Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The toilet lady

IT WAS Louis who spotted her: the stenciled lady on the side of a bus shelter, just up the hill from our flat. She'd appeared overnight, the familiar silhouette that adorns toilet signs the world over, rendered unfamiliar in the context of a Jerusalem advertising hoarding.

"What's that?" he asked, probably wondering where her habitual male companion was. I couldn't read the Hebrew daubed alongside but I could guess what it said given the city's unofficial ban on women appearing on public billboards. The image had to be part of the spiraling protest against rampant sexism that is turning Israeli women into second-class citizens.

It was still early - we were on our way to the yoga class at a local playcentre that keeps me semi sane - so I left the lecture on female equality for later in the day. But even our destination reminded me that gender segregation is commonplace here: all but three of the yoga classes are women-only.

From the army, where religious conscripts are being urged to walk out of events when women sing, to religious schools, which are banning dads from watching their daughters perform in end-of-term plays, women are getting an increasingly raw deal in public life thanks to pressure from the religious right. The situation is worst in Jerusalem, where even retailers can't use female images in their ads, but is deteriorating elsewhere.

Segregation starts in the synagogue, where men and women sit separately: at the Western Wall, a smaller wall divides the sexes. On the street, gender division is most blatant on buses, where the Orthodox men take the front seats, leaving the back for the ladies.

There are some unusual flipsides - some might say benefits - to such draconian notions about women: on Fridays there are more Haredi fathers than mothers stocking up for Shabbat in the shuk, the city's main food market. But there are downsides too. Consider the school textbook that teaches children about the virtue of respect. The illustration? A man.

With some leading questions, I managed to make Louis see the light but it's worrying to think his Israeli peers, including a new generation of kids whose parents have "made aliyah" (what Jews call emigrating to Israel), might ask the same question about a real female image on the side of a bus shelter elsewhere.

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