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Sex segregation: A damaging phenomenon that is getting worse

What happens when the public hides women, whether on an El Al plane or in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square
Illustrative: A public bus in Israel. Forced segregation on a bus in Beit Shemesh led to a NIS 13,000 fine in July 2012. (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)
Illustrative: A public bus in Israel. Forced segregation on a bus in Beit Shemesh led to a NIS 13,000 fine in July 2012. (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

Two items made the news this week. The first is a Chabad event in Tel Aviv, the second, a delayed El Al flight.

While they may seem unrelated the reason they are in the news — gender segregated seating — makes them related indeed.

Chabad planned an event to be held in Kikar Rabin, a large public square in the heart of Tel Aviv. The outdoor event will have a divider and gender segregated seating. While the Tel Aviv Municipality initially granted a permit for the event, groups opposing the segregation in the public sphere led to the mayor’s revocation of the permit. The revocation was then overturned by the court, with the event slated to move forward as planned.

Sunday’s El Al flight was delayed for over an hour because a male passenger refused to sit beside a woman. Finally, the plane only took off after two women agreed to move to accommodate the men’s demands. The phenomenon of men asking women to move has been going on for a few years, and was declared illegal last year by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

“Requesting a seat change on an airplane before or after takeoff, based on a passenger’s gender, constitutes a breach of the Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, [Services and Entry into Public Places Law],” ruled Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach stating that El Al cannot force women to change seats at the request of men.

How did seating arrangements become the stuff of court cases? Since when do we need a judge to declare it illegal to ask a person to move on the basis of gender? And why is an event with separate seating controversial if the organizers want it that way?

In Israel, the gender segregation that exists in Orthodox synagogues has been imported to other spaces. More and more, spaces that are not religious have become segregated. This includes certain bus lines where women are told to sit in the back (which has also been determined to be illegal), college campuses, where women cannot teach men or be in the areas where they learn, medical conferences where women — even doctors and researchers whose work is being discussed — are put behind a curtain, and, in some places, are even barred from some areas of public streets (another illegal one).

Some health clinic offices have gender-segregated waiting rooms. In Beit Shemesh, women were required to sit in the back of the room at the opening of a health clinic. In Beit Shemesh, a city of tens of thousands – secular, traditional, Modern Orthodox and Haredi, publications do not include images of women or girls, and women have been told that they cannot advertise with pictures of women on city billboards (yet another illegal requirement).

There are people who see no connection between the increasing segregation and erasure of women and girls. I see an inherently damaging phenomenon that is getting worse.

In places where women have been told where they can sit, stand, walk, and so on, the women have also been verbally and physically assaulted by men — who acknowledged the view that they should not have been where they were. It would seem that with men’s exposure to women-free spaces, they now expect it, and have begun to demand it

Some go along with this, in the interest of cultural sensitivity, others in the interest of money. Banks, health clinics, and other businesses have created women-free publications, websites, and advertisements. The bigger problem is that the practice seeps deeper.

But enforcing gender segregation is not acceptable outside of a religious institution where those who sign up have agreed to it. Enforcing gender segregation is not a matter of cultural sensitivity. It helps extremists breed the expectation that women should be in the back, to the side, and not part of the main discussion. It helps spread the idea that total separation between the sexes is a pious ideal and that those who oppose it are less religious.

It leads to discrimination as every time the sides are not equal, women are given the back, the smaller, the less comfortable. They are less visible and not heard. Time and again.

If those who come to an event want to sit separately, they can do so. No one will — or should — force them to sit mixed. But the idea that an event in public can relegate women to behind a curtain or the back of the room is simply unacceptable.

Those who call it cultural sensitivity, who expect women to move aside and play nice, who go along with it for business reasons, from Mishpacha magazine, to the banks and bakeries to El Al, and those who refuse to consider the magnitude of this problem and its impact on society are aiding and abetting extremists and silencing and censoring women.

About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of chochmatnashim.org She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at skjaskoll.com
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