THERE are many controversies pinned to the recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. One controversy that is less mentioned is the way an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper covered the solidarity march in which world leaders participated following the attack. The Monday edition of HaMevaser, a newspaper catering to the Haredi, an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, carried a picture of the march that was different from the one run by newspapers around the world. The altered picture run by HaMevaser had edited out all the women in the photograph; their doctoring was particularly visible because this included the woman at the centre of the picture, the German head of state Angela Merkel.
According to the Guardian, which carried the story, the Haredi in Israel do not believe that women should be in the public sphere.
HaMevaser’s editor of the newspaper said that the reason they had edited out the picture of women was because it was a family publication suitable for all, including young children. “The eight-year-old can’t see what I don’t want him to see,” he said to a television interviewer, adding, “True, a picture of Angela Merkel does not ruin a child, but if I have to draw a line, I have to put it there from the bottom all the way to the top.”
Just how much Israel capitulates to the gender-segregating requirements of ultra-orthodox Jewish elements is not often discussed.
If the ultra-orthodox Haredi believe that no women should be in the public sphere, they have to apply the rule to all women, including the German chancellor.
Just how much the state of Israel capitulates to the gender-segregating requirements of the Haredi is not a topic that is often discussed in world media. Given that a high percentage of Israelis living in contemporary Israel are descendants of refugees from various European countries, it would surprise many to learn that many areas of public life in Israel are segregated to accommodate the religious beliefs of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which not only opposes women being out in public, but whose men do not look directly at women, sit next to them or go into stores or businesses where they are present.
In her book The War on Women in Israel Elana Maryles Sztokman recalls an incident in which an ultra-orthodox man refused to sit next to her on a bus (while she was carrying a sleeping toddler). The bus issue became even bigger when women’s groups filed a petition in the Israel’s high court saying that the gender segregation that the ultra-orthodox demanded on certain buses was not legal. Even though the Supreme Court agreed with them, the ruling was not enforced and members of the group continued to enforce segregation on the buses.
Nor has gender segregation, believed necessary for religious orthodoxy, been limited to certain buses. Some orthodox rabbis have also decreed that women may not run for public office, ostensibly because this would require them to be in mixed company and around men who are not their husbands.
According to Sztokman, there has been a 40pc increase in the number of gender-segregated state schools in the past 13 years, and images of women have been removed from billboards and signs in and around ultra-orthodox communities. Cumulatively, the prerogative that religious belief prevents a man from being around women is in most instances in Israel considered an adequate reason for restricting women’s access.
The questions underlying the issue of religious ultra-orthodoxy and the restrictions it imposes on unconnected others, particularly women, is hardly limited to Israel. In a democratic society, different gradations and interpretations of belief all have to be mediated in the public sphere, such that the interests of all citizens can be met and represented.
What indeed must be done when the beliefs of a minority curtail the rights of a majority, and the minority believes itself to be the true expression of religious faith? In Pakistan, particularly in the tribal areas and parts of KP, the movement of women in public spaces has appeared restricted because of incursions by the Taliban and other extremist groups.
Primary among the extremists’ demands has been restricting girls’ education and the movement of women in the public sphere. Even when the government negotiated peace settlements with such groups, it had accepted that women’s access to public spaces would be limited. In one such agreement that took place in the run-up to national elections, several political parties agreed that women would not be coming out to vote in certain areas near the Pak-Afghan border.
In a religious state, those professing an ultra-orthodox interpretation of religious doctrine are imagined as being the most pious. Consequently, they are awarded a large number of concessions, be they special allowances for religious schools or special permission restricting the participation of women in political activities — from voting to leadership.
Larger political parties are unwilling to challenge these precepts because they may hurt their own potential for forming coalition governments, which often hinge on the cooperation of just these actors. In Israel and elsewhere, it is imagined that these concessions, be it the restriction of women to the back of the bus in Israel or the ban on women in the marketplace in Miramshah, do not affect the general character of the nation.
It is this last belief that is a dangerous lie. The assumption that those professing an ultra-orthodox interpretation of a faith are by default correct is problematic. Consequently, the concessions that flow from it, whether it is certain kinds of religious schools or gender segregation, all work to delegitimise other, more moderate and tolerant iterations. Allowing things to be different in one or two cases, hence, is not as innocuous as it seems; it is in fact affirming the precept that those who believe in exclusion and inequality are right and everyone else is wrong.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2015