It's not just a local problem anymore

There has been a dramatic reaction to the exclusion of women in the capital.

Advertisement 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Advertisement 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was not immediately apparent that women had disappeared from advertisements in Jerusalem. In fact, it took quite some time before people became aware of it and understood that it was not an error that female models were depicted without their heads in some clothing ads or were replaced by cartoon figures in others.
“It made sense all of a sudden,” says Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom and equality. “The disappearance of women was just another step in a wider situation in which women, and not only haredi women, were simply being excluded from public space in the capital.”
Three recent events – two of which were not even in Jerusalem – have dramatically reversed the public’s attitude about the alarming trend of excluding women from the public domain. The widespread reaction to these incidents raises the hope that the humiliation and segregation of women is – at last – being perceived as a problem that concerns all Israelis, even those who don’t live in Jerusalem or in haredi neighborhoods.
The first two events took place within the Israel Defense Forces. In the first instance, during the Simhat Torah festival held in the Eshkol Regional Council, female soldiers were asked to dance in a separate hall. In the second, religious male soldiers walked out of a military ceremony because female soldiers were singing on stage. As for the third incident, it happened in Safra Square when Mayor Nir Barkat fired city council member Rachel Azaria from the coalition after she petitioned the High Court of Justice, naming the police and the municipality, to prevent gender segregation on the streets of Mea She’arim during Succot.
As a result, the public – women’s organizations, civil rights organizations and the media – suddenly “discovered” what had been plaguing so many Jerusalem residents for the past few years. That is, that women had become a kind of “public enemy” for a large segment of the city’s population and, as a result, were being wiped off public advertisements, relegated to the back of buses, forced to form separate lines in grocery stores and medical clinics, and sometimes requested to walk on separate sidewalks.
These situations, which have been part of Jerusalem’s reality for quite some time, have suddenly become everyone’s concern, apparently because a line was crossed in the above-mentioned incidents. Since then, many things have become not only obvious but also more significant.
The reaction is quite interesting, given that the situation regarding the status of women in Jerusalem has been deteriorating systematically over time. But the question is why nothing had raised public concern until now. Why are we suddenly witnessing a different reaction when all along the situation has been so intolerable in certain parts of the city that some families have actually packed up and left?
The awakening of the younger generation, the appearance of the Hitorerut movement and the establishment of the New Spirit students’ association are steps in the right direction, but none of these has addressed the issue of the exclusion of women, and certainly not the situation that prevails in the haredi neighborhoods. This means that even in Jerusalem, many residents have been treating the issue as if it did not concern them.
In fact, the only person who seems to care and tries to fight back is Azaria, a religious woman who is also a feminist.
And Azaria is the first to admit that it took her being fired from the coalition to raise adequate concern about what has been going on in Jerusalem.
“I wanted to make a point that the laws of this country, which say that women are equal to men, also prevail in Mea She’arim and everywhere else in this city,” Azaria says, explaining her decision to take the matter to court.
She adds that as a feminist as well as a municipal employee, she feels responsible for all residents, including haredi women who probably didn’t vote for her.
For the past three months, the removal of women from advertisements due to haredi coercion, but mostly due to the advertisers’ fear of haredim vandalizing their billboards, has become a daily topic in women’s organizations and the local and international media and has sparked many campaigns to combat the situation. But the exclusion of women – and advertising is only one example – has existed in the city for quite a while.
Gender segregation on public buses and near the Western Wall, not to mention a recent award ceremony at Safra Square where the female honorees were not permitted to go on stage to receive their prizes or the attempts in Mea She’arim to impose gender separation on the street during Succot, didn’t come close to the outrage elicited by the IDF incidents and the firing of Azaria.
Be it a function of misunderstanding or indifference, these cases of gender segregation had been regarded as an internal religious problem, something that shouldn’t concern anyone outside of Jerusalem. Until, as some observers of Israeli society say, it hit home – namely, female soldiers sidelined and an elected official fired because she stood up for the prevention of this exclusion.
Barkat didn’t fire Azaria because he was in favor of excluding women from the public space, but this is one of those cases where nuances and even facts don’t really matter. Azaria was fired because the mayor couldn’t forgive her for dragging the municipality into court. But in a petition issued by her supporters and signed within less than two days by thousands of residents around the country, Azaria was presented as a victim of the gender segregation and the determination of the haredi members of the city council who had requested her head, and overnight she became the Joan of Arc of those fighting the system.
From that day on, the problem of women’s segregation and exclusion in Jerusalem became everyone’s problem. Women have been gathering every Friday, with the participation of some of the country’s most popular female singers, to sing in public. The press is full of articles on the topic, the Knesset holds special meetings and ministers summon the Committee for the Status of Women to debate the issue, while Facebook and other social networks are brimming with discussions on the subject.
Private initiatives spring up almost daily, such as the “Lo Metzunzarot” (Not Censored) site and a group of women who plastered their pictures all over the city’s billboards. Even the public abroad has jumped on the bandwagon, and in the last few weeks this reporter has been interviewed on several European radio stations and TV channels to try to explain why women in Jerusalem are treated as second-class citizens.
The source of the belief is relatively easy to explain. Why it is being permitted to continue is far more complicated to clarify, not only to the foreign media but even to the average Israeli.
One encouraging result has already been achieved. The Jerusalem Municipality published an ad for a Hanukka concert with a photo of a female singer who will perform at Safra Square next week.
“I am not surprised at all,” says Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center and a prominent leader of the battle against gender segregation in the public sphere. “Until now, this segregation of women was considered a religious issue,” she says in a phone conversation from Washington. “It didn’t bother or concern secular people, who felt it didn’t affect their own lives – until it involved the female soldiers.
These girls are our girls, our daughters, so it suddenly did concern everyone, and not just the religious... But I would say there is one thread that connects the female soldiers forced to dance on their own or humiliated by religious soldiers who walk out when they sing with the harassment against the Women of the Wall [of which Hoffman is the director]. It all comes from the same intention and desire to keep women out of the eyes of society.”
The exclusion of women in Jerusalem’s streets is not new, but among the many incidents there is one event that really garnered headlines. On June 25, 2008, a few months before the municipal elections, Uri Lupolianski, then mayor of Jerusalem (but not a candidate in the election), inaugurated the Bridge of Strings at the entrance of the city. His deputy, Yehoshua Pollak, decided to turn the ceremony into a political event supporting haredi candidate Meir Porush and thus went to great pains to hold a “kosher” ceremony.
The girls of the Mehola dance company, aged 11 to 13, who had been invited to perform a dance on the bridge, were requested to cover their costumes.
The parents and the directors of the company were hurt, the girls cried, but then one of the directors came up with an idea: He decided to cover the girls’ bodies – and heads – with burlap sacks. The resulting public outcry was so resounding that even Pollak understood – albeit too late – that he had gone too far.
“It took us just a few hours to realize that this was the main issue we had to deal with,” recalls Merav Cohen, city council member for Hitorerut, who at the time was already trying to rally secular residents in the election campaign. “Until that day, what we cared about were our usual problems: affordable housing, jobs for the young, places for entertainment. These were the kinds of things we wanted to put at the center of the election campaign. We were aware of the anger caused by haredi attempts at hegemony, but we didn’t realize how much this was focused on gender issues.”
Cohen, like many others, believes that the presence of haredi families in secular neighborhoods (such as Kiryat Hayovel) or handing over emptying secular schools (as a result of demographic trends) to haredim were the issues that concerned Jerusalemites, not the status of women.
“It had to reach a critical point in order to raise some alarm,” explains Ilan of Hiddush. “At one point, the secular and the national religious realized that this concerned them too, that it was not only a problem of women using public buses. As a result of the accumulation of incidents, people realized that it was not only the problem of Jerusalem’s residents.”
Ilan also points to the incidents with the female soldiers and the firing of Azaria and says that the latter ultimately altered the situation.
“Azaria’s firing, no matter what exactly the reasons were, turned into a mega media event. All the newspapers kept it on their front page. Nobody could ignore it anymore, and for the public it became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It caused secular women in Tel Aviv to understand what was at stake, it caused people everywhere in the country to realize how far the situation had gone.
From that moment, everybody realized that women were being banned from the public sector in the capital. People grasped the magnitude of the threat.” Advertising in Jerusalem has been different from that of the rest of the country for the past 20 years, says Ilan.
During this time, advertisers met with representatives of the haredi community and accepted that there were pictures that couldn’t be shown in the streets of the capital. This understanding also applied to several women’s organizations, which assumed that there was some common denominator between feminists and haredim – namely, that women shouldn’t be seen as sexual objects in advertisements but rather should be treated with respect.
As a result, most advertisers got used to the idea that they had to prepare one ad campaign for Jerusalem and another for the rest of the country. “That was one of the first mistakes,” fumes Ilan, “because what the feminists had in mind was how to advertise without offending women, while what the haredim had in mind was simply how to remove women from any public space.”
Ilan adds that the issue of discreet pictures, which are demanded by feminists and the religious, is one that should be postponed until the mere presence of women in public spaces is not compromised.
“The voice of a woman cannot be considered synonymous with her nudity,” says Ilan. “In our recent surveys, 84 percent of the secular population think this [suggestion] is hurtful, while two-thirds of the entire population consider it to be rude and insulting. So it is clear that we are talking about something much more urgent – giving the public arena back to women, who have been deprived of free access to public transportation and their presence in public spaces. And again, now people understand that this is not just a haredi issue.”
After the bridge inauguration came the electoral campaign, and Azaria and Cohen found out that pictures of female candidates were not being displayed on advertisements on buses. A brief investigation revealed that the Canaan advertising company didn’t want its ads vandalized by haredim and decided to exclude women from the ads.
Azaria petitioned the High Court and won – just in time to have her pictures published during the last 48 hours of the campaign.
Since then, she has struggled against segregation led by the most extremist haredim in the city.
“But it had to come to the incident with the female soldiers and Azaria’s being fired from the coalition to incite the required indignation from the public,” admits Marik Shtern, a PR consultant and member of Yerushalmim. “Only then did people understand that it was not only a Jerusalem matter but something that concerns us all.”
Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus (UTJ) fumes at what he calls an organized attempt to attack the haredi community. “I don’t understand what’s new here – we, the haredim, have always lived a segregated lifestyle – that’s our life, these are our principles, that’s our way,” he says. “I sincerely suggest that secular residents look elsewhere for issues to fight for – or to put it bluntly: Get off our backs.”
Pindrus admits, however, that in some cases, haredim might behave aggressively or display a lack of respect.
“If that has been the case here or there, then it’s unacceptable.
People should act with respect, but besides that, it’s about time secular society understands that we believe in segregation between the genders and learn to respect us.”
But Cohen says there is more at stake than the radicalization within the haredi community.
“First of all, it has done great damage to the image of Jerusalem, and that should concern everyone.”
But there’s more, she says, because the general result of this situation is that “young and productive residents just pack up and leave the city.”
Cohen says that members of Hitorerut are particularly concerned that these trends are becoming part of our daily reality.
“It is not normal that a man cannot look at a picture of a woman in the streets; it is not normal that women are not allowed to vote for a community council as occurred this week at the elections in the Bukharan Quarter; and it is not legitimate to say that there should be separate lines for men and women at the supermarket, the clinic, the bus stop or anywhere else. Men who cannot cope with seeing women walking in the street are sick. They should seek treatment, not impose their sickness on the rest of us.”