No White Shirts, Separate Smoking Areas for Female Soldiers: Israeli Army Beefs Up 'Modesty' Rules

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers are demanding such measures, and secular officers are complying

Female soldiers at a ceremony in Jerusalem, May 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

O. served as a field intelligence officer in a mixed-gender combat company that served alongside a hesder company – one comprised of religious men who combine army service with Torah study. The religious soldiers received their own smoking area, separated from the general one by a latticework partition. But that wasn’t enough.

The religious officers complained that the two areas were adjacent and the master sergeant forbade the women to use the general smoking area. Instead, he said, they would have to smoke elsewhere.

>>Israeli rabbis go on warpath as religious women increasingly join army 'Caved to religious pressure': Israeli army takes down Women's Day video empowering female soldiers

“It bothers the yeshiva guys,” the sergeant explained in a WhatsApp message sent to the female soldiers. “This decision isn’t fun for me either, but there’s no choice.”

“It’s not clear exactly what their problem was,” O., a woman, told the Israel Women’s Network about a year ago. “That they could see us through the holes? That they could hear our voices when we talked?”

After complaints to the company commander, the decision was canceled, but segregation continued in the classroom portion of the company’s training courses.

O. said the religious soldiers “complained a lot about the ‘mixing,’ even though it was just sitting in a classroom” rather than physical training or a situation where a man and a woman were alone together. “They managed to get the men and women separated in the classes.”

O.’s story is just one of many collected in a report the Israel Women’s Network published this week about the army’s mixed-gender service order and how it affects women’s place in the army. It was written by Eleanor Davidov, director of the group’s project against the exclusion of women.

Aside from the female soldiers’ complaints about being pushed to the sidelines, the report shows that a veil of modesty has descended on them. Under the pretext of adapting mixed-gender service to the needs of religious soldiers, the code word “modesty” guarantees that women will never be able to forget that they’re the “other,” the anomaly in the picture.

From the ban on women wearing white shirts at the Shizafon training base down south, which Army Radio again reported on this week, to the order that tights be worn under shorts, modesty rules are being enforced and taking root throughout the army.

This isn’t only because religious soldiers demand it, but also because of the secular commanders. They identify with the religious stringency, believe they’re showing consideration for their comrades, or simply have sexist attitudes about the “womanly temptation” that’s always lying in wait everywhere.

Female soldiers in the mixed Caracal Battalion, 2016.
Jack Guez / AFP

Like the “modesty parades” in elementary schools, where only the girls’ pant lengths are checked, the male eye in the Israel Defense Forces is always open. Every woman represents “potential harm to modesty,” as Yofi Tirosh, a leading activist against the exclusion of women, once put it.

Better to skip the exercise

The Joint Service Order gives every male soldier the right to ask to serve in a single-sex unit if there’s a risk of physical contact with, or being alone with, women, or of activity performed in revealing clothing. This order, along with the modesty rules, has significant implications for women’s service.

L., who served as a physical training instructor in a combat unit, said “I was supposed to lead all the force’s exercises, but slowly I realized that I wasn’t wanted there, that they actually didn’t need me because the commanders preferred to lead the exercises themselves.” The reason was their desire to avoid the anticipated objections by religious soldiers.

“In practice, I didn’t do my job but rather nonsense like guard duty and kitchen duty. It’s unreasonable,” she told Haaretz. “The minute you see religious soldiers, you’re deterred. They once told us to put pants on over our tights if there were a lot of religious guys in the unit, but few women do. They simply skip the exercise.”

L.’s case is a good example of the avoidance principle, which creates a gray zone of exclusion. Often, out of a desire to be considerate of religious soldiers and to avoid conflicts, officers prefer to do without women or curtail their jobs.

The female soldiers – and the principle of equality – are considered a burden. The officers prefer to avoid making a decision, which sometimes in effect is a decision itself.

For instance, an aide to the commander of a company of new recruits said  the deputy company sergeant, someone from the ultra-Orthodox wing of the religious-Zionist community, “refused to speak with, look at or work with the female company clerk.”

As he put it, “All the company’s senior staff knew this story, and this is where the classic question about the silent majority comes in. Everyone says it’s not normal, but nobody does anything.”

The deputy company sergeant told them “he has an understanding with his wife that he doesn’t communicate with women,” the soldier said. “If he needs something from the company clerk, he always asks someone else to speak with her. It’s so humiliating.”

In other cases, officers intervene far more blatantly, and the spirit in many IDF units seems to be that the greater the stringency, the more revered it is. For instance, while the IDF dress code permits knee-length shorts during physical training, officers in the field often have a different interpretation.

A female soldier who served on an intelligence base in the south described a message sent out to the WhatsApp group of the base’s gym. It said female soldiers who wanted to exercise in the gym, or anywhere on base, must wear shorts over tights (“or wide pants not less than knee-length”).

As the message put it, “Please note that this will be enforced by all commanders in the area, and violators of the order will be court-martialed. A failure to implement this order directly harms many groups in this space. Shabbat shalom.”

The female soldier said that in some cases, female soldiers weren’t allowed to run if they didn’t wear shorts over tights. Another female soldier discussed the ban on white shirts, which stemmed from fears that they would be see-through. This ban was only enforced against women, she said.

Caracal Battalion soldiers during a training exercise, August 31, 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I’m not talking about tank tops, but even about sweaters or sweatshirts,” she added. “At all times, we were forbidden to go about in white or pale clothing.”

Take off your bra in bed

New recruits at Base 80 were also forbidden to wear white shirts in calisthenics classes, on the grounds that they are “transparent and immodest,” the mother of one female soldier said. Shorts were also banned, she said, on the grounds that “you thereby arouse the male soldiers on the base – and it’s all your fault.”

Female soldiers were even scolded by one of their officers for “going around in tank tops and then complaining that the boys harass you.”

Other female soldiers said they were sent to change their clothes – “even when I was in civilian clothing, knee-length pants, while the boys were going around in short shorts,” one added.

One female soldier recalled that “throughout my basic training and my course, they forced me and my friends to have a bra under our uniforms,” even during the hour at night when soldiers shower and prepare for bed.

“There are two minutes between the inspection at the end of the pre-sleep hour and lights out,” she said. “If we tried to remove our bras even then, we were caught and given a warning,” which could become a punishment. “The only ‘legal’ option was to take off your bra lying down in bed after lights out.”

In another case, the strict rules were carried out until a moment before honorable discharge. D.’s daughter was discharged around a year ago.

“She arrived at the induction center in an ordinary dress with wide shoulder straps and a completely respectable length, not strapless and nothing out of the ordinary,” the mother said.

At one station a noncommissioned officer threatened to stop the discharge process because of “undignified clothing,” and warned that if the sergeant in charge saw her like that, she would be court-martialed. In the end, the NCO agreed to continue the process.

Other prohibitions include hugging a female friend or hanging “immodest” photos next to your bed.

The pictures are “in my room, in my private space, which basically shouldn’t bother anyone, and men aren’t allowed to enter the female soldiers’ residence,” said a soldier who was asked by a sergeant to remove pictures where she was wearing a tank top, a halter top or a low neckline. “I don’t walk around like that on base and the pictures weren’t taken at the base but when I was out with friends.”

The managing director of the Israel Women’s Network, Michal Gera Margaliot, said: “The dozens of testimonies that have reached us at the hotline for female soldiers in the past year and a half attest to what we’ve known for a long time. Commanders in the field deviate from the army’s orders and enforce bizarre modesty rules on the female soldiers, and prevent them from doing their jobs.”

The IDF’s usual response to such complaints is composed of three parts. First, “this is an eclectic collection of cases” or “exceptional examples.” Second, “the orders are clear and are imposed equally on men and women.” And third, “the overall picture is positive.”

According to a senior source in the IDF, “The shared service order stresses the service of men and women from all over the country. The order also states that it must be implemented as written, without any stringencies or leniencies. We receive a few dozen complaints a year, which are handled with the commanders in the field. Every complaint is checked.”

He added that “there’s no prohibition against wearing a white shirt and there’s no obligation to wear pants over tights. The same dress code applies to women and men. If there are other instructions, they are exceptions.”

He also rejected the claim about “more stringent demands for modesty” and said the IDF remains committed to meaningful service for women and men.

The IDF says promoting female officers and opening new positions for women is the solution for the separation and the modesty demands.