'Skirtgate' in Knesset Exposes Anger Over Modesty Issues

What's the length of an inappropriately short skirt, and why are Israelis so furious about it? | Analysis

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Sara Netanyahu and Michelle Obama at the White House, 2010.
Sara Netanyahu and Michelle Obama at the White House. Would the Knesset guard let them in?Credit: Samantha Appleton/The White House
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

As Aleppo burned, Washington worried about Russian hackers and the Amona settlement crisis showed no sign of resolution, Israelis spent much of Wednesday focused on the Knesset’s dress code, after several female parliamentary aides wearing short skirts were barred from entering because too much of their legs were showing.

The intensity and emotion of “Skirtgate” dominated Israel’s mainstream and social media – as well as watercooler conversations – throughout the morning, peaking in a demonstration by Knesset members and staff in support of aides who refused to change their clothing and were detained at the building’s entrance. The situation led to one male Knesset member, the normally dignified 66-year-old MK Manuel Trajtenberg, to strip off his shirt before walking into the building in an act of solidarity with the women. When he was let in by the guard, he cried out, “If I can enter dressed like this, then they can enter dressed like that. What’s next? Tomorrow all of you will have a burqa.”

Trajtenberg had been called to the entrance of the Knesset twice that morning by his own female parliamentary aide, who was not permitted to enter her workplace dressed as she normally does.

To an outside observer, the reaction to the surprise tightening and enforcement of existing dress code rules by Knesset Director General Albert Sakharovich could easily be judged as over-the-top. That might be true if the discussion was really only about whether the women’s clothing was indeed dignified enough for the halls of government. The heightened outrage – illustrated by Trajtenberg’s display – was due to the fact that it was about far more than that.

Knesset staffers protest the enforcement of a new dress code, December 14, 2016.
Knesset staffers protest the enforcement of a new dress code, December 14, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Looking at the women barred from entering the Knesset, it is difficult to dispute that their outfits are acceptable by Western standards. Numerous high-profile and dignified women in the U.S., Europe, and around the world go about the business of government in above-the-knee skirts. This is certainly the case for first ladies: Michelle Obama is frequently seen in short skirts in public appearances, as is Sara Netanyahu. Among powerful female officials, a notable example is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose penchant for short skirts led Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to comment favorably on her legs. Donald Trump’s right-hand woman, Kellyanne Conway, frequently appears on television in sleeveless, short-skirted dresses, as do Melania and Ivanka Trump.

But for the Israelis who debated skirt length so furiously, the controversy hit an already sensitive nerve in the discourse involving women in public life. The issue was the tip of a much larger iceberg of religious coercion and suppression of women, which has been playing out in multiple arenas of Israeli life in recent years. The newly enforced Knesset rules, and the scrutiny of young female workers, felt as if it had less to do with appropriate and respectful dress and more to do with the religious concept of female modesty.

There is an important distinction to be made between the two. Codes focused on what is appropriately formal – requiring a jacket and tie in a restaurant, banning shorts or crop tops at a school – is explained by the need to cultivate an atmosphere of seriousness. In this, the Knesset is far from the only parliament in the world to have a dress code, and its code is actually rather lenient, forbidding only “tank/spaghetti tops, cropped tops, shorts or ¾ length trousers, ripped trousers, shirts with political slogans, short skirts and dresses, flip-flops or open-back clogs.” In other countries' parliamentary bodies and government offices, jeans, sneakers and tank tops are often also forbidden, and in some, coats and ties are required for men.

But the idea of regulating modesty – in this case, skirt length – is a loaded issue in Israel, one that is inextricably tied to religion. The explanation that Orthodox Jewish authorities give for restrictions on women’s clothing, specifically when it comes to covering their knees and shoulders, is that it is their responsibility to make sure that they do not trigger indecent thoughts or behavior in men. Across the country, Orthodox schoolgirls are often sent home to change if their skirt or sleeve length is deemed insufficiently modest. Community rabbis issue disturbingly detailed instructions for acceptable clothing for girls as young as three, and teachers and principals preach that there is a connection between modesty and holiness.

Detaining female parliamentarians who are respectably turned out except for short skirts sends a message that the Knesset guards have been drafted into the cause of enforcing modesty at the bidding of Orthodox Knesset members.

“I always come to work in appropriate clothing for the parliament of Israel and I respect that greatly,” Maya Glassman, a parliamentary aide to Michal Rozin (Meretz) and one of the detained women told Channel 2. “But I think there is a difference between what is 'respectful' and what is 'modest.' I feel as if they are now trying to conflate these two terms and that is terrible.” Glassman added that despite repeated inquiries, she was never given an explanation from the Knesset speaker’s office as to precisely what her dress code violation was.

Trachtenberg told the television interviewer that his aide was also “respectfully dressed as she is every day.” When he came to assist her after she was detained, he said, “I found her being stared at by multiple guards to check if she was appropriately dressed or not.” He said he made the uncharacteristic move of stripping off his shirt out of anger and outrage, feeling “like a father, to help my aide who is like a daughter to me – and I have three daughters. I just couldn’t stand to watch them humiliate her that way.”

Skirt lengths continue to dominate the agenda at the Knesset.
Skirt lengths continue to dominate the agenda at the Knesset.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

“Skirtgate” comes on the heels of other clothing controversies, like the uproar in August when a singer was ushered offstage during a government-subsidized concert because her shorts and bikini top upset the religious public. The incident prompted Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare that she would require all companies working with the government to commit to “respecting the whole public” – in other words, forcing female performers to cover up. In recent years, modesty issues have put women in physical danger as they suffered attacks in religious neighborhoods for the way they were dressed - in at least one case, the altercation was because of skirt length.

There is also the fear – justified or not – of a slippery slope. Secular Israelis look at the ever-increasing constraints on women among their ultra-Orthodox neighbors, not only in regard to clothing, but also behavior. Separating the genders in public gatherings, not allowing women to appear on the stage to sing, dance or even speak and photoshopping them out of photographs in newspapers are all done in the name of keeping the lustful urges of men under control. There is ongoing tension between the government’s desire to incorporate the growing ultra-Orthodox population into mainstream, and the secular public’s fear that they will continually be asked to curtail their freedoms to accommodate them.

That said, it can be comforting to know that such controversies are not exclusive to Israel – they have periodically erupted in other countries as well. In the U.S. last January, a Kansas lawmaker was forced to apologize for making and enforcing similar rules regarding neckline and skirt length after female lawmakers called it “sexist and insulting.”

It is interesting to note that until 1969, women never even wore pants in the U.S. Congress, though they wore skirts of all lengths.

While Israel is embroiled in “Skirtgate,” Great Britain is dealing with “Trousergate.” British Prime Minister Theresa May – who regularly wears short skirts uncriticized – got into sartorial hot water not over the cut, but the price of her expensive leather pants.

Israeli parliamentary aides protest the new dress code at Knesset, December 14, 2016.
Israeli parliamentary aides protest the new dress code at Knesset, December 14, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Perhaps in both countries, it would be better for all involved to pay less attention to the clothes that women in government wear, and more on the problems they are charged with solving while wearing them.