The Human Spirit: What do religious women want?

Discrimination and violence against women is an easy subject for diverse sectors of Israeli society to agree on.

relligous, orthodox, haredi boys, girls_311 (photo credit: Marc israel sellem )
relligous, orthodox, haredi boys, girls_311
(photo credit: Marc israel sellem )
I was trying to help a media colleague from one of the world’s well-known networks. To create balance in a news report on the current discussion of women’s status in Israel, he sought an English-speaking woman interviewee who would defend the policy of restricting women to the back of the bus. We weren’t having much luck. My first suggestion was going abroad that week and the second was already abroad. Finally, he turned to me. “What about you?”
He was hoping that as a religious woman who wears long skirts and covers her hair, I might be sympathetic to the idea of segregated seating on buses. Initially, I was shocked by his erroneous assumption, but the more I thought about it, the better I understood.
Perhaps he had visited Israeli synagogues where he had seen religious women sitting in the back, in cramped seats where it’s hard to hear and even harder to feel engaged by the services. Or maybe he’d gone to one of the public Hanukka menorah lightings where men were doing the lighting, as if women couldn’t say the blessings and were happy just making latkes. Police Commissioner Insp.- Gen. Yohanan Danino might be calling for zero tolerance of discrimination, but religious women appear to have subscribed to a system with a high tolerance for sitting in the back. And for those outside the religious world, particularly outside of Israel, religious women might be looked at as a monolithic group. Hence my colleague’s conjecture that I might feel content about segregation.
Covering your hair doesn’t have to mean covering your brain. In Jerusalem, so many Jewish and Muslim women wear head coverings whether they are doctors, lawyers or Zumba instructors that you hardly notice. Without taking a survey, I think I can safely speak for the majority of my fellow religious women. Not only do we find the idea of being told where we can and cannot sit on a bus repellent but we are angry and embarrassed that the subject is discussed internationally as though we had been conquered by the Taliban. I would advise those who insist on traveling on mixed buses: if the sight of a member of the opposite sex is too visually stimulating, carry a blindfold in your pocket.
Still, we are not blameless. How many tedious Torah talks have we sat through while scintillating female Torah scholars remained silent behind the curtain? We’re all nauseated by the footage on Channel 2 of the man in Beit Shemesh describing his “healthy” male urges when he sees a little girl walking to school.
That said, for more than a decade I kept a “modesty outfit” in my office on Jerusalem’s Harav Kook Street to lend my student interns or assistants if they wanted to buy a falafel north of Hanevi’im Street. We allow our children to marry without protecting them from the abuses of the Rabbinical Court system where the get (halachic divorce) and the ketuba (marriage document), instead of protecting the wife from abuses, have been turned into an organized system of extortion as a common part of the divorce settlement system.
LAST WEEK I attended a prize ceremony of the Education Ministry where only men were sitting on the podium. The de facto segregation had nothing to do with religion. But in a country where the vast majority of educators are women, there should never be a prize ceremony or panel of experts where no woman is deemed important enough to take part. It’s too easy to move from there to the ceremony on September 25 in Jerusalem in which the deputy health minister shamed the State of Israel by asking Prof. Chani Maayan and Naama Holtzer to sit in a segregated section and to send a male representative to receive their prize. Israel’s Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kadari is one of 23 electees to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Israel signed the anti-discrimination agreement in 1991. How humiliating it will be for her and for all of us when this example of institutional discrimination is exposed in an international forum.
Spokesmen for extreme religious groups keep boasting about the high esteem in which women are treated in their homes. Nothing but their own rhetoric confirms that they have a monopoly on dignity – not the records of social workers, women’s shelters or hospital units where victims of abuse arrive. Their continual use of the Hebrew word “kavod” (honor) is chilling: it’s the same term used by Muslim extremists who murder their sisters for alleged immodest behavior.
I remember being amused by the first signs for separate lines in a bakery inside Mea She’arim decades ago. No one was paying attention to them. Likewise, the public ignores the old signs directing men and women to use opposite alleys to cross to Nehemia and Ezra streets in Jerusalem. What has changed is an increased threat and the justification of violence. I wrote in this column a few weeks ago about being comfortable interviewing participants in the 4,000-person Chabad male emissary conference in Brooklyn. As I stepped into the black-hatted crowd to conduct interviews, my first thought, sadly, was that I wouldn’t have dared enter such a crowd of men wearing black in Jerusalem.
I TAKE my preschool-aged granddaughters to a swimming pool near the coast where there are alternate hours for men and women. Getting dressed after exiting the pool is the hardest part. I’m cold and need to shower and dress the tiny tots in tights and inevitably sand-filled sneakers. Not long ago, I was busy dressing the girls, and at first didn’t understand that a young woman in the changing room was chastising me for immodesty. She didn’t want her daughter to see a woman in a state of semi-dress. I ignored her, but her harassment continued to escalate. At last, I had to confront her audacity and remind her that she had no right to impose her extreme mores on me.
I have been making use of women’s changing rooms for decades in Israel but had never encountered such an incident. This woman has been emboldened by a worldview in which effrontery and impertinence go uncurbed by respectful behavior – ironically in the name of righteousness. When the offensive woman left, the other women in the changing room complimented me for what I’d said, even though none of them had spoken up while the exchange was going on. What if I’d been outnumbered, in a position of vulnerability dressing myself and little girls? Would I have called campus security? The police? Why should I have to worry about this?
Discrimination and violence against women is an easy subject for diverse sectors of Israeli society to agree on. This isn’t just a women’s issue. We have to make sure that spotlight now turned on the most extreme practices of misogyny cloaked as religion will throw light on the sexist malignancies with which we’ve become accustomed to live. Zero-tolerance starts with us.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.