Women Activists Celebrate Legal Victory Against 'Modesty Signs' in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh municipality infringed on women's rights by refusing to remove signs calling for modest clothing, court says.

Nili Phillip (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house
Nili Phillip (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house. Photo courtesy of Nili Philipp.

A Beit Shemesh court on Sunday ruled in favor of a lawsuit by four female residents of the city who sued the municipality for refusing to remove signs demanding women pedestrians wear modest clothing.

The municipality was ordered to pay 15,000 shekels (close to $4,000) in damages to each of the four women, the report stated.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of Beit Shemesh women seeking damages after they reportedly experienced threats and violence from modesty-policing Haredi elements. They were suing on the grounds that the municipality’s refusal to remove modesty signs in the city has bred an atmosphere that threatens women.

The modesty "warnings" included billboards excluding women and signs on public building reading: “Dire Warning: It is forbidden to walk on our streets in immodest dress, including slutty clothing worn in a religious style.” It was signed “residents of the neighborhood.”

Orly Erez-Likhovski, who heads the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center and serves as the women’s lawyer in the Beit Shemesh case, hailed the decision as “another victory in the struggle against the exclusion of women.”

She added: “We are happy that the court accepted all of our claims, and in what is an important decision, has made clear that these signs are discriminatory and humiliating, and that it is inconceivable that a municipality can ignore the rights of its female residents and that it must compensate them for this terrible injustice and negligence.”

Nili Phillip, a Beit Shemesh resident who was one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that her happiness at the legal victory also contained “a major twinge of sadness that this had to go this far.”

She said that she wished that the Beit Shemesh government leaders understood without a court decision that the modesty signs encouraged an atmosphere in the city that was oppressive to women.

“Thank god we have good courts in this country - they are our last stop, our last bastion, but it’s really unfortunate we had to go to them,” she said. “We can’t count on our city government to enforce the law in Beit Shemesh. I’m glad we have the courts to stand up for our rights, but as I see it, it’s a sad state of affairs that we had to go to court at all.” 

In March 2014, an ultra-Orthodox man attacked a religious women in Beit Shemesh because he found the length of her skirt to be too short.

For the past several years, the secular and national-religious sectors in Beit Shemesh have clashed regarding the place, or lack thereof, for non-ultra-Orthodox residents within the city.

The Beit Shemesh municipality recently decided to move 150 children from their secular school in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood to another facility, and turn the school into an ultra-Orthodox one for girls.