Thousands of people in Israel rallied against religious extremism on Tuesday, protesting against the way some ultra-Orthodox Jews treat girls and women.

Protesters held signs reading, "Free Israel from religious coercion," and "Stop Israel from becoming Iran."

Ultra-Orthodox extremists want to impose a number of restrictions, which include not allowing women to be interviewed on radio stations, not accepting pictures of women in newspapers or billboards, and demanding women sit at the back of the bus.

Some also want women to walk separately on the opposite side of the road.

Last week, a young Israeli woman caused a nationwide uproar when she refused a religious man's order to move to the back of a bus.

The protests were also spurred on, in part, by another incident last week, in which some ultra-Orthodox men in the town of Beit Shemesh harassed an eight-year old girl on her way to her religious Jewish girls school — spitting on her, calling her a "whore" and claiming she was dressed immodestly.

Naama Margolese, a second-grader, is now afraid to walk to school, even if she is accompanied by her mother.

 "When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared ... that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting," Naama said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "They were scary. They don't want us to go to the school."

The girls' school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.

Naama dresses with long sleeves and a skirt but extremists consider even that outfit, standard in mainstream Jewish religious schools, to be immodest.

"They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city," Hadassa Margolese, Naama's mother, said at the protest.

"Many people have asked me if I intend to leave and my answer is absolutely not,"

But condemnation from politicians has been widespread. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the segregation of women is unacceptable.

"This is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible," Netanyahu said Tuesday evening, "with one of the most central and important among them being: Love your neighbour as yourself."

Israeli President Shimon Peres said the nation is now fighting for its soul.

"If they so respect their women they should be the ones to cross to the other side of the street," he said. "No man has the right to threaten a child, or a woman. They are not the lords of the earth."

City spokesman Matityahu Rosenzweig condemned the violence but said it is the work of a small minority and has been taken out of proportion. "Every society has its fringes, and the police should take action on this," he said.

With files from CBC's Irris Makler