A photograph of a man painting over a Kabul billboard for bridal gowns because women appear on it has become a visual symbol of the implications of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Like many around the world, people in Israel also reacted with horror to what was perceived as a first step on the path to the non-metaphorical erasure of Afghan women from the public space.
To those who see every shift in the Muslim world as justification for Israeli policy in the territories, the Taliban are equivalent to Hamas. The fact that the Taliban is an extremist religious group that arose out of the ethnic majority in Afghanistan is harder to swallow. Here, too, to paraphrase the distinctions noted by Yehuda Elkana, in Israel there are two peoples: a majority that fears an “external Taliban” and a minority that fears an “internal Taliban.”
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Indeed, we needn’t look as far as Kabul to be horrified by the erasure of women’s images from signs. It is constantly happening in Israel. One example of this are the billboards at the entrance to Jerusalem. Numerous times, I’ve stared at images there that have been spray-painted over in black and wondered what would happen if a photograph of Anne Frank was placed there, for example, or an illustration of the Biblical matriarch Sarah. Would the vandals hesitate for a few seconds before desecrating them too?
This kind of vandalism is not confined to Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and other locations with a large Haredi population. According to data collected by attorney Revital Hovel for the Israel Women’s Network, this year alone dozens of women’s images were blotted out from signs around the country, and those are just the cases that were reported in the media. Just recently, a billboard with the face of Olympic gymnast Linoy Ashram was vandalized. In another incident this month, actress Yael Bar-Zohar was preemptively removed from an ad campaign in what appears to be a cowardly act of self-censorship – also a very common occurrence in areas prone to such vandalism.
Israel is not Afghanistan and the Haredim are not the Taliban. But as Hilo Glazer’s investigation in Friday’s Haaretz Magazine revealed, extremist conservative groups in Israel also wish to set women’s status back hundreds of years. The exclusion and separation that were once confined to a small Haredi group, where even the images of female cabinet ministers are unhesitatingly erased from photos of the government’s swearing-in, are spilling over into shared public spaces.
In fact, the government itself often lends a hand to instances of exclusion and separation, and to the vandalizing of signs – through the absence of law enforcement. It’s enough to read the minutes of the Committee for the Advancement of Women’s Status to see how little the police care about the erasure of women. At a December session concerning the vandalizing of another ad campaign, Dmitry Hananblum, representing the police investigations unit, said that out of 25 cases opened in the past three years, only one was forwarded to the State Prosecutor’s Office. Why were the other 24 cases closed, committee chairman Oded Forer asked, to which he received the wonderful answer: “It’s hard for me to know.” Attorney Hovel received a similar response: “It is not possible to generate the requested segmentation via the computerized systems,” the police said. Just like those old “Little Britain” comedy sketches where the computer keeps saying “no.”
At the hearing, MK Yulia Malilnovsky-Kunin of Yisrael Beitenu summed it up well: “This was two meters from here, in Kiryat Hamemshala, and it’s as if no one even cares.” Not “as if,” Yulia. Those who are appalled by the erasure of women’s images from street signs in faraway Muslim countries, but remain indifferent when the same thing happens in Israel, really do not care about women or their status.