At first sight, you might imagine that it is a picture expressly created for the age of equality. In a clean, Scandi kitchen-diner a young dad is pouring orange juice for his two young sons. Perhaps you’d look at the photograph and ask (almost unconsciously), after commending the man for his solicitude: “where is mum? Is she at work, perhaps, or gone for a run?”
The answer much closer to the truth is that she handed the jug of orange juice to her husband, took her daughters, and hid in the next room till the photographer had left. The reason being that she was not allowed to be seen because any female appearance would have made the photograph unfit for inclusion in an Ikea catalogue aimed at the Charedi community of Israel. Or so Ikea (who have three stores in Israel) thought. The response in Israel to this catalogue has forced the company to think again.
But I have to admit that I found the catalogue story quite staggering in its implications. I’d followed the El Al airline sagas of the men who wouldn’t sit next to women passengers and marvelled at the psychology of being unnerved by the presence of a female to the extent of disrupting a flight. But not to be able to look a photograph of a woman at all, that seemed to take us into the realm of what, if these were Muslims, we would call religious extremism.
I know very little about this. And sometimes, very occasionally, this can be an advantage because you see something afresh as a child might. At some point in my youth, I met a Jewish man who told me he used to make money on Friday nights by switching lights on and off for Orthodox families. He thought it was very funny. Then there was an eruv row locally and I attempted to get my head around what it was about and I decided I couldn’t see the harm in it.
But the pictures? A couple of years back, an Islamist outfit began holding debates on campus and offered the audience gender segregation. I wrote arguing against allowing public meetings to be gender segregated on the same grounds that I would have argued against racial segregation.
The Islamists came back with their battery of whatabouts. Toilets are segregated. Schools can be segregated. The women themselves want to be segregated. And then the greater justification: that my error was not to see that such practices reflected a different notion of equality to mine. Or, as one Islamist had it: “Scripture certainly, assigns different roles to men and women. But different does not mean unequal, equality is not sameness. In the Divine plan for creation, men and women have distinct, diverse missions, which work in harmony, complementing one another and bringing the divine plan to fruition.”
I cheated. That wasn’t an Islamist website, but an Orthodox Jewish one. The point it was making was almost exactly the case made by American racial segregationists when they championed “Separate but equal” education for blacks and whites.
I read on. I learned about the — to me — utterly bizarre and psychologically baffling code of taharat hamishpacha and the notion of female uncleanliness or being niddah. Laid down by someone from the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women were a series of rules and guidelines for detecting menstrual blood that made Leviticus look like a hippy away-day. If any Muslim group practised this or taught it in their schools the Daily Mail would ensure a parliamentary debate about it.
I sought the rationalisation. This was the explanation I found for this demeaning practice: “You ask why we need to keep the laws of taharat hamishpacha. The simple answer is because the Torah says so, and, as is usually the case, the Torah doesn’t present us with detailed explanations.”
You probably know all this, reader. And may be asking what business is this of mine and who suffers from it. With the exception of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox nutters who turn up at anti-Israel events to deny the Holocaust or else to blame it all on Jewish heretics, the Orthodox tend to be politically quietist and leave others alone, so where’s the damage?
Well until someone founds Frum-Air to transport woman-averse men there are always points of contact. But much more, how can you bring kids up to believe, act out and be trapped in this stuff? Seriously, if a mad Christian sect did it, wouldn’t you complain?
David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times