A group of Beit Shemesh women fighting to remove “modesty signs” plastered around their city won a key battle in court on Sunday.
The Jerusalem District Court gave Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul three weeks to remove the illegal signs and to act more vigilantly against offenders. Some of the signs instruct women how to dress, requiring them to wear long sleeves and long skirts and no tight-fitting clothing. Other signs order them to keep off the sidewalks near synagogues and yeshivas, where men tend to congregate.
In 2013, the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, filed suit against the municipality and the mayor on behalf of four Orthodox women, all residents of Beit Shemesh, for refusing the remove the signs, as required by a government report published that year.
In their suit, the plaintiffs argued that not only were the signs offensive and humiliating, but they also encouraged harassment and violence against women who chose to ignore them.
The Beit Shemesh Magistrate's Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January 2015 and ordered the municipality to pay the women damages for its negligence in handling the matter. Despite that ruling, the signs were not removed, and the plaintiffs were forced to take their suit to a higher court.
In addition to ordering the removal of the offensive signs within a matter of weeks, the court also demanded that the city act more forcefully to prevent recurrences in the future. Among other actions, it recommended fining offenders and installing surveillance cameras around the city to catch them in action.
“We welcome the court’s decision, which stressed the terrible oversight of the city in refusing for years to remove the modesty signs, and as such, effectively forfeited the rights of women in this city and encouraged violence against them,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski.
Erez-Likhovski 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 first filed suit against the city.
“We hope that the city of Beit Shemesh will finally internalize its obligation to operate according to the law and will immediately remove the humiliating signs,” she added.
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