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Middle East

Israeli women battle for their rights




In the past two decades, the city’s ultra-Orthodox community has more than doubled, spurring turf wars marked by verbal and physical harassment of female citizens. Placards urging modest dress have sprung up mainly along the border with the more lenient modern Orthodox community. Young girls from such families have been harassed, spat at and insulted – called “shiksa” and “whore” – as they walk to school.

According to activist Nili Philipp, a Canadian-born resident of the city, “the signs demarcate territory where democracy ends”.

In 2011, ultra-Orthodox men threw rocks at Philipp as she rode her bicycle because they believed she was dressed immodestly. The harrowing incident led her to become more active in the struggle “against those trying to impose their religious mores on the rest of the city’s population”.

Philipp says women in Beit Shemesh have been categorically eliminated from the public sphere and their images have noticeably disappeared from all advertising. This has resulted in – albeit unofficially – men’s-only sidewalks and women even being forced to sit in the back of buses.

“The elimination of women’s voices and imagery has less to do with inciting lust, as the ultra-Orthodox men claim the so-called immodest dress does, and everything to do with consolidating male, ultra-Orthodox power,” says British-born resident and activist Alisa Coleman. “It isn’t about dress and religion. It’s about power and territory.”

Led by Orly Erez-Livhovski, a lawyer for the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the women have sued the city numerous times to remove the signs. In January 2015, the case was decided in IRAC’s favour. But the signs remained until an administrative order was issued five months later. Still, this resulted in only a partial removal.

The legal battle continued and, although the Jerusalem District Court issued a final order to remove the signs in June 2016, seven months later, they remained.

Despite the setbacks, the women of Beit Shemesh say they won’t give up. Doing so, Coleman believes, would lead to laws being increasingly enforced in different areas, leaving the door open to more incursions against women’s rights.

“[We have to] go to the courts, to keep fighting,” Coleman says, insisting that the way the girls dress is not immodest and that targeting them is simply a way of establishing cultural and territorial hegemony. “We’re patient and determined,” she adds.

In early 2017, IRAC was granted a contempt order, but the municipality appealed on the grounds that removal of the signs was unsafe. Security cameras were installed and the signs were taken down, only to be replaced a few days later.

At the end of last year, another Supreme Court order to remove the signs was met with an outbreak of violence. In defiance, other signs calling for modest dress appeared at dozens of other sites. More troublesome, however, was that the plaintiffs’ personal details, including telephone numbers, addresses and ID numbers, were published. The women received hordes of harassing calls.

These increasing incidents of intimidation and violence led Philipp and four other women to file another lawsuit. Regardless of the case’s development, the emotional damage has been done, Philipp says. The signs’ message, combined with verbal and physical abuse, have socialised young girls into thinking they have no voice of their own.

“Girls are raised in an environment where they think it’s legitimate… that other people can dictate and have control over their… bodies, the way they dress, who they are,” says Philipp. And that is “unforgiveable”.

But Beit Shemesh is not an isolated example. Ultra-Orthodox influences around Israel have been growing in recent years as the community’s population and confidence mushrooms. In Jerusalem, ads featuring women have all but disappeared. A hamburger chain chose to show a family of burgers, rather than an actual family where they would have had to show a mother enjoying the meal with her husband and children.

During Sukkot in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood a few years ago, men tried to bar women from entering an entire street.

Beit Shemesh is just the floodgate for the rest of the country, says Philipp. If it can win its battle against the ultra-Orthodox infringements on women’s freedom, other Israeli cities can too. But if they are unable to do so, that defeat will spread to other parts of the country.

The ultra-Orthodox maintain that gender segregation and modesty is important to their fundamental values. To resist these values is to be culturally insensitive, a negation of their right to expression.

And while some ultra-Orthodox women may privately support change, they have fewer platforms from where they can speak out. They also fear repercussions. There have been several vocal ultra-Orthodox women fighting for equal rights – some even running for public office – but these instances are few and far between.

“The problem is the silence that allows it to happen,” says Coleman.

Sometimes it seems to these modern Orthodox women that they are the only ones stemming the tide of what they call religious fanaticism, with the secular community too “quick and eager” to appease the ultra-Orthodox.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government hinges upon their support. “Misogyny, chauvinism – I don’t have to be sensitive to that. Don’t try to corner me into that nonsense,” insists Philipp.


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