Strange things are happening to women in the Jewish community. It began in Israel, where women were forced to sit at the back of state-subsidized buses. When challenged in the Supreme Court, defenders argued that statistics showed segregated buses had fewer accidents.
The court upheld gender equality, but it didn't stop the tide of attacks – women were made to walk on different streets, banned from appearing in billboards, and excluded from speaking at state-sponsored gynaecological conferences. (Ironically, those human beings with vaginas were the ones banned from talking about them.)
Earlier this year, an eight-year-old girl was spat on for not dressing "modestly enough" as she walked to her school. In Brooklyn, two Jewish newspapers edited a photograph of Obama's security team so that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't appear. Occasionally, it has hit a level of absurdity that borders on the almost humorous – last month, "blurring glasses" hit the market, ensuring men who wanted to avoid seeing anything "unmodest" would be unable to focus beyond a few metres.
While we may laugh about the ridiculousness, the trend has come to South Africa too. The battle of discrimination against women in religious and cultural spheres isn't new. Last year, Ilham Rawoot wrote about her experiences of not finding sufficient space in mosques. Our Traditional Courts Bill has been criticised for disempowering rural women. And Judaism is not exempt from the forces that take root in other parts of our society.
Women have historically been part of singing at secular communal Jewish events in South Africa, as they have been around the world. But in the last few years, an extremist line has risen in South Africa, and women have not been allowed to sing at two events organised by our secular bodies in the Jewish community – Israel Independence Day and Holocaust Memorial Day.
How, as South Africans, are we doing this? We know how hard the fight for equality can be, and we know how diligently we have to protect our rights. We have come through a struggle that fought for all people to be treated as equal. We are dealing with the legacy of a system where the majority of our population's voices were not heard in the electoral system or in government or even, with banning orders, in our media.
Tide of extremism
Women in South Africa have a particularly difficult time – our statistics on rape show us as having the highest rates outside of a war zone. We stand at a point where we're trying to rebuild our society; to begin working towards a future of dignity and equality. Supporting this, we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. But just at this moment, in our Jewish community a tide of extremism is threatening to push women's rights back to positions that haven't been held in decades.
This year a fight back has started. After a petition begun by female choir members and supported by Sacred (South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity), women were allowed to sing in a mixed choir at Israel Independence Day. We asked the SAZF (South African Zionist Federation) to confirm that this policy will continue. Seven times we have written to the SAZF; seven times we have been ignored. So Sacred made a video of 11 prominent women in the South African Jewish community opposing the increasing restrictions on women's voices.
Our video featured women asking difficult questions. Who has the right to tell a woman that she may have risked her life for her country as a soldier, but she cannot lead the national anthem? The partisan song was written for female partisans as well as male, and the Nazis persecuted all Jews .
So how can we tell 80-year-old Holocaust survivors that their voices are too sexy to lead the community in singing the resistance songs of that time? Israel's Declaration of Independence promised to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex", so how can the SAZF celebrate it by going against what it proclaims? Here is the bizarre situation we are now in: women can sing at these events in Auschwitz and Jerusalem – but not in Johannesburg.
After our video, we were overwhelmed with support and YouTube suspended our account for a day and a half to verify we were real after our hits started jumping. The Board of Deputies has engaged positively with us, but the same cannot be said about the SAZF. After seven of our letters were ignored, this Women's Day we launched an action in direct protest outside the federation's offices. Jewish men and women came together, supported by four South African Jewish organisations – Sacred, Habonim, Netzer and WIZO. "Banned" from singing, women held up signs with a transliteration of a Hebrew folk song in time to the music.
We're not pretending to be the women of 1956. We know their context, aim and struggle were different to ours. But we believe that it is incumbent on all South Africans to take on their legacy of fighting for a fairer South Africa. Here in 2012, women are still being abused and discriminated against. We stand in solidarity with all women in South Africa who are suffering as a result of their sex. But we cannot raise our voices to speak about inequality in our broader society unless we are also willing to address it in our own community. And in our own community, at the moment, we cannot even raise our voices in certain situations.
Women voices matter
However, when we stood on Women's Day, it wasn't just as South Africans – we also stood up as Jews who believe that throughout our history, women's voices have mattered. Our holiest texts feature women singing, often in front of men (Miriam in Exodus 15:20, Deborah in Judges 5:1, the Song of Songs 8:13). Orthodoxy recognises several positions on the issue, including the principle that context matters, and that damaging the dignity of human beings is an utmost offence.
The South African Orthodox Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris sat through female performances. In Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbis sit through women singing the national anthem. Women continue to sing at the SAZF organised event in Cape Town, in our schools, and on the communal Johannesburg Jewish radio station. So what is the justification for this extremist line? When we watch what's happening to our sisters in Israel or in the US, we can see where this leads. What does it mean to remove a woman's voice? To say that it is okay if she is excluded in our communal space?
Let us be clear – we support religious freedom. We recognise the right of men who interpret Jewish law to regard themselves as prohibited prohibited from hearing women's voices to leave during those sections. But that's what religious freedom means; that men should not be forced to hear women's voices if they do not wish to do so. It does not mean that women should be stopped from singing. It allows for the accommodation of those with extreme interpretations – not the imposition of those interpretations upon everybody else.
The women of 1956 ended their protest by singing. We ended ours by publicly asking the SAZF commits itself to not discriminate against women, putting it in line with the latest pronouncement from their world body that encourages all organisations to "abstain from funding, initiating or participating" in events that exclude women. We hope that they agree, allowing the Johannesburg Jewish community to act as a model of a tolerance and inclusivity – as our country's motto says, united in our diversity. Let's hope that they do. But if they do not, our protests will continue. As our foremothers said – now they struck the women, they have struck a rock.
Charlotte Fischer is the executive director of Sacred (South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity)