Some of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish women say they have a problem: their community, which makes up about 10 percent of the Israeli population, wants to pretend they don't exist. So Kolech, the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel, is filing Israel's first-ever gender segregation class-action lawsuit. Mazel!
"It's a way to stop the phenomenon," Riki Shapira, a Kolech board member as well as the group's legal adviser, told IPS. "Usually we just talk about (discrimination against women) and nothing happens. When people will understand that it's going to cost them a lot of money, we hope that things are going to change."
The lawsuit concerns an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem radio station that won't let any women's voices be heard on the station's programs, even if women are the topic of discussion on the airwaves. Shapira said the issue was "symbolic," and even a struggling 8th grade English class student could analyze that metaphor: women's voices are literally banned from being heard.
The radio station has asked critics to respect "the beliefs and outlook of the majority of the (ultra-Orthodox) community, men and women together," but not everyone in the community agrees that women should be seen and not heard. (And even that "seen" part is iffy; more on that in a sec.) One ultra-Orthodox man, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he doesn't think it's right to ban women from the airwaves and that he's not the only ultra-Orthodox Jew who feels that way. "Women should have the same rights as men," he said. " I don't claim to know how many people think this and that way, but I know a lot that think like me."
The lawsuit follows many other recent reports of gender segregation, from a teenager forced to sit in the back of the bus by two ultra-Orthodox men, even though gender separation is illegal on public transportation, to an eight-year-old Israeli girl who was spat upon for "dressing immodestly." (Lovely.) Last month, an Israeli bus company decided not to use people in their advertisements because they didn't want to offend the ultra-Orthodox community by — the horror! — putting women in public ads. (See? They apparently shouldn't be seen, either.)
The anonymous ultra-Orthodox man said he thinks women's rights are getting worse thanks to a rise in extremism, but Orly Erez-Likhovski, an attorney from the Israel Religious Action Centre, is more optimistic: she thinks numbers of gender segregation cases will be lower this year because of growing public outrage against, say, spitting on 8 year old girls and generally treating women like they're not people. "There is this slippery slope that if you allow the practice of segregation in one place, it will penetrate to other places as well," she said. "People have started to realize the dangers in it. It is happening everywhere and this is why it's so important to stop it and explain how dangerous it is."