The gender industry

The obsession with haredi women’s rights is the latest vogue in Tel Aviv simply because the issue has been catapulted to the headlines over the stupid acts of a few.

Tel Aviv Danan 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Tel Aviv Danan 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)

Although I swore not to turn this column into a political one, I’m afraid that this week it can’t be avoided. As any oleh, or immigrant, worth his salt knows, in Israel even a simple discussion between friends about the weather runs the risk of sparking a political feud.

I commented on the weather the last time around and successfully managed to avoid any weather-inspired political references such as MK so-and-so’s sunny disposition or MK so-and-so’s gloomy diplomatic forecasts.

However, this week I take issue with some of the seedier aspects of Tel Aviv that have lately been at the forefront of my mind as a result of recent events in the media.

On a number of occasions, I’ve found myself engaged in a debate with native Tel Avivians about the abominable news stories hailing from the Jerusalem area surrounding the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) hoo-hah. Invariably, I am looked upon askance as I express my opinion, but at least I am given the chance to express it.

This is likely due to the fact that as an ex-Jerusalemite with close relations to the haredi community, I can usually somewhat justify my claims. Also, generally speaking, Tel Avivians – unlike their hot-headed counterparts in Jerusalem – are open enough to hear out an argument posited by someone from “the other side.”

So in one such debate, my friend – who happens to be a secular leftist, born and raised in Tel Aviv – raised the following question: “So what happens to those women in the haredi community who really don’t want to be relegated to the back of the bus? How can their voices ever be heard?”

While I don’t doubt that there are women in haredi communities who feel that gender segregation on public transport is not only unnecessary but also potentially harmful, I do, however, doubt my friend’s overly-concerned attitude towards such women.

Why should my friend care so much about the rights of those particular women? Egged itself claimed that the “mehadrin” buses were a response to a consumer survey that found the vast majority of haredi bus passengers, both men and women, preferred separation of the sexes. And since my friend will probably never have to travel on a mehadrin bus it certainly doesn’t directly affect her. Furthermore, mehadrin buses have been around for years, so clearly something else triggered her newfound concern.

The image on TV of a little girl being spat on might have done the trick, but that’s exactly the point.

The obsession with haredi women’s rights is the latest vogue in Tel Aviv simply because the issue has been catapulted to the headlines over the stupid acts of a few out-there “Sikrikim” (a group of about 100 religious extremists based in Mea She’arim and Beit Shemesh).

If my friend were to take a closer look at the development of haredi world as a whole over the past decade, she might actually find that things aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be – on the contrary, positive changes are steadily taking place.

More haredi men than ever before are joining the workforce or enrolling in institutions for higher education. Haredi women have shed the proverbial shackles that bound them to their homes and children, and are fast becoming part of the scenery in offices around the country. Perhaps precisely because they have “more to prove,” these women are being praised by many employers as being their most conscientious employees.

But I digress. The point is not whether my friend bears unfounded grudges towards the haredi community for the treatment of its women; rather it is about her seeming lack of concern for other groups of women in Israeli society who suffer from humiliations far more disturbing than traveling on a segregated bus.

The treatment of women among many Arab-Israeli communities, for starters. In neighborhoods in east Jerusalem – heck, even closer to home, in Jaffa – there have been countless cases of women who were heckled by relatives or neighbors in the street, or worse, beaten – for something as insignificant as walking around outside without a male escort.

Or how about Tel Aviv’s booming sex-slave industry? Why does my friend’s concern for Jerusalem’s haredi women trump her concern for the 20,000 women involved in prostitution rings right here in Tel Aviv – her own hometown? Allow me, for a moment, to peel back a few layers of this oh-so-complex onion.

Forget the Arab community’s “honor” beatings for now. Forget too, the Russian women who have been smuggled through Egypt on the backs of camels only to end up in one of hundreds of brothels in Tel Aviv. Let’s return to Jerusalem for a moment, and to another hot topic stemming from the haredi world that is heatedly debated among Tel Avivians: posters and women.

In particular, posters featuring women. Fashion models, female entertainers and even female politicians have been defaced on billboards around the capital, apparently in deference to haredi sensibilities that find the images of women offensive.

The ensuing public outcry reached Tel Aviv, where many angrily – and rightly – pointed out that the images were in no way an objectification of women, and neither were any of the women portrayed provocatively. Not, say, nearly as provocatively as Bar Refaeli covering up her “naughty bits” with her arms while wearing nothing but a pair of pedalpushers – as plastered on a six-meterhigh poster that hung from a Tel Aviv building a while back.

I, for one, do not find the images of females adorning the walls of the Holy City particularly offensive. I don’t even take offense to mammoth-sized images of half-naked supermodels.

You know what I do find offensive? Walking down my street in Tel Aviv and being accosted by hundreds of images of naked women advertising “body massages” on business cards strewn all over the sidewalk.

Sorry to be so selfish and small-minded about this – especially when you think that there are women in Jerusalem that are made to sit on the back of the bus – but why the heck must I see these images on my way to the coffee shop? A daily reminder of Tel Aviv’s sickening sex industry is enough to make anyone’s coffee bitter.

And yet, so many times I have walked with friends in Tel Aviv who are so desensitized to these images, they barely even register the “business cards” at all. These are sadly often the same friends who, should they deign to visit Jerusalem, would walk by a poster in which a woman’s face has been “censored” by black marker, and the sheer injustice of it all would cause their blood pressure to skyrocket. Sigh.

I want to end by stating the obvious: I do not in any way defend some of the recent acts committed by haredi extremists in Jerusalem or in its satellite, Beit Shemesh. But Jerusalem is no longer my home and indeed, the focus of this column is my new home, Tel Aviv.

My aim here isn’t even to point out the hypocrisies that are arguably embedded within Tel Aviv’s ethical mores. It is quite simply to send a message to fellow denizens of Tel Aviv, Israel’s most liberal and accommodating city. Perhaps it’s time we all realized that if we want another city to start cleaning up its act, maybe we should first begin with our own.