Separate But Equal?

By Georgia Maclean, Field Intern

Having grown up in a Jewish family, I have often questioned the way my religion is sometimes used to justify anti-woman beliefs and practices. I recently flew back from Tel Aviv, Israel, and witnessed an interesting situation. Two of the orthodox Jewish men on the plane refused to take their seats next to a woman who was already seated in their row because they did not want to accidentally touch her, thus violating their beliefs.

My immediate reaction to this was rage. It felt like these men thought women were somehow repulsive and disgusting. The woman who was supposed to sit next to them was asked to get up and wait at the very back of the plane for an extended period of time while the flight attendants rearranged people so that the men would not have to sit next to her. This made me think, how is being asked to go to the back of the plane any different than being asked to go to the back of the bus? Is the idea in Judaism that men and women should be separate based on this ideal of “separate but equal”? After all, orthodox women cannot accidentally touch men just as orthodox men cannot touch other women — isn’t that equal?

This idea that separate things are truly equal is hard to prove, because if these things/people were truly equal than there would be no need to separate them. So then I began to think how this woman was seen as unequal to these men.

By sending the woman to the back of the plane the flight attendant was automatically privileging the men’s belief over the woman’s right to her seat. The men did not wish to sit next to the woman because they might accidentally touch her, touch being a sensual temptation for the men to “sin.” By asking the woman to wait, the flight attendant was placing blame on the woman as the one who had to be separated from the man, as if she was going to seduce them into sinning. She had to be kept away from them and not vice versa. But what if the gender roles were reversed? What if there were two orthodox women not wishing to sit next to a man for fear of accidentally touching him? Something inside of me tells me that the women still would have ended up in the back.

I think in the reverse case, a woman asking not to be seated next to a man due to her belief would have been seen as a poor, weak woman who isn’t allowed to sit next to another man. A woman who dresses according to her religious belief is often seen as repressed and subject to a man’s belief about what parts of her body she should cover up. People have pity for a woman who is compelled to cover her hair, but a man wearing a kippah is not seen in the same light — he is just practicing his belief. That’s what these men were doing on the plane, just practicing their beliefs right? Actually they were using their beliefs, backed by their religion, as a way to exert their power over both the woman and the flight attendants. After all, how can you argue with a man’s religious beliefs?

I have no way of proving that orthodox women would have been treated differently than these orthodox men, but when men and women are separated, someone usually has to end up inconvenienced, perhaps even relegated to the literal or metaphorical “back.” The back of the bathroom line that’s three times as long as the men’s line; the back of the office where she won’t get noticed or given a raise; behind the front lines where she is not allowed to fight for her nation; behind her locked door because she is too afraid to go out alone at night or behind her baggy clothes because she is ashamed of her body.

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