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, voiced her concern over such practices taking place. Images of Rosa Parks and 1955 sprung to mind, an alarm echoed by Rubinstein in his judgement.
In recent years, a highly visible battle has broken out between Israel’s ultra-orthodox or Haredi community, making up around 9% of the population, and their predominantly secular counterparts.
This has extended, in particular, to what some see as women’s rights coming under attack from a reactionary, illiberal, but also highly politicised, and increasingly influential minority.
The bus episodes are just one in a litany of other examples (£).
For the Haredi, the sights and sounds of women singing in public are seen as ‘impure.’ Women’s faces plastered on public billboards and buses are regarded as ‘improper,’ for they may arouse sinful thoughts. Instead, they are defaced or covered up.
During this year’s celebration of the festival of Sukkot, separate footpaths were designated for men and women. And in signs that these tensions have spilled out beyond the capital, there were reports that organisers of a military ceremony in October had forced male and female soldiers to sit apart.
According to Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of the New Israel Fund, an equalities organisation, the Haredi’s impact is spreading, with them having more and more say over public life.
Her organisation fight against the “erasure” of women from public advertising, and have launched a “Women should be seen and heard” campaign.
At one of its recent events, some of Israel’s most famous female vocalists were on show, in a unified display against the edict of those religious extremists who seek to outlaw women singing in public.
“Silence is not an option. I love my country and my Jewish heritage and I will not allow the equivalent of the local Taliban to humiliate us women,” said a defiant Ahinoam Nini, well-renowned Jazz singer.
Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel, believes it is a mistake to see the Haredi as one homogenous group, and points out that gender segregation has always existed within the ultra-orthodox community:
“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."
"But what we're seeing is an insistence on a more stringent interpretation and a stronger expression of that publicly."
Yet, rather than seeing this assertion of orthodoxy wane anytime soon, the opposite is more likely true. Orthodox Jews comprise 40% of the ruling coalition government, over 40% of new army recruits, and a birth rate more than double that of secular Jews.
In short, Israeli society, and those residents of Jerusalem, of which the ultra-orthodox count for more than one-in-five, is going to have to get even more used to such public spats.
Secular and women’s groups have their work cut out.

This article was first published by Liberal Conspiracy on Thursday 15 December 2011

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