Activists say gender segregation in Jerusalem is on the rise, in spite of efforts to combat it by the courts, government, and more liberal elements.
Despite an Israeli court ruling outlawing enforced segregation on buses, voluntary segregation is still permitted, and often performed on public transportation. During Sukkot, temporary barriers were erected to divide the streets into gendered corridors even though they had been outlawed in previous years. With the blessing of their rabbis, male soldiers have walked out on events where female soldiers sang or danced, and women are restricted from participating in funerals presided over by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Billboards depicting women are routinely defaced, and many advertisers had bowed to Haredi pressure and only depict men.
The source of the segregation is the rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox population in Jerusalem. The contingent currently makes up more than 20 percent of the city’s populace, but is rising fast due to their high birth rate. The group demands female modesty in dress and action to prevent impure thoughts in mixed groups. Such measures help them observe their religious practices in the face of the increasing permissiveness of Israeli society.
Rachel Azaria, a member of the Jerusalem city council, first confronted the issue when a company refused to print her campaign posters while she was running for office in 2008. "They said in Jerusalem you can't have women on posters on the buses because the ultra-Orthodox don't approve of it," she told AFP.
She successfully challenged the ban, but found herself opposed to Jerusalem’s secular mayor Nir Barkat, who was complicit in the city’s unofficial policy of not depicting females in its posters. "I feel that multi-culturalism took over and suddenly the majority couldn't say anything because we had to take into consideration the smaller groups," she said.
Speaking Monday at a conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "The place of women in public spaces must be ensured and equal.”
"The segregation of women clashes not just with the democratic principles that we know and cherish. It also clashes with Jewish tradition," he added.
At the same event, President Shimon Peres said that nobody has the right to force the genders to mingle, but on the other hand, "no man has the right to force a woman to sit in a place that he decides on."
Several groups are protesting the gender segregation. A campaign by the New Israel Fund asks for women to send in photos of themselves holding a sign that reads “Women Should be Seen and Heard.”
“We can’t let women be erased from the public eye," NIF said on its website. "That’s a dangerous erosion of the status of women. And it’s a slippery slope.”
The Kolben Dance Company is the latest organization to join the battle. The typically curtained first floor rehearsal space opened its picture windows to allow the public to view the male and female dancers’ practice.