By Anat Hoffman
Talk radio is very popular in Israel. Animated debates on every topic under the sun fill the airwaves every day. One station, Kol BaRama, a station with a large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) listenership, has the practice of not allowing women to speak on air. They say this is to respect the feelings of all who tune in to hear them. We, at IRAC, have been saying for two years that it is simply illegal and immoral to silence a woman’s voice on publically funded airwaves. After months of debate, it seems Israel’s politicians are starting to agree with us, and not just about this one case, but also about gender segregation in general.
Our struggle against gender segregation and the exclusion of women has taken many forms. We have fought this phenomenon in the courts, and thanks to our Supreme Court victory, coercing women to sit in the back of public buses was declared illegal. We have fought segregation in the streets, in public transportation, public services, and in shared spaces, such as cemeteries and health clinics. Through our Freedom Rider program, our volunteer riders have helped desegregate thousands of individual bus rides. Finally, we fight segregation by lobbying the Knesset and government ministries.
We have worked hard for years to try to convince the government that this is a serious problem that needs their attention. It is fundamentally unjust to force women out of sight and to deny them access to public services simply because of one group’s extreme interpretation of modesty.
Last week, a report was published by a ministerial commission from the Justice Ministry that accepts nearly all of IRAC’s recommendations relating to gender segregation in public transportation, public services, and the public sphere. The report also includes important recommendations on improving enforcement methods against gender segregation. Israel’s Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, has said he will adopt the recommendations of the ministerial commission.
This is a great victory. Within six months, the practice of women faxing their questions to Kol BaRama to have them read on the air by a man will end and they must enable women’s voices to be heard without restriction. They will also be obligated to hire female broadcasters. Female mourners will no longer be prevented from eulogizing their deceased loved ones and segregation will end at official ceremonies held under the auspices of the state (except for religious services).
We are thrilled to see this kind of progress, but if we have learned anything about gender segregation it is that as soon as we turn our heads it returns and often worse than before. We will continue to work with the government to keep them aware of the problem and we will hold the Attorney General to his word that gender segregation in the public sphere must end.
Anat Hoffman is Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Chairwoman of Women of the Wall