Three months ago in Jerusalem, Pediatrician Dr Channa Maayan "bit her tongue" when told a male colleague would have to accept for her an award for her publication and work advancing knowledge on hereditary diseases common to Jews. The acting Israeli Health Minister decreed the event would be conducted under strict ultra orthodox conditions. Women and men in the audience, male and female guests were segregated, no women were allowed on stage.
For a secular democracy such an occurrence lead by a member of parliament is a disaster. The New York Times article goes on to state many have not kept quiet (Dr Maayan would have been unprepared all she could have done is leave) and the backlash internally within Israel is building momentum but will it be able to resist what is a strong and increasingly belligerent religious orthodoxy? Recently in January 2012 at a conference on “Innovations in Gynecology/Obstetrics and Halacha [Jewish law]” all women were banned from speaking and the audience segregated on gender. In addition there are "rules for playing Kosher Music" and a "black list of non-Kosher music" controlled by a religious committee.
These very public examples of ultra orthodox interference in Israeli public and political life demonstrate Israel is a secular democracy under stress from internal religious fundamentalism.
Concessions have been made by successive Israeli governments to either, at worst, simply win votes from this growing community sector or, at best, to demonstrate an altruistic tolerance. Which is not an exclusive Israeli mistake as even in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Hasidic leaders complaining women who ride bikes represent a "safety and religious hazard" were appeased. If mostly as an attempt to be inclusive and tolerant it seems it, appeasement and concession isn't a success particularly as the examples above demonstrate it requires that the human rights of others are detrimentally affected. In Israel not only is this ultra-orthodox section of the community becoming more intolerant of its internal neighbors it is doing so whilst ignoring the external equally intolerant religious forces attempting to annihilate them and their fellow countrymen and women. As a community within Israel they are purportedly an overrepresented drain on the social welfare system. Though the women generally do work, amongst males there is high unemployment as they are permitted by their community and their state to focus upon study of the Torah rather than gainful employment, joining the army, learning other skills or pursuing education other than for advancing their religion and knowledge of it. The only productivity of note from the community it seems is it's high birth rate, which, if nothing else changes will only increase the stress on the already stretched social sector a worrisome fact for the future of Israel.
It begs the question what is wrong with religions where it is the case that for it to be practiced human dignity, freedom and advancement, must be subsumed and suffer reversals? Separation of religion and state is the cornerstone of successful secular democracy. Without it we would be required to weigh all matters in the context of all religious edicts/laws/conventions.
Orthodox Judaism and Islam particularly have problems operating within a secular democratic context, one that separates the Church and State. Each it seems desire or demand they have access to their own religious courts. Each particularly are at pains to control female believers (and those who simply cannot escape) by strictly regulating their conduct within the community confines and outside it. Female believers are 'confined'; in dress, education, work, social connections, marriage, sexual activity and procreation functions, behavior and social position all aspects are controlled and monitored with zeal. It is a zeal supported by the religious texts which focus upon the female as a sexual possession, a commodity as a wife, booty in war or acquisition to trade family reputation or wealth upon(1). Whether we reside by fortune in a secular democracy or not this is profoundly illegitimate to be continued and considered acceptable 'cultural' or religious practice. It is a denial of an individual's right to free-expression, free-association and self-determination. These are human rights abuses so we do not bite our tongues, as these abuses should never be tolerated within any secular democracy.
If freedom is the first casualty of religious rule then soon to follow is dignity, then imagination and finally concept of mind in the Platonic sense. Human nature embraces spirituality in our thoughts, concepts and metaphors (imagination) and we use reason with which to find structure and meaning within our physical world and attempt to understand the unknown. This is what religious law rejects.
Crazy religious zealots bent on the implementation of religious law have little regard for human advancement and are destroyers of human dignity, just ask the 8 year old Israeli girl harassed and spat upon by Ultra Orthodox male Jews because they found her child's attire religiously offensive. Other women had reported similar treatment for a few years now but the child's report produced the overdue community outcry.
So, perhaps the paragraph above should begin …"If female freedom is the first casualty of religious rule…".
As the referenced articles demonstrate Ultra Orthodox Jews ban women from public participation, denounce them publicly for religious transgression, and further to this enforce segregation within and without the synagogue. It is the imposition of Halacha or Halakha, Jewish law, upon a society built around secular democratic principles. Similarly Islam is intent upon its own religious laws taking precedence with a push to introduce Sharia Law into UK family courts. Equitable pluralist secular rule of law, where all rights regardless of gender are weighed, is viewed as inferior if not blasphemous. Males have greater worth than females is what this religious message very loudly declares.
Remaining silent for fear of backlash or causing offence isn't an option, biting your tongue to demonstrate tolerance of another way when it impinges upon your own rights and freedoms isn't an option.
Women and men who enjoy freedom and human dignity with equal justice must be outspoken in defense of it, as they are free to do so.
1. Torah (Old Testament) Deuteronomy: 20.10-18; 21.10-13; 25.5-10; 31.17-18…
Koran: The Merciful 55.46-58, 44.54-56; The Cow 2.223, 2.228; The Believers 23.1-3; The Confederate Tribes
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