Taliban in Tel Aviv: Israel joins Middle East in clashing over gender segregation, women’s rights in public sphere

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  September 27, 2023

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Haaretz reports that at public prayers for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening, Ultra-Orthodox activists attempted to put up banners as separators to allow for the segregation of male and female worshipers. This action was seen as a provocation by liberal Israelis, since in Israeli law gender segregation in public spaces is forbidden as discriminatory toward women. Tel Aviv city officials had rejected the Rosh Yehudi organization’s application for segregated prayers and the country’s High Court had refused to intervene. Secular protesters pulled down the flags intended to cordon off women.

Small clashes over the issue continued on Monday in Tel Aviv and other cities. Far right wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the secular protesters as “leftists” demonstrating “hatred” for “Jewish” worshipers.

Last fall, as it became clear that they would be a swing bloc in the just-elected Netanyahu government, Ultra-Orthodox parties demanded authorization of gender segregation in public. They want women to sit at the back of the buses that go through religious areas, want to segregate state educational institutions by gender, and want separate seating for women and men at government-funded entertainment events.

Tel Aviv is a largely secular-minded city in which such ideas are anathema, and often elicit real anger. The city’s inhabitants understand that the Ultra-Orthodox are not merely engaged in special pleading for permission to perform their sectarian lifestyle in the big city but are preparing the ground to impose gender segregation, as what they see as a key Jewish religious practice, on all Israelis.

As a Middle East expert, I find this dispute reminiscent of struggles over gender segregation in Muslim societies.

Turkish intellectuals fear that President Tayyip Erdogan will try to set up all-women universities. Such institutions, which exist in Saudi Arabia, don’t serve women as well as their proponents think. For instance, they often don’t have professional schools because there aren’t a sufficient mass of women students planning to go into those fields. Or, their quality will never stack up against the male institutions, consigning women to second-class status in those fields.

Didem Unal argues that because of the political alliances Erdogan made with right wing religious parties this spring in the run-up to elections, they “pressured AKP to adopt a hardliner position against ‘gender ideology,’ which they vaguely define to link different reactionary agendas against progressive gender politics. They specifically demanded the annulment of Law No. 6284 on the Protection of the Family and Combating Domestic Violence and women’s right to alimony, the closing down of LGBTI+ associations, and the introduction of an Islamist education system and built their election propaganda on these demands. Despite some female AKP actors’ objections, whom I describe as “softliners” …. senior male AKP officials implied that these demands can be met and that AKP has nothing to contradict the political agendas of these parties.”

American Muslim women also mounted a protest beginning over a decade ago against being confined to a constrained space in mosques.

Of course, other religions, such as Hinduism in India, often practice forms of gender segregation, as well. In fact, Indian women suffer from various forms of gender segregation — familial and occupational included.

So these disputes are not limited to Judaism and Islam. In the latter two, they appear to be exacerbated by secular modernism, which argues for the equality of all individuals under the law, regardless of race, religion or gender. Israel, because of the prevailing Zionist ideology, however, already rejects the equality of Israelis of Palestinian heritage. A carve-out for discriminating against Jewish women would just be one more rejection of what Netanyahu calls “leftism” by Israeli society. Such moves appeal to men who feel that modernity has detracted from their power and authority. Such insecure, fragile men who must build themselves up by subordinating women, are a key constituency for Netanyahu and his extremist parties, just as they are for Erdogan and his in Turkey.

Where such patriarchal counter-reformations are taken to an extreme, we get the Taliban regime of Afghanistan.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment ; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam