Women Petition Court to Order ultra-Orthodox Israeli Mayor to Remove Illegal 'Modesty Signs'

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Illustration: A 'modesty sign' at the entrance to the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem.Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Lisa Mathon

A group of women in Beit Shemesh filed a petition Tuesday asking a Jerusalem administrative court to order their ultra-Orthodox mayor and the city to take down “modesty signs” instructing women pedestrians how to dress.

Orly Erez-Likhovski (third from the left) and other residents outside Beit Shemesh court house.

The same group of women scored a key victory in a district court in January when the Beit Shemesh municipality was compelled to financially compensate the women for the threats and violence they had suffered from modesty-policing Haredi elements.

The municipality, led by Mayor Moshe Abutbul, subsequently paid the fines  - 15,000 shekels (close to $4,000) in damages to each of the four women in that suit. But the signs have still remained on the streets of Beit Shemesh undisturbed, ignoring the strongly-worded court decision stating that such modesty signs, in addition to being illegal - created an atmosphere that threatens women. The signs include wording such as: “Dire Warning: It is forbidden to walk on our streets in immodest dress, including slutty clothing worn in a religious style.”

“While one would assume that after such a strong message from the court forcing them to pay compensation to women who were damages by the signs, that the city would finally take action and remove the humiliating signs, we have seen that it has continued to ignore the way in which they violate women’s rights - and so we have been forced to turn to the courts once again in order to force the municipality to obey the law,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, who heads the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center and has served as the women’s lawyer in the Beit Shemesh case since they filed suit against the city in 2013.

When the district court took up that case, it stated that while it would rule on the women’s claim for compensation, only an administrative court would have the jurisdiction to force the city to take action.

That is why the current petition has been filed, Erez-Likhovski told Haaretz. The petition argues that the municipality is “shirking its responsibility to enforce the law” and clearly does not give any weight to the injury to women’s rights in Beit Shemesh. It says that the excuse the municipality has offered as a reason for refusing to take the signs down - their fear of a violent reactions and mass riots on the part of the extremists who hung the signs in the first place - is unacceptable.

The petition was filed by the same four women who sued the city in the district court case - along with another Beit Shemesh resident, Miri Shalem, who did not sign on to the original lawsuit because she was a city employee at the time. All five women are Orthodox. For the first time, IRAC, an arm of the Israeli Reform movement, is not only providing legal representation for the group, but is signed on as a co-petitioner.

Nili Phillipp, the most prominent of the original four women filing suit - and who first filed a police complaint about the signs in 2012 - expressed disgust at the unwillingness of the city to take action following the January court decision. “We have a mayor who is wasting taxpayers’ hard earned money, by forcing us to take this on to protect our rights. He knows the law - he knows that he has to take the signs down and that he has no choice. What he is doing shows absolute contempt for the city's residents, our money and Israeli law.”

She said that the city’s foot-dragging hasn’t discouraged her, but driven her harder to fight against a mayor “who spits in our face.”

Jerusalem women have also recently joined the fight against modesty signs, though they haven’t yet turned to the courts. In February, Laura Wharton, a member of Jerusalem City Council, complained to the municipality and mayor Nir Barkat about modesty signs in that city and said that if no change ensued, she would consider following the lead of the women in Beit Shemesh and turn to the courts. Erez-Likhovski says that she too, has written to Barkat as well as to the Bnai Brak municipality, but neither have responded. She said that in the case of Jerusalem, the city has been removing new modesty signs when they are posted and complaints are registered about them - but say they are still ‘strategizing’ when it comes to such signs in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Mea She’arim.

The Beit Shemesh municipality refused to comment.

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