Gender segregation allows haredi women to embrace femininity - opinion

Gender segregation may not be a feminist ideal, but it allows haredi women to embrace their femininity. So let’s not oppose segregated events, at least not for haredim.

A HAREDI wedding in Bnei Brak (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A HAREDI wedding in Bnei Brak
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The repercussions of George Floyd’s horrific murder may accompany us for some time to come. The decision by Aunt Jemima Syrup and Uncle Ben’s Rice to re-brand their products, and software development giant GitHub’s resolution to eradicate the use of “master-slave” terminology from its lexicon, are indicative of the collective soul-searching taking place across the globe.
I’ve also heard calls to end discrimination against women in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. This is understandable, as the commonality of gender-segregated events among haredim is reminiscent of bus segregation and other racial discrimination laws targeting blacks that sparked the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Last summer, feminist activist Noga Sharon and the Israel Women’s Network (IWN) NGO sued the city of Afula for sponsoring a gender-segregated concert featuring popular haredi singer Motty Steinmetz. The only haredi-designated event out of the 360 funded by the municipality for the year 2019, the concert ultimately took place, although how this issue will play out in Israeli courts in the future is not clear.
Does gender-segregation reflect a view by haredi society that women are inferior, as the IWN suggests? And even if haredim do value the women in their midst, does the act of segregation unintentionally propagate a discriminatory message, subconsciously influencing attitudes and behaviors?
There’s an interesting discussion that took place about 2,000 years ago, when leading Jewish scholars debated about which prophecies should be included in the Ketuvim (Writings), the third section of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
Most of the scholars preferred not to include King Solomon’s Song of Songs, a somewhat graphic depiction of two lovers yearning for one another. The Mishnah (Yadayim 3:5) states Rabbi Akiva’s dissenting opinion: “There was no more worthy day for the world than the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
King Solomon and Rabbi Akiva taught us that intimacy is a matter of utmost holiness, an allegory for the great love between God and the Jewish people. But like nuclear power, with the potential to provide productive electricity or cause tremendous destruction, a powerful force such as intimacy requires careful handling. Like the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple that only the High Priest visited once a year on Yom Kippur, boundaries placed on intimacy allow it to realize its full potential as a powerful force of good.
My co-worker was telling me the other day about her son. Currently in the Israeli Army, he’s been dating the same girl for the past two years. His girlfriend wants to get married, but her son isn’t interested. Why? “She’s the first girl I’ve dated,” he told his Mom.
MY HEART went out to this girl, compelled to give up what in previous generations was considered a woman’s right to withhold until the commitment of marriage. How many young women in our generation give of their innermost selves and form deep emotional bonds while denied the most basic tenet of a good relationship: commitment.
“So what?” you might ask. One of the achievements of the feminist movement is the right and freedom to manage our relationships with men. Just as women fought for and achieved the right to vote and advance in the workplace as men do, so too in the realm of dating and marriage, women can enter and leave relationships at will as men do.
That’s all fine and well, except for one problem. As the popularity of John Gray’s 15-million-copies-sold bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus seems to imply, women’s love needs are different than men’s.
According to Gray, women need to feel special and cherished in a relationship. They need devotion and reassurance. “She is the jewel,” Gray writes, “and a man provides the right setting for her to shine.”
In the haredi world, boys and girls attend separate schools, extracurricular activities and social events. Just recently I had reason to visit my daughters’ school, where I enjoyed watching a group of preteen girls jump rope during recess. No competitive attempts to attract boys’ attention, no growing up before their time, just innocent, girlish fun.
And what happens when haredi girls and boys grow up and start a relationship? A haredi adult’s first close encounter with the opposite gender outside the family framework will be within the context of marriage, called kiddushin, derived from the Hebrew word for holiness. Bonding for the first time with a woman, a new groom is as happy and excited as John Gray’s Martians were when they first discovered the Venusians. His new wife feels special, cherished and deeply loved.
Continued attendance of segregated events following marriage, coupled with the community’s adherence to the laws of modesty, places limits on a married man’s exposure to women. This reality helps a couple’s natural intimacy remain alive. Add to the mix the cyclical family purity laws designed to bring a sense of renewal to the relationship, and you’ve got a great foundation for a marriage with every chance of success.
Motty Steinmetz expressed a similar perspective on gender segregation.
“I don’t exclude women,” he said following the concert. “The opposite. The status of women is holy in Judaism... therefore women are given a designated place at [my] concerts.”
Gender segregation may not be a feminist ideal, but it allows haredi women to embrace their femininity. So let’s not oppose segregated events. At least not for haredim, for whom segregation is part of an ideological effort to ensure that women retain their lofty status. Because haredi women matter.