Do Hamas and This Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community Discriminate Against Women the Same Way?

Yesterday’s increased tensions between the Hamas government in Gaza and the State of Israel have once against brought the question of the relationship between these two antagonists onto the international stage. On one side is the internationally recognized nation-state that represents the post-war safe haven of the Jewish people. On the other is the coastal enclave of a stateless people governed by a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot designated as an international terror organization by the United States and the European Union.   

Recently, the Education Ministry in Gaza has stipulated new rules governing the mixing of genders in schoolrooms so as to conform to Hamas’ interpretation of Islamic law.  Under the new rules, all schools in Gaza must separate school children by gender starting at the age of 9 and men will not be allowed to teach in all girls’ schools.  While all Hamas run schools are already segregated by gender this new ruling will also apply to Christian and private schools. Rules such as these are not new. Under its administration, Hamas has increased the amount of time spent teaching religion in school and has been known to enforce the veiling of girls. Hamas has also restricted events that feature singing and dancing where gender mixing may occur.

Yet in the State of Israel, a Jewish community exists that shares many of the same beliefs on gender mixing as Hamas. Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, make up more than 10% of Israel’s population. This deeply religious group has a fertility rate roughly three times more than the rest of the country, with an estimated 21 percent of school aged children and growing. In December 2011 in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh, where Modern Orthodox and Haredim live side-by-side, an 8-year-old girl seized international attention when she told a reporter that she was afraid to walk to school because Haredi men would throw eggs and bags of excrement at her and other girls while calling them “sluts.” 

The Haredi men claimed to be protesting the schoolgirls’ immodesty because their clothing did not cover their wrists and ankles. In a separate incident, Haredi men clashed with police after municipal workers attempted to remove signs advocating gender segregation on public streets that traverse Haredi neighborhoods.

While a direct comparison between these two groups is hard to make as one is the de facto ruler of a mini-state and the other is a religious minority residing in a fully functioning democracy, the apparent overlap of views concerning the mixing of men and women is surprising. Hamas, after seizing power in Gaza, has combined religion and politics in such a way so as to maintain tight control over society as a whole.  The Haredi community, while living in a country ruled by one set of laws have chosen to enforce a far stricter internal social code that has produced a rigid social system where women are at the very least tightly controlled and, according to some observers, may be living in a state of servitude. These two vastly different communities seem to share the belief that women are to be covered up and kept separate from men.