France: We're a Liberal Democracy - Take Off Your Clothes! Israel: We're a Liberal Democracy - Put on Some Clothes!

While the liberal democracy of Israel tells women to get dressed, that of France undresses them. Both outcomes represent a defeat for women and their freedom of movement in the public sphere.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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In France, politicians placate conservative voters by keeping beaches free of visibly observant Muslims. In Israel, politicians play to religiously conservative voters by policing mainstream culture.
In France, politicians placate conservative voters by keeping beaches free of visibly observant Muslims. In Israel, politicians play to religiously conservative voters by policing mainstream culture.Credit: BESTIMAG, Eva Goor
Allison Kaplan Sommer

For a few days, the burkini battles of southern France made Israelis feel good about the fact that all kinds of bathing attire — from the skimpiest bikinis to the most conservative full-body coverage — are acceptable on the beaches of Tel Aviv and along the Mediterranean coast, unlike the intolerant French fashion police handing out fines to covered women. 

The national orgy of back-patting, however, was rudely interrupted by the latest news from Israel’s Culture Ministry, announcing that it plans to issue “guidelines” to production companies who are bidding for contracts for performances and festivals backed with government funds. The guidelines would dictate how performers should dress, saying that festivals and events on the public’s dime “respect the general public, which includes different communities.”

The wording of the announcement is a not-too-subtle code for “cover up female bodies.” It happened in the aftermath of a local music festival during which a young female singer dared to perform in shorts, a bikini top and an open shirt. The singer said she was prematurely yanked off the stage after she refused to cover up to accommodate the production. 

Covering up and shutting up women and separating the sexes whenever possible has unfortunately become a symbol of religiosity and piety in ultra-Orthodox sects and parts of the mainstream Orthodox community. In recent years, various groups have tried to outdo each other in stringency, plastering their neighborhoods with signs requiring modest dress; vandalizing billboards and outdoor advertising with pictures of women; tightening restrictions on schoolgirl’s clothing, from short sleeves to long sleeves, from knee-length skirts to floor length skirts; keeping men from hearing women sing or seeing them dance, including fathers from watching their own daughters dance and sing.

The trend grabbed international headlines when the ultra-Orthodox press photoshopped powerful and prominent women like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton out of photographs in keeping with their policy of not depicting women. The ultra-Orthodox media often goes to the extreme and refrains from even publishing women’s names.

The Culture Ministry’s announcement served as a reminder that the fact that burkini-clad women on the Tel Aviv beach are not being harassed does not mean Israel is a beacon of tolerance.

The new dictate by Culture Minister Miri Regev, a non-Orthodox female politician, is an example of politicians kowtowing to the power of the ultra-Orthodox political parties. On the Riviera, populist politicians placate angry conservative voters by keeping their beaches free of visibly observant Muslims. In Israel, populists play to their religiously conservative voters — and their powerful rabbinical leaders and politicians — by policing mainstream culture. 

As Alona Ferber of the British Centre for Religion and Geopolitics, tweeted: “France: We're a liberal democracy! Take off your clothes! Israel: We're a liberal democracy! Put on some clothes!”

Monday’s Haaretz Editorial observed accurately that the guidelines Regev would impose are the Israeli  “mirror image of France’s unconstitutional burkini law.” 

Leaving aside the outrageousness of the government entering the dressing rooms of women, whether it is trying to dress them or undress them, the attempts to impose regulations, are, on a practical level, utterly impossible to enforce. 

The burkini ban is a slippery slope, raising many questions: will all women who cover their heads, arms and legs be ejected from the beach? What if they are clothed, not wearing a bikini? What about full-body wet suits worn by men and women? The same goes for the “directives” that Regev seeks to impose. Who gets to decide what outfits “respect the general public” and which do not? Will female performers be subjected, like schoolgirls, to a government official measuring their neckline and skirt length? If women are forbidden to wear cut-off tank tops and tight jeans on stage, will the restrictions apply to men as well? 

In both cases, it’s pretty clear what the result will be. In order to avoid trouble, hijabi Muslim women will stay off French beaches entirely. And to keep things simple and make sure that public entertainment receives funding, more Israeli municipalities will simply refrain from booking female performers and keep them off stages entirely. Both outcomes represent a victory for the most extreme elements in their respective countries and a defeat for women, their freedom of movement in the public sphere, and their freedom to wear the clothing that makes them comfortable. 

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