The Exclusion of Women from the Public Sphere

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Israeli society has seen a recent push to exclude women from the public sphere. In the past months, religious soldiers have refused to remain in IDF ceremonies during which female soldiers sing, women have been relegated to the back of public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods buses, and billboards with pictures of women have been defaced in Jerusalem. In this blog entry, translated from the Hebrew, IDI Senior Researcher Yair Sheleg, argues against the recent turn toward extremism, calling on Israelis from all camps to respond to these developments responsibly.

The issue of the place of women in Israel's public space, known in popular parlance as "the exclusion of women," is a topic that has remained on the national agenda for many long months—and rightfully so, given the variety and frequency of expressions of this phenomenon. Soldiers have expressed religious reservations concerning a variety of jobs fulfilled by women in the Israeli army, ranging from singers and paratroop instructors (who push fighters from planes) to sports instructors and even commanders. Women have been relegated to the rear of buses that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Billboards with pictures of women have been defaced in Jerusalem, and national-religious girls, most of them under the age of 12, have been attacked violently simply because their schools are located near Haredi neighborhoods. Such phenomena are hard to ignore, especially when they begin to amass.

The public discussion of this matter has viewed it through the prism of the melting pot vs. multiculturalism debate. Should society aspire to a uniform norm (assuming the norm is liberal), at least in the public domain? Alternatively, based on a liberal perspective, should every sector be entitled to express its identity as it sees fit, even if it discriminates against women?

In my opinion, focusing the discussion on the melting pot vs. multiculturalism gives rise to two key problems: First, we are dealing with two abstract philosophical concepts that are incapable of addressing the full complexity of actual human realities. Consequently, neither of them can fully resolve all of the problems involved. As a matter of fact, adopting either of these principles across the board is likely to place society on a slippery slope. If we adopt the melting pot concept, should we invade every Orthodox synagogue and demand mixed seating for men and women (or at least separate seating at the same level and under equal conditions), so that not even the slightest bit of public space will be afflicted with the exclusion of women? On the other hand, if we adopt the multicultural approach, should we allow Muslim men to murder their sisters or daughters who spend time with men because such murders are "the accepted norm in Muslim culture"?

The answer, of course, is that a balance between the two extremes is essential. But even so, our liberal discourse may cause us to tip the scales too indiscriminately towards multiculturalism because it sounds more liberal than the melting pot concept, which seeks to create a uniform norm. Accordingly, we would sanction murder of Muslim women in the name of "family honor," but we would agree to situations in which Haredi women are forced to sit in the back of the bus, religious men are entitled to exercise their right not to listen to women singing, and so on.

I would therefore like to propose an alternative concept for discussion that suits both sides of the debate, namely the issue of 'human dignity'. Human dignity obviously means that women have the right to sit wherever they please, to sing, and to fill any military position for which they are found suitable. At the same time, it also mandates that religious people, men and women alike, have the right to maintain their special cultural identity. Accordingly, the tension does not stem from two conflicting values but rather between different manifestations of human dignity.

If the dispute is so defined, religious men will still have the right to maintain their unique cultural identity and to avoid sitting alongside women on the bus or hearing them sing in the IDF, but this right will be constrained by a parallel need to preserve women's dignity. We may thus tell the religious community: It is legitimate to separate the sexes on buses that pass through religious areas, but it is not legitimate for such separation to send women to the back of the bus, because that entails an element of humiliation. Buses could also be divided lengthwise, with seats for men on one side and seats for women on the other. Alternatively, if there is concern about possible mingling in the aisle, the men, who are the ones demanding the separation, should be the ones who sit in the back of the bus. If they claim that it is immodest for them to see the women from behind, we can respond by noting that whenever Haredi men walk along the street, they may find themselves walking behind women, so there is no end to the matter. Moreover, insofar as human dignity is concerned, even the creation of entirely separate buses, one for men and one for women, would be preferable to sending women to the back of the bus.

The case is similar with regard to women singing: I believe it is legitimate for religious soldiers to leave the room rather than listen to women singing. But their departure must be done in a manner that does not adversely affect the women's dignity—for example, it must be done only before the singing starts, in a manner that will be seen as a random departure rather than a direct reaction to the singing. Alternatively, the soldiers can apologize to the women singers, and explain that their departure should not be construed as an affront to the dignity of the women. Furthermore, we cannot tolerate a situation in which religious soldiers (or religious men in any hierarchy) refuse to accept orders from women, any more than we could tolerate a situation in which Jewish soldiers to refuse to take orders from Druze or Circassian commanders.

Another important issue concerns not the content of the discourse but rather the style in which it is conducted. In all areas of division in our society, not only those concerning the exclusion of women or the religious-secular divide, it is common for the camp that considers itself under attack to seek out its opponent's flaws. In this case, the ultra-Orthodox might ask: What entitles you to criticize the exclusion of women by the religious? What about the way secular permissiveness sees women as sex objects? Moreover, in many of our rifts (especially those between the right and the left, even more than rifts between religious and secular), each side allows itself to step up its activities and make them more extreme in response to what it perceives as extremism on the part of its rival. This results in increasingly intensifying cycles of mutual extremism, with a risk of violent confrontation. For example, the current wave of problematic legislative initiatives introduced by the right is justified by its proponents as a reaction to extremism by certain left-wing elements that have appealed to the international community to boycott Israel. The boycott is justified by its leaders as a response to increased anti-Palestinian activity and so on. In the future, it is highly likely that if the current trend in legislation continues, it will intensify the boycott efforts of the left. This will then elicit an extreme reaction on the part of the right, and so on, until violent conflict erupts.

Accordingly, responsible people in all camps must respond to developments in a manner that is to the point and that doesn't promote extremism. They must not give up their principles, but must remain on point, both rhetorically and practically, as if there were no perceived extremism on the part of the other side. Clearly, it is important for such behavior to be adopted by all camps simultaneously, so that no one sees him/herself as the fool who has remained moderate while the others become increasingly more extreme. Only those who express moderate positions have the right to demand that others express themselves moderately as well. Those who have taken the path of extremism may no longer ask others to stay moderate. In the context of the issue at hand: Whether in the religious community or the secular, only those who restrain the extremism at the fringes of their own camp have the right to demand similar action on the part of the other. 

Yair Sheleg is a Research Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.