In Jerusalem, women are voiceless at a decidedly womanly event

Globe and Mail, Canada/January 10, 2012

The controversial exclusion of women from various settings in Israel because of pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders reached a new level this week with a major conference on gynecological advances that is permitting only males to address the audience.

The conference on "Innovations in Gynecology/Obstetrics and Halacha [Jewish law]" is being held by the Puah Institute this Wednesday in Jerusalem. It will include such topics as "ovary implants," "how to choose a suitable contraceptive pill" and "intimacy during rocket attacks," in which there are many qualified female professionals, but none will be permitted to speak, at least not from the podium.

Women are allowed in the audience, in a section separate from men.

Several Israeli human rights groups have protested the men-only nature of the conference. While it is considered a private rather than a public forum, and therefore not subject to Israeli policies against discrimination, Puah receives considerable funding from the Health Ministry, these complainants point out.

Such complaints are unlikely to make much of an impression, however. The Health Minister, to whom they are addressed, is actually the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, owing to another sop to the Ultra-Orthodox.

The United Torah Judaism party refused to formally join the coalition cabinet since doing so would signal an acceptance of the Zionist state, something its beliefs preclude. So its representative was given the post of Deputy Health Minister, a non-cabinet position. It is this ultra-Orthodox man who really runs the department, while the PM represents it at the cabinet table.

At least two male Israeli doctors have withdrawn from making presentations at this week's Puah event once they were made aware of the exclusion of women, or at least once public outrage over the exclusion became apparent.

Puah – ironically named for one of the ancient Hebrew midwives believed to have refused the pharaoh's order to kill all male babies in Egypt at the time of Moses – has held many other conferences with male-only speakers. But this one comes on the heels of several other incidents in which women, or their images, have been excluded from public places under pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders and their enforcement squads.

Until two years ago, public buses did not run through such religious neighbourhoods as Mea Sharim, in Jerusalem, and Beit Shemesh outside the city, because of frequent attacks on the buses in which windows were smashed by rocks.

Having been ordered to resume service in all these communities, many buses carry security guards and most adhere to the practice demanded by the rabbinate of seating women only at the back of the bus. Recent attempts to break this practice have resulted in well-reported altercations with male passengers.

As well, pictures of women are not displayed in the posters and ads carried by the bus in these areas, nor are they shown in ads at bus stops in religious communities.

As far as Puah is concerned, it operates on a strictly kosher basis, as required by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. While there are women on its board of directors, its public face is strictly male, and the two sexes are not allowed to mix at its events.

To be sure, not all sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community support these exclusionary tactics, explains Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew University sociology professor and author of the recently published book Theocratic Democracy. "But most people are too afraid to speak out."

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