In Israel, women-only beach days allow the religious to relax


An Orthodox Jewish girl enters Tel Aviv’s “religious” beach, one of 12 gender-segregated beaches in Israel. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Source: RNS

TEL AVIV, Israel (RNS) It was Sunday — women’s-only day — at the so-called religious beach in this Israeli city on the Mediterranean, and several hundred women and girls sat on the sand or frolicked in the gentle waves with an abandon they rarely exhibit elsewhere.

While some European beaches are banning women dressed in “burkinis” and other modest swimwear, and Americans are challenging women’s-only swimming hours at public pools, this Israeli beach has long been a haven for women whose strict religious beliefs, community norms or fears of sexual harassment, among other reasons, make swimming or sunbathing alongside men undesirable, even impossible.

“Were it not for the religious beach I couldn’t go to the beach,” said Molly, a young Orthodox woman who asked that her last name and photograph not be published because her religious beliefs require modesty.

“I can be myself here,” Molly said solemnly, perched on a piece of municipal exercise equipment as she looked out at the sea.

Established decades ago, Tel Aviv’s religious beach is one of about a dozen gender-segregated beaches sprinkled around Israel. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are designated for women only, with alternate days for men.

And many Israeli pools offer a few hours of separate male and female swimming.

Enshrined into law decades ago by ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers, the segregated beaches attract mostly religious Jewish women, judging from their street clothes, “but also some secular women,” according to Yossi Cohen, the beach’s male supervisor.

Religious Arab Muslim women generally go to coed beaches with their male relatives, Cohen said, and, like all bathers, are welcome to wear whatever clothes they wish.

Cohen said a burkini, as well as other popular modest swimwear brands favored by many Orthodox Jewish women, “are safer than their robes and street clothes” because they are made of swimwear materials. “Everything else weighs you down and isn’t safe for swimming,” he said.

Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, a nongovernmental organization that promotes freedom of religion in Israel, said Israelis tend to be much more tolerant of religious practices and expressions of physical modesty than their European counterparts.
“European society views secularism as the norm and religious piety as threatening,” he said.

Israel, in contrast, sometimes goes to the other extreme, Regev said.

“There are examples of religious coercion, such as when gender-segregated ultra-Orthodox programs insist women can’t teach males, therefore limiting women’s job options. That’s discrimination.”

To Israel’s credit, Regev said, gender-segregated beaches and tolerance for all types of religious garb “demonstrate an acceptance for varied religious beliefs” not found in most countries. While Israeli rights advocates have successfully fought against gender segregation on public buses, Regev said, no one objects to gender-segregated beaches.

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