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Battle of the sexes


A Jerusalem court has today ordered the Israeli airline El Al to stop asking women passengers to move to another seat if an Orthodox Jewish man sitting next to them requests (or rather demands) it.

It’s shocking that it’s taken until 2017 for a court to issue this order – and still more shocking that El Al has got away with this offensive policy for all this time.

Why would an Orthodox Jewish man want such a thing in the first place? It seems the answer is נגיעה (negiah), a principle of strict Jewish law that forbids people to touch anyone of the opposite sex who is not a member of their immediate family. Although not everyone observes the principle so strictly, there are men who object to even accidental touching – for instance, when sitting on a plane or bus. The underlying idea is that it might give them unacceptable sexual feelings – which, being men, they cannot be expected to control by themselves (poor things). And, although strict religious law says it is the shomer halacha (strict observer of the law) that should avoid the ‘risk’ of such accidental contact by moving elsewhere – or, if it’s such a big deal, waiting for a later plane or bus – El Al has evidently decided that it is the woman (who may or may not even be Jewish, let alone Orthodox) that should move. The implication is, as always, that she has caused the problem (by having a vagina) and hence should be expected to provide the solution.

I can’t help wondering if El Al’s strictures only apply in the case of Jewish men. If a Muslim Israeli (of whom there are many) were to insist on the same thing, on similar grounds, I suspect he would be told he should either move instead, or stop delaying everyone else’s departure by making such a fuss. I may of course be wrong about this – but in any case it makes no difference. The whole business is absurd in the first place.

El Al has apparently said it ‘never pressures’ passengers to change seats – but it has clearly asked them to do so often enough to have triggered an anti-discrimination movement which until today had failed to make much headway. The Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), which supported an 80-year-woman in her lawsuit against the airline for embarrassing her in front of everyone else by asking her to move, has applauded today’s ruling as a ‘huge victory’ in a ‘long-fought battle against gender segregation in the public sphere’.

Today’s BBC online news service simultaneously reported that a leading economist has been accused of sexism by saying he would personally prefer it if the supposedly ‘intelligent personal assistant’ Siri had a male rather than female voice, for he would find it easier to take the information (s)he provides seriously. He may well have been joking, and his audience burst out laughing, but a storm of protest has hit the cyberwaves.

There are those who would say the protest is justified because it is such comments as these that ultimately lead to outright sexual discrimination. But I see a difference between his comment about the virtual Siri and a real-life 80-year woman’s objection to being asked to change seats on an Israeli plane.

The economist was simply expressing a personal preference, without trying to impose it on anyone else – whereas El Al was actively humiliating one of its (female) passengers by indulging another (male) one’s religious whims. Sure, the two matters are not completely unrelated. But I think the economist was also pointing to an undoubted, though perhaps disagreeable, fact of life.

Here in Holland I’ve been struck by the fact that recorded safety warnings and the automated instructions you receive when you phone the tax authorities are almost always given in a stern, no-nonsense male voice – as if to say ‘you’d better listen to this very carefully’ – and that more run-of-the-mill information such as telephone numbers or the ‘speaking clock’ is provided in a mellifluous female voice. This happens so consistently that it is surely no accident. Someone has thought about it, and decided this is the most effective way to get the message across.

I strongly suspect it all goes back to the traditional family roles of fathers and mothers from the days when men went out to work (and only saw their children for a few hours each day), while women stayed at home (and had to deal with their children for hours on end, saying ‘mummy will make it all better’ if they hurt themselves while out playing). The largely absent fathers were then used by the ever-present mothers to threaten the kids with punishment if things got out of hand: ‘Daddy will be very cross when he gets home.’ The underlying implication was that ‘Daddy’ had been doing the ‘serious work’ of earning a living for the family, and that the last thing he wanted to hear on returning home in the evening after a presumably tiring day was that the children had misbehaved.

So, in many people’s subconsciouses, a female voice tends to sound soothing and accommodating, whereas a male one tends to sound angry and threatening – a contrast that surely also has a profound impact on sexual attraction (whatever your orientation). Communication and advertising experts are well aware of this, even though nowadays it doesn’t do to say so out loud. But when did you last hear a car or life insurance ad with a female voice-over?


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