Oppression in the Guise of ‘Modesty’

The attitude toward women in Israel is still an open wound and a source of endless dispute

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A modest head covering.

A hundred years after most Western democracies recognized the patriarchal discrimination against women and gave them at least the right to vote, the attitude toward women in Israel is still an open wound and a source of endless dispute. It starts with the Chelm-like verdict against former Jerusalem police chief Niso Shaham, who had intimate relations with policewomen subordinate to him. It continues with the deviant struggle by Habayit Hayehudi rabbis against the conscription of women out of fear it will undermine their femininity and motherhood. And it culminates in the utter chutzpah of the ultra-Orthodox and those supposedly acting for their benefit, who demand that women be excluded from academic courses for Haredim.

The problem is particularly evident in Haredi and religious Zionist societies, which in many respects have not yet internalized the idea of human rights in general and those of women in particular. But the behavior of Shaham or of senior army officer Ofek Buchris shows – just like the testimonies of the #MeToo campaign – how widespread it is among us to regard women as a commodity available for use (and abuse).

It is true that this startling phenomenon, in which women are perceived not as human beings but first and foremost as instruments for satisfying man’s needs and desires – and therefore as constant temptation – does not characterize all strata of society today. Fortunately for us, women’s demand for equality and respect is now taken for granted by many, especially young people.

But the obduracy with which broad sectors of Israeli society continue to disgracefully regard women as those who seduce or disturb men, and therefore must be distanced from soldiers or students, is intolerable. There is no way to defend it, because it is all the product of a hallucination of male supremacy, stemming from the ancient advantage of physical power and the exploitation, humiliation and oppression of women for thousands of years.

In “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx describes the society that he saw in the mid-19th century: “Our bourgeois, not content with having their proletarian wives and daughters at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.” The historical descriptions of feudal lords’ “right of the first night,” as well as the books of Victor Hugo in France and Charles Dickens in England, enhance our understanding of the terrible condition of women even in societies that had started to develop preliminary degrees of self-criticism. What about those societies that haven’t achieved the ability to examine themselves and criticize the oppression and exploitation of women?

Viewing women as the sexual property of their husbands or the means of production for their employers has characterized all of human history. It is impossible and immoral to accept any more defenses of societies that insist on preserving these oppressive patterns under the guise of modesty, Jewish law or family purity.

Women are still the slaves of the world, but many societies have yet to recognize this. We can no longer agree to this injustice, as a result of which even today there are those who dare to demand that we accept the sexual exploitation of weak women, or the exclusion of women in general, so as not to interfere with the physical and spiritual integrity of men. The Haredim want to integrate into society to earn a living? Let them first learn that women are not objects that can be moved at will, but human beings just like them. They are as free as men and equal to them in every way. Every way.

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