Opinion |

Ikea Owes ultra-Orthodox Women More Than an Apology

A feminist Haredi advertising exec's take on the woman-free Ikea catalog.

Naama Idan
Naama Idan
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The cover of the ultra-Orthodox version of the Ikea Israel catalogue.
The cover of the ultra-Orthodox version of the Ikea Israel catalogue.Credit: Screenshot
Naama Idan
Naama Idan

The erasure of women from the Ikea catalogue aimed at Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community didn’t surprise me. It’s hard for me to be angry at Ikea, because I know about brand management in the Haredi community, especially when the brand is owned by a Haredi Jew who refuses to compromise.

But it’s important to understand that the prohibition on displaying images of girls and women is new, and is not found in the Bible or in the Shulhan Arukh, the code of Jewish law. Haredi life is based on the observance of the Torah’s commandments, but over the past 50 years we have adopted commandments and rules that do not exist in the Torah. One of the worst of them is concealing images of women and girls. So far have we gone, that while the children’s books of my generation had many illustrations of mothers, sisters, grandmothers and girls, today’s children’s books for Haredim have no pictures of women.

Unfortunately, over the years the Haredi community has erased images of women from the public sphere. The first time I noticed his was when a demand was made to remove all (modestly dressed) mannequins from shop windows in Haredi cities. Then came the street ads without women, the spray-painting of signs in which women appeared and in the end the offensive practice of shortening or changing the names of women in Haredi newspapers.

In the past it was difficult to argue with the claim that women’s clothing displayed in the street creates a problem. I believed that if a shop window disturbs someone, he can avert his gaze. That’s what a public place is; it’s meant for everyone. But committees of rabbis, activists, teachers and rabbis’ wives felt otherwise, and won the first round. In the battles over spray-painting ads, Haredi public opinion from the start tended to support the vandals. The advertisers got the message immediately and removed women from ads in Haredi areas.

And then we, groups of Haredi women, arose and chose to continue to observe Jewish law stringently but also to examine the prevailing system of rules with a critical eye. We sought the commandments, the customs, and the violations in every social guideline. We condemned the “social commandments” and broke the conspiracy of silence surrounding sexual abuse, divorce and ritual baths, and the problems started to float to the surface. We were able to correct some of the distortions, some are still in the process of undergoing welcome changes, but it’s clear that nowadays it’s much easier to discuss issues that until five years ago were considered taboo.

We’ve come a long way to Israeli reality. We, Haredi women, have started to admit to a desire to succeed in life and to call that success a “career” — a word that would have made me shudder only a decade ago (even though it was two decades ago that I planned to succeed in business, in parallel to my family life). That’s also what happened to the term “feminism.” Only three years ago there was but a handful of Haredi women who would dare call themselves feminists, but the internal discussions continue, the issues have become more important and the recognition that I and thousands of other Haredi women like me constitute a model for Haredi feminism is a dream coming true.

Quite a few Haredi women are no longer willing to pursue a field predetermined for them (teaching) and there are those who aren’t prepared to give up shopping in the mall because their seminary forbade them entry. Changes in the Haredi sector begin from within. Only we Haredi women can foment change. The responsibility doesn’t lie with the brands, the organizations, or people from outside the community.

As a Haredi advertising executive, I expect Ikea Israel and Ikea international to be fair. Let them continue distributing the Haredi catalogue (aimed at the 80 percent of the Haredi public that doesn’t yet understand that erasing women from the public sphere damages the community first and foremost) in Haredi areas. At the same time, however, they should advertise Ikea, with women’s images where possible, among Haredim as well — on Haredi websites, or in dedicated posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, where we, Haredi women, are prominent in the quality and value that we bring to Haredi discourse. Nowadays those are the only places one can display the normative Haredi family, including mothers and teenage girls, without suffering ostracism and boycotts.

If Ikea wants to prove to me and to all feminists in Israel that it isn’t pleased with the “obligation” to remove women from its catalogue, the burden of proof rests with the company. An apology isn’t enough.

The writer is the owner of a Tel Aviv-based advertising agency specializing in the ultra-Orthodox community.

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