From Banning Shorts to Full-body Burqas, Israeli Women’s Bodies Become a Battlefield

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Israeli high school students protesting dress codes.

In his efforts to portray Israel as part of the enlightened Western world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never misses an opportunity to stress the fact that Israel embraces modernity and pluralism over the dangerous fundamentalism and extremism that characterizes the Middle East.

To a certain extent, he’s right. After all, nowhere else in the region could you find an event like Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Month, which just kicked off this year, with a theme of spotlighting the rights of transgender men and women. All month, men in tiny thong bathing suits cover the city’s Mediterranean beaches enjoying the freedom to engage in public displays of affection, and the clubs are packed with men, women, and everything in between – culminating in a Gay Pride parade where both men and women frolic in the street in varying degrees of dress and undress. And last week, in the holy city of Jerusalem, a Slutwalk protesting sexual violence and featuring topless women took place without major incident.

But underneath the freedom and openness that characterizes Israeli secular popular culture lurks a palpable growing nervousness that society is headed in a more repressive and fundamentalist direction. It’s not a new feeling, but it has picked up steam since the reentrance of ultra-Orthodox parties into the government coalition and key positions of power.

You could feel that nervousness in this week’s headline-grabbing social media-fueled debate launched by high school girls against the dress codes enforced in many schools.

As temperatures have soared above 40 degrees Celsius, school rules forbidding girls to wear shorts while allowing boys to do so - or schools that selectively enforce bans on shorts for both sexes and only punish girls for infractions - have become the target of widespread protest.

The issue has been vociferously argued on television and radio talk shows. To those who follow such trends in North America, debates over girls and the length of their shorts are anything but unique - heating up as the temperatures rise, everywhere from California to Montreal to New Jersey as to whether bare female legs are incompatible with serious academics. Toronto girls have taken the movement a step further this year, with that community embroiled in a debate over whether there is a place for exposed midriffs in school in a debate over crop tops.

But while much of the debate in Israel is similar - there is an element of fear and urgency that distinguishes the conversation: a tangible fear of a slippery slope into a religious fundamentalism regarding the way society views women’s bodies, prioritizing potential male discomfort over actual physical female discomfort.

On nearly every radio and television show where the issue is being discussed (and, let’s face it, what media outlet can resist the story of teenage girls fighting for the right to show their legs?) the discussion of appropriate school attire quickly detours when the person representing the pro-shorts side of the argument - usually female - openly worries that if girls capitulate on the issue of defining their thighs and knees as body parts that must be covered, soon, they will be required to cover their arms, then their hair - and who knows what’s next?

Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada, they have evidence in front of them when it comes to the ways that modesty wars can spin out of control. In cities and neighborhoods right next to theirs, they watch Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox dress codes become more and more extreme, and the battles over them more pitched - as religious women in Beit Shemesh who wear long skirts, cover their shoulders and their heads with headscarves, are attacked because their sleeves weren’t long enough.

And most frightening is what is happening in Ramat Beit Shemesh and parts of Jerusalem, where there is a small cult of women that believes in extreme modesty: full black burqas that cover their bodies and faces even more indistinguishably than the Muslim niqab.

A member of the group, nicknamed the “Taliban women” by Israelis, encountered photographer Yaacov Lederman in Beit Shemesh this week and his photograph and video of the woman and her three daughters, encased in black cloth went viral on Facebook.

משפחת טליבאן מבית שמש באחדות חמימה ודביקה לכבוד השרב.נחשו כמה יש בפנים...

It may appear that the well-meaning school principals who want their female pupils to wear jeans instead of shorts have nothing in common with those who would have them wearing woolen tights and long skirts - or drape them in black robes. But that doesn’t mean the language used to justify the decisions in both cases - words that characterize the bodies of girls and women as sources of shameful temptation that must be covered up in order to quell uncontrollable male urges - isn’t disturbingly similar.

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