Imagine a medical conference dedicated to women’s bodies in which no women are allowed to speak or even sit in the audience. No, this is not a Victorian novel or the back room of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. This is Israel 2012.
For the fourth year in a row, Pu’ah, a publicly funded organization dealing with gynecology, fertility and Jewish law, or halacha, is set to hold their annual medical conference on January 11 in a setting completely devoid of actual women.
Women are excluded as conference presenters on fertility, medicine, or Jewish law, and barred from even sitting in the crowd. Over the past three years, Kolech has written petitions, gone to the media, and turned to medical professionals asking them not to participate “This year, for the first time, people are taking an interest, and maybe something will happen,” Kolech’s founder, Hanna Kehat, said.
“Women of knowledge, understanding and authority in the relevant areas are excluded,” the letter reads. “We expect you to exclude yourself as well and let Puah know that your conscience does not allow you to participate.”
This year, for the first time, a coalition of 30 organizations working in areas of feminism and pluralism also wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and Minster of Health asking them to intervene. “It is incredible to think that in a conference that is entirely devoted to women’s dilemmas, sexuality and intimacy, men are experts and researchers with authority to present ideas, and women are completely absent and silent in the discourse about them” the letter reads. “And as if that’s not enough, in past years, women were even excluded as participants in the crowd, placed behind a partition in the back or even in a separate room”. The coalition demands that the Ministry of Health, which funds and supervises Puah, either put women on stage or cancel the conference altogether.
There are small signs of movement. The Israeli press is reporting that two professors, Yuval Yaron of Ichilov Hospital’s Lis Maternity Hospital and Uriel Elchalal of Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, have withdrawn from the conference. Yaron told Ynet that one of the rabbis of Puah threatened him in response, saying that he would try to ostracize him and get the Haredi community to boycott him.
Meanwhile, Puah claims that none of this is true and that nobody has pulled out. Rabbi Menachem Borstein of Puah has written a counter-letter to conference lecturers saying, “We merit hearing the voices of many female doctors and women of faith, education and halakha throughout the year in many other events….Without this sensitivity [to men who do not attend conferences where women speak], an entire population will be unable to participate in the conference, because of the offense to halakha.”
There is of course a sick irony to this thinking: Somehow it is okay to talk about women’s intimate parts in a company of all men, but it is not okay to hear a woman, even an expert woman, educate by describing her research, knowledge and experience. There is also a terrible social hierarchy here, in which the desire to bring in“certain populations” — read Haredi extremists who hold misogynist views — justifies the exclusion of other populations, i.e., women.