Stoned for having short hair

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.

 

71 comments

  • Great article.

    Commenter
    Ms Naughty
    Date and time
    January 31, 2013, 7:57AM
    • Horrific story.

      As you so rightly point out, it’s not a symptom of one particular religion, it’s present in all Abrahamic religions and more. This isn’t a problem exclusive to the theists but I do think that theism is a huge factor. It is very hard to effectively criticise this behaviour because they simply play their trump card – religious freedom. And like a finger trap, the more we try to pull them away from religion the more we strengthen their resolve that the world is wrong and they are right.

      We should always call out bad behaviour when we see it to act as leaders for a positive future, but I can’t see a way to stop religious misbehaviour. All we can do is wait, be good people, and hope that they eventually realise that the sky isn’t falling and they wake up from their delirium.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 8:25AM
    • Err, whoops. That was more of a general response rather than a response to Ms Naughty.

      But yeah, I agree....great article :)

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 9:10AM
    • "It is very hard to effectively criticise this behaviour because they simply play their trump card – religious freedom."

      I find that the fundamental criteria is one that's universally applicable, whether religion is involved or not. Simply put: is one person's freedom restricting the freedom of another person or persons against their will?

      Everything else stems from that. If it isn't, then they can believe, do or say whatever they want. If it is, then the persons involved gains the right to have input on the extent and nature of the first person's freedoms. Then it becomes a matter of balancing freedoms and impacts, rather than allowing or not allowing the freedom at all.

      Of course, it gets much more complicated when trying to apply the principle in reality, but I've found it a consistent starting point.

      And this is most certainly an example of loss of free will, through both fear and brainwashing.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 9:41AM
    • DM – half agreed. I do see atheism as a form of religion and therefore the beliefs of atheists' are no more valid than that of the theists' if we’re discussing freedom of belief. As the debate is women’s liberties, then theism is disproportionately oppressive and should be re evaluated.The difference is the outcome – there is no principle of atheism that supports repression based on gender or sexual preference. There is lots of religious oppression in atheism, but I see that as a separate issue.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 10:10AM
    • "I do see atheism as a form of religion and therefore the beliefs of atheists' are no more valid than that of the theists' if we’re discussing freedom of belief. "

      Well, i'd take issue with that, since atheism is about a lack of belief, not a belief in nothing. It's a subtle difference that's often missed, but an important one. Non-existence is the logical default state of everything, you don't need to believe in it, you only need belief if you're talking about something that people think exists without there being any evidence of that existence.

      Some atheists are quite militant putting in their opinions forward, but that doesn't make it a religion any more than any other system of opinions - Democracy, Capitalism, Communism and racism aren't religions, despite there being proponents that cling to them as tightly as any religious fundamentalist. All of that is beside the point, though.

      Still, I think my point stands. It's not about the cause of the repression per se, it's about the impact. People can believe whatever they want personally, it's their own business as long as they haven't been forced or brainwashed into their opinion. But once their beliefs start to impact the lives of others in a way that restricts their freedom of thought or expression, then it becomes their business as well.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 10:47AM
    • When it comes to debating the religious reasons for these sorts of attitudes and actions, it is difficult. It can't be done from completely outside the religious perspective, because, as you say, Tom, all that's needed to shut the conversation down is to appeal to their religious beliefs and freedom. So it's from engaging with at least elements of the religion that arguments need to be made.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:03AM
    • DM - atheism is a word that means without belief but an atheist is not absent of beliefs. Although non-existence may be the logical state as you put it, we are raised in a world of beliefs and you can’t live in society without forming an opinion on beliefs. An atheist has assessed the beliefs of this world and chosen to believe and not to believe in certain things. An atheist can no more disprove god than a theist can prove god – both are acts of faith.

      Your point will not stand until you can show an example of atheist beliefs oppressing women.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:49AM
    • Atheism is a "form of religion", huh? That's some smokin hot sophistry! One would usually have to spend quite some time in the High School debating team before that one got wheeled out.

      And which space god to atheists worship? Tell me more about the rituals and the code of ethics handed down from said space god?

      And do tell me about the tax exempt status for atheists? Id be really keen to hear about that.

      Next week: How not fighting is a form of boxing, and how not designing a building is a form of architercture.

      Dont miss our feature article: are post modern academics a complete waste of space?

      Commenter
      mint slice
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 12:06PM
    • "atheism is a word that means without belief but an atheist is not absent of beliefs. Although non-existence may be the logical state as you put it, we are raised in a world of beliefs and you can’t live in society without forming an opinion on beliefs."

      An atheist may have all the beliefs they want, but true atheism is not itself a belief.

      "An atheist can no more disprove god than a theist can prove god – both are acts of faith."

      This is an elementary logical mistake that I see people asserting time and again without any analysis. It is entirely possible to 'prove' god exists. There are thousands of ways this could happen. However, it is impossible to definitely prove something doesn't exist, since you can always argue that it just hasn't been found yet. Therefore, the default logical position for any rational method of thinking is that something doesn't exist. From there one can choose to posit the existence of god (or anything else), which is a positive assertion requiring evidence. It's the basis of the scientific method.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance#Distinguishing_absence_of_evidence_from_evidence_of_absence

      I don't know how to put it more plainly: You don't have to believe in the non-existence of something when there isn't any evidence that it actually exists in the first place. Non-belief doesn't require faith. Faith is about believing in something when there is either no evidence or evidence contradictory to the belief.

      "Your point will not stand until you can show an example of atheist beliefs oppressing women."

      Social Darwinism and Eugenics are both considered 'part' of some atheist worldviews, as is Communism, and they have in the past been used to oppress and do far worse. Religion itself doesn't 'do' anything, it's just ideas in people's heads. It's people who make oppression real.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 12:48PM

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