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Denying Education to Women: Ensuring the Freedom Balance in the Example of Israel

What degree of freedom should be allowed to communities in deciding their educational matters? What is the duty of the state to ensure that citizens receive acceptable standard of education? 

The right to education is “the right of each person to the cultural resources necessary to freely follow a process of identification, to experience mutually rewarding relations his or her life long, to deal with the crucial challenges facing our world, and to engage in the practices that make it possible to take ownership of and contribute to these resources”.[1] According to article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, education should be directed to the full development of one’s personality and the sense of one’s dignity, and should strengthen respect for human rights.[2]

The right to education has strong cultural dimensions. Jewish Law (Halacha) holds that women are different than men. Contra the liberal premises of gender equality, of justice as fairness, and of mutual respect, these differences lead to unjustified inequalities. Advocates of halacha hold that the claims about women’s discrimination and their subordination to men are false. Women should protest against those false claims which in essence rob them of their true identity. According to halachic thinkers, the structured view of the world whereby men have certain roles, and women have certain roles, yields efficiency and constructive allocation of time for each gender to perform its duties. Women, so halachic thinkers argue, are not discriminated against. They fit into the place that God had assigned them. Women have a vital role in establishing a creative marriage-relationship, shaping the atmosphere of the home, bringing up children in a spirit of warmth and mutuality.[3] As these tasks are very demanding, women are incapable of splitting their time between the home and pursuits of high education or religion to which they are ill-equipped; thus, success in them would demand from women more effort, at the expense of caring for the home. Women must never neglect their husbands and children; thus, the priorities are clear. Because of these clear priorities, women are exempt from religious and other obligations and are discouraged from seeking to progress themselves inter alia by acquiring education.[4]

With this kind of reasoning, change is difficult. Reconciling between Judaism and liberalism is possible only if there is awareness and recognition that women may have an important role in public life, and that their place is not only reserved to the home. Liberals should insist that biological gender differences should not serve as pretense for discrimination.

Denying education has direct consequences to the welfare of women. Uneducated women have less opportunities to integrate in the job market and when they do work, these usually are low-income, manual jobs.[5] Denial of education robs women of living life to the full and of future that corresponds to abilities. The State should enhance and promote civic education which includes discussions on mutual respect. The upholding of the Kantian[6] Respect for Others Principleand the Millian[7] Harm Principle safeguards the rights of those who might find themselves in a disadvantageous position in society, in this case women.[8] All segments of the population are entitled to the same rights and liberties. Accommodations and corrective mechanisms should be devised and implemented in every sphere where women are not accorded equal status. Support for human rights and for liberal democracy necessitates equal rights for all citizens, notwithstanding gender.

In Israel, where secular Jews are the majority, while secular women are still not equal to men in the job market (as is the case in many democracies), they are not denied education. Indeed, more than 50 percent of the students in institutions of high education are women.[9] 58 percent of women in Israel in the young adult group (25-34-year-old) have a college education, compared to 38 percent of men.[10] The picture is very different where ultra-religious (haredi) women are concerned. In 2018-2019, the haredi population was just over one million and of them 8,400 haredi women attended Israeli institutions of higher education.[11] Haredi women tend to marry young and have large families. While there is a notable improvement in their education, forced by the facts that their husbands prefer to study in yeshivot (religious institutions where they study only Judaism) and have 7 children on average,[12] they lack educational opportunities that are opened for secular women. Ultra-Orthodox women are expected to first fulfill family roles in optimal manner. The family comes first, and haredi women prefer to work in their community and not in the larger secular job market.[13] The ideal of being "the Queen of the House” is central to the traditional education rooted in the ultra-Orthodox community. Women have to juggle between their various demanding duties - taking care of their husbands, children and the home, and at the same time be the breadwinners of their large families. 

The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranks countries according to participation by women in the workforce, their access to education and health, and opportunities for representation and promotion in politics. In 2020, Israel was ranked 64 out of the 153 countries rated. This ranking is explained by lack of representation and power for women in politics, reflected in the low number of parliamentarian women, their weak representation in government service, the substantial salary gap between women and men, and low women participation in the labour force.[14]

Koumbou Boly Barry, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, wrote that the factors that lead to discrimination which include gender, social status and poverty must be addressed, and discrimination must be countered by turning grounds for discrimination into advantages: to make it an advantage to be a girl.[15] Women should not be subjected to discrimination or segregation based on their cultural identity and religion. 



[1] UN Human Rights Council, Right to Education: The Cultural Dimensions of The Right to Education, or The Right to Education as a Cultural Right. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Koumbou Boly Barry (2021). Forty-seventh session 21 June–9 July 2021, Agenda item 3.

[2] UN Human Rights Council, (2021).

[3] Jonathan Sacks, “The Role of Women in Judaism,” in Peter Moore (ed.), Man, Woman, and Priesthood (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1978): p. 27-44.

[4] R. Cohen-Almagor, “Discrimination against Jewish Women in Halacha (Jewish Law) and in Israel,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2018): p. 290–310.

[5] Amelia Josephson, “The Average Salary by Education Level,” Smart Asset, 15 May 2018,

[6] Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishers, 1969).

[7] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (London: J. M. Dent, 1948).

[8] R. Cohen-Almagor, The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle Against Kahanism in Israel (Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 1994).

[9] Report of The Committee for the Advancement and Representation of Women in Institutions of High Education, “Women in Higher Education Institutions in Israel,” (2015).

[10] Gil Gertel, “Women are more educated than men, but earn less than them,” Sicha Mekomit, 12 September 2019,

[11] Gilad Malach and Lee Kahaner, Yearbook of Haredi Society in Israel 2018 (Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2018); Danny Zaken, “Thanks to women: the standard of living of ultra-Orthodox society is steadily rising,” Globes, 24 December 2019.

[12] In 2015-2017, the average fertility rate of ultra-Orthodox women was 1.7 children per woman. Malach and Kahaner (2018).

[13] Asaf Malhi and Miriam Abramovsky, Integration of Family and Work among Ultra-Orthodox Women (Jerusalem: Ministry of Economy, 2015).

[14] Global Gender Gap Report 2020, World Economic Forum, (2020),

[15] UN Human Rights Council (2021).

Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor is the Chair in Politics of University of Hull, and the Director of the Middle East Study Group (MESG).

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