A curious disappearing act

Over the past decade, and especially in haredi communities, it seems that fewer women are seen in the public realm.

Mea Shearim barrier 311 (photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
Mea Shearim barrier 311
(photo credit: Yehudah Mirsky)
Recent studies suggest that more than 40 million girls and women are “missing” in China. Due to the onechild policy, combined with a traditional preference for sons, many families choose to terminate a pregnancy with a girl, or not to report the birth of a girl rendering her a nonexistent person.
Over the past decade, it seems women have been disappearing here too. Fewer women are seen on buses, in medical clinics, at public celebrations or even on the streets.
The strange disappearance is because in more public spaces, women are asked to move to the back, or to the side, go through the back entrance, into the other room or not attend at all. In the name of modesty, women are requested to minimize their appearance in public, to be unnoticeable, to stay at home, to disappear.
Since 2001, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been monitoring demands by haredi extremists to introduce gender segregation in the public sphere. These demands first emerged on buses, and were met with approval by the Transportation Ministry and Egged. Segregated buses grew in number, until at the end of 2010 there were about 90 segregated lines. They were soon joined by segregated health clinics, where women come in by a different entrance and sit in a different waiting room. IRAC’s report “Excluded, for God’s Sake: Gender Segregation in Public Spaces in Israel” documents this growing number of segregated public places and services.
Women’s testimonies prove that the segregation is enforced by verbal and even physical violence, and that women who refuse to comply are met with scorn, humiliation, even assault.
Recently the High Court ruled on IRAC’s petition against bus segregation, saying it was discriminatory. “Have we returned to the days of Rosa Parks?” asked Justice Amnon Rubinstein. Setting a precedent, the court ruled that no public authority may institute segregation between men and women, since it is humiliating and infringes on women’s basic right to equality.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that demands for segregation invariably involve relegating women to the back of a given space; sometimes they also imply their conceptual exclusion from the space.
For example, segregation on buses was translated into the demand that women must board by the rear door and sit in the rear seats, while the front door and seats are reserved for men. It is no coincidence that women did not sit at the front, or that women should sit on the righthand side of the bus and men on the left. The demand for women to sit in the rear of the bus illustrates the fact that any demand for segregation is based on an identification of women with the private realm, and on a desire to remove them from the public realm.
ACCORDINGLY, “GENDER segregation” does not refer to a system that divides public space into two equal halves, maintaining equal access for both sexes. Almost invariably, it entails the removal of women from the public realm.
This patriarchal approach is, surprisingly, accepted by state authorities, who choose to meet the demands of the haredi leaders (all men of course), on the pretense that maintaining segregation protects the community’s right to practice its unique culture. This attitude ignores three key facts: that women in haredi society cannot voice their resentment; that the growing extremist “modesty” rules are a new phenomenon, not an integral part of haredi culture; and that segregation is illegal because it is discriminatory.
Causing women to disappear from the public sphere harms society at large. It is the duty of the state to ensure women’s equality, and this responsibility must involve setting boundaries to the expansion of segregation. At the very least, it must be kept out of public services, and the public sphere.
The writer is director of the legal and public policy department at the Israel Religious Action Center.