“Some will gain and no one will lose.” So said Idit Silman, Israel’s minister of environmental protection, of the plan to add extra hours for gender segregated times before and after public hours at the natural pools in two nature reserves.
Unfortunately, adding gender segregated spaces means we all lose.
How can I, a religious woman, who theoretically should be glad for the opportunity to swim among only women, feel this way?
Because separate is almost never equal.
In my investigations of segregated spaces, I have only ever seen one place truly divided equally: the grave of Rambam (Maimonides) in Tiberias. It houses a perfectly divided room with the exact same accommodations on both sides. It is the exception that bleakly proves the rule.
Everywhere else I have visited, women are given inferior circumstances. They are positioned behind a wall, given smaller, inferior spaces (countless grave sites), inferior accommodations and less access. Women are relegated to the back of the bus (often with stares and abusive comments), to balconies or back-row seats at concerts, and to the back of the room or behind a partition at events. Women are not even allowed to lecture at some conferences — including on women’s fertility, surely a “women’s topic,” if ever there was one.
Clalit Health Services recently revoked its sponsorship of a conference and Hadassah Medical Center canceled its physicians’ participation in a conference on gynecology (planned by Dorot Institute – Center for Fertility, Medicine and Halacha), when it became known that only male doctors were going to be allowed to participate.
A planned concert sponsored by the city of Rosh HaAyin has seats in the front reserved for men only, with women in the back.
At a professional development day for teachers, sponsored by the municipality, men demanded that the women be moved to another floor — and they were.
Life’s a beach?
I have actually seen one other kind of space that segregates well, and that is Israel’s separate beaches. The space is vast and days are divided completely, with men having three days a week and women having three days a week. Sounds perfect right?
Tzipi Blumenthal relates that in the city of Bnei Brak, members of the (entirely male) city council decided to see whether the women’s days at the beach were “kosher” enough. After investigating (with binoculars), they determined that the separate beach was not acceptable after all, and canceled the buses that went from the city to the beach. They did not forbid the beach, but, practically speaking, they removed it as an option. Now women who want to go to the separate beach must take two buses or wait with hordes of other women for an infrequent bus to a more distant separate beach. Most Haredim do not own cars, and women’s ability to travel is under the control of the men — that is, the all-male city council. When the council nixed easy transportation to the separate beach, they essentially canceled women’s beach-going.
Haredi women have taken to social media to speak out against the segregation plan for the nature reserves. The posts they have written speak painfully of women being left behind to stay with the children, while the men and older boys enjoy the water. They lament that if the pilot goes through, families will lose one of their rare opportunities over the course of the calendar year to spend time together as a family (Haredi boys’ and girls’ schools have vacations at different times — purposely — beyond these summer weeks). The Haredi women explain that implementing this proposed segregation will effectively put an end to family vacations, when, until now, everyone in a given family could enjoy each other’s company.
The women described other apparently generous ideas that were attempted as “pilot programs,” which quickly became the new normal, including kosher phones and “mehadrin” buses. Those innovations, ostensibly looking out for the few Haredim who needed them, have become not only standard practice, but required. In some communities, anyone who owns a smartphone or sits with his family is judged, and, depending on the community, refused attendance to some schools.
Public segregation, according to the Haredi women, will be one more factor by which families are judged, controlled, and coerced into conforming to the most extreme approach.
And if these are the concerns of the few brave Haredi women who are willing to speak out, what of all those who cannot bring themselves to do so? Those who worry about harming their children in their chances for shidduchim (matchmaking), or acceptance at schools and yeshivot? What about those who play by the rules, even when those rules are suffocating?
Just increasing the conversation around legalizing segregation in public spaces has led to more women being relegated to the back of the bus — or not even allowed on to the bus — if Haredi men are on board. And when it is the driver who is female? Recently, a woman bus driver was harassed and prevented from driving her bus because extremists decided she should not be driving a bus at all.
Israel’s national emergency medical services, Magen David Adom (MDA), has begun offering a gender segregated paramedic course for national service volunteers. Parks and museums have refused women entry — even though they had already paid for their tickets— when Haredi boys’ schools are present.
On this slippery slope, when gender segregation is allowed in some few public spaces, it justifies and strengthens the demand for segregation everywhere, as Haredi society in Israel has demonstrated repeatedly. It is time to acknowledge that extreme separation between men and women is a failed experiment and leave gender segregation in the synagogue. For all of our sakes.