Human Spirit: What do religious women want?
December 30, 2011
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
Discrimination and violence
against women is an easy subject for diverse sectors of Israeli society
to agree on.
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
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
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