The face of extremism ... across Jerusalem posters featuring women have been defaced by ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

The face of extremism ... across Jerusalem posters featuring women have been defaced by ultra-Orthodox Haredim. Photo: AP

To distinguish itself from its predominantly Muslim neighbours, Israel has long marketed itself as the ‘Middle East’s only democracy’. Recent campaigns by the government, for example, have heavily promoted Israel’s liberal gay rights laws to enhance its reputation as a progressive nation.

But this carefully cultivated image hides a rising anti-woman conservatism (centred mostly in Jerusalem) that demonstrates how women’s oppression transcends borders and cultures, and has led some to declare that the biggest threat to Israel comes not from without but within.

Early this month, Israeli news website, Ynet, reported that a 17 year old girl had been attacked by a gang of Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) youths, who threw rocks at her at a bus stop outside their Yeshiva (religious school). 

Women in Beit Shemesh, Israel's Jerusalem District.

Women in Beit Shemesh, Israel's Jerusalem District.

According to the girl, she was targeted because of her short hair, ‘They were yelling ‘lesbian’ and ‘is it a boy or a girl?’…They were judging me based on my appearance.’

Far from an isolated incident, this is the latest in a long line of attacks on women that are motivated by an ideology that, despite Israel’s reputation for liberalism, mirrors that of its most hardline neighbours.

One of the fastest growing groups In Israel, the Haredi make up ten percent of the population. By 2025, they will be at 25 percent. Like other conservative monotheistic (i.e. patriarchal) faiths, Jewish Ultra-Orthodox have strict beliefs regarding the role and status of women who are valued above all else for their ‘modesty.’

Although ‘modesty’ can have several interpretations, the Haredi version, much like the Saudi-Arabian led Wahhabi strain of Islam, seems centred on making women as invisible as possible

As the Haredi population grows, so too do campaigns to segregate Jerusalem’s streets, supermarkets and buses. One woman earned herself the moniker ‘Israel’s Rosa Parkes’ when she refused to move to the back of the bus at the insistence of a Haredi man who ‘told the driver it was his right to have her sit in the back and that he had paid to be able to do so.’ 

Other incidents include schoolgirls as young as 8 being spat on by men who objected to their ‘immodest clothes.’  Just as disturbing is the push to remove all images of women from the public sphere. Over the last few years, advertisers have responded to religious pressure and relentless vandalism by quietly disappearing women from Jerusalem’s advertising billboards. 

Predictably, these calls for women’s modesty, much like in conservative Islam, come primarily from men. In a recent instruction manual, Rabbi Schlomo Aviner, who is, according to Ynet, ‘one of the strictest Religious Zionism leaders when it comes to women's modesty’, revealed a strict new dress code to be taught to girls from the age of 3. Emphasising loose, dark clothing and braided hair, the rabbi declares, ‘Hiding the body respects the soul, which is the essence of the human being.’ 

Given such lofty virtues, why do neither Jewish nor Muslim leaders write long-winded sermons praising similar levels of modesty in men?

The answer is simple. Modesty is an indication of how women are still devalued simply for being female. Even Western, Christian women are not immune to being judged by the amount of skin they don’t show. Just look at the growth of American Christian websites such as America’s Is This Modest? where grown men judge and analyse the clothing choices  of teenage girls. 

Men it seems, by virtue been born male, can find their worth in other ways: work, religious study, their miraculous penises. But women? Their shame of simply being born female can only be overcome by following strict rules on appropriate dress and behaviour that conceal as much of their femaleness as possible.

The message is clear: The less overtly woman you are, the more invisible you make yourself, the better woman you are.

This obsession with female modesty isn’t about preventing illicit sex. It is about restricting women’s freedom and denying them positions of power and influence. When segregation of sexes is enforced it is never men but women who are kept out of public places on the ostensible (i.e. bullshit) fear that their mere presence will cause all men lose control of their sexual desires. Recall that New York newspaper catering to ultra-orthodox Jews that removed Hillary Clinton’s image from the famous photograph taken in the White House during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Most infuriating is the false flattery employed to convince women to participate in their own oppression. Again we look to Rabbi Aviner, who gushes, ‘How wonderful and pleasant is the modesty of the Jewish woman. So much nobility and respect, purity and sacredness.’

To see where such misplaced adulation leads, look no further than the so-called Taliban Women of the Beit-Shemesh neighbourhood of Jerusalem, who have taken to wearing black, burqa-like garments to protect their modesty:

‘I don't want men to look at me. I'm happy being modest. In the past, I felt uncomfortable to walk around in such a wanton fashion. At first, I just wore a wig. Now, when I see a woman with a wig I pray to G-d to forgive her for wearing that "thing" on her head.

It’s a familiar scenario; women pitted against each other to meet unrealistic male expectations of how women should dress and behave. In their desire to out-modest each other, some of these women ­–who are often mistaken for Muslims and yelled at in the streets– have taken to wearing a cone-like object on their heads under their veil to conceal their human form.

Let me repeat that. To meet expectations of what makes a ’good’ woman, these women wear contraptions on top of their heads to hide their humanity and give themselves an alien-like appearance.

Although these women -who are actually criticised by other Ultra-Orthodox- choose to dress this way they do so in an environment where they are relentlessly informed by mostly male religious leaders that a woman’s worth is entirely dependent on her modesty. The burqa can only exist in an unequal world that judges women by entirely different criteria to men.

The nature of women’s oppression, whether in Israel, Saudi Arabia or the English-speaking West, all stems from the obsession with controlling women's sexuality.

To judge a woman solely on her ‘modesty’ and her even more dangerous sister 'purity' is to create a society that regards women’s bodies as shameful secrets that must be covered up at all costs, and fools women into believing that distorting their bodies is the only way to make up for the shame of simply being a woman.