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What Next for Israel's Orthodox Women -- the Burka?

Posted: 01/26/2012 3:18 pm

In recent months, a new form of war is being waged in Israel.

On Wednesday, three out of the four male suspects who attacked Natali Mashiah for dressing "immodestly"--vandalizing her car and pouring bleach on her--were released due to "weak" evidence.

A country that has elected a female head of state, conscripted women in the military, and produced both a Nobel Prize winner and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model sounds remarkably Scandinavian. Yet within Israel, women within select religious communities are being attacked for being women at the wrong place and time.

Years ago, when I sat at the front of the infamous Egged 2 bus that snakes its way through some of Jerusalem's conservative Orthodox areas, a few men tried to bully my friend and I into sitting at the back the bus. "Sorry, apartheid is over," we told them. Since that incident, I've noticed dozens of similar stories popping up in the news: women being sexually harassed, spat on, punched in the face, blacked out in advertisements, and segregated at state-sponsored secular events.

What is particularly peculiar about these events is the relative "newness" of excluding women from the public domain. If men have traditionally learned in religious seminaries or yeshivas, who, then, was earning the living? Who went to the marketplace to make purchases and sell goods? Who took care of businesses during office hours? Women. And if women were actively seen outside of the home back then, why are they being discouraged from occupying these same roles now?

The aggressors argue that women's dress today is immodest and that modesty must be preserved in the public arena. Naked arms prompt thoughts of naked limbs; naked limbs, naked sex. And men who think about sex with strangers are men who cannot possibly focus on learning the laws of a good, moral life.

One caveat: None of these attacks involved uber-scantily clad women (not that there's anything wrong with that). In fact, the woman who was punched in the face on the Egged bus was herself religious. She was traveling on a segregated bus partitioned down the middle, when a man insisted that she go to the back of the bus (are we tired of this theme yet?) where he wouldn't be able to see her. Real scholars of Jewish law know, however, that it is incumbent upon men to divert their eyes from attractive women who are not their wives. No lustful gazes permitted or even peekaboos.

Clearly, this form of misogyny is a problem that extends beyond manners of dress. In response to increasing permissive sexual attitudes and behaviour in "secular" society, certain members of the religious community have decided to blame women for the lasciviousness that has permeated the borders of their already insular communities. To recall: Kosher cellphones didn't become fashionable because women were calling 1-900 numbers and downloading naughty bits onto their cell phones.

Beyond the clothing, however, I suggest that the growing intolerance for women's presence is yet another symptom of the Occupation. Learning to hate the forcibly marginalized isn't a process that ends with a particular group. Having sought out others, the hate turns within to feed.

But lest you think that blaming the Occupation is hopelessly unoriginal, I suggest that men within these communities lack a certain function. They hope that by beating up women, their lives achieve purpose. Because these men are able to study religious texts all day, supported by the state and their institutions in a way that is unprecedented, they feel obligated to do so.

Obligation doesn't beget success, however. Not everybody can be the brilliant yeshiva student who marries the most beautiful woman, and those who can't are most certainly aware of it. Some eventually leave the yeshiva environment and enter the workforce, helping to support their large families. Some of those who cannot succeed but choose not to leave, however, resemble high school drop outs. They loiter outside smoking, waiting to prey on their next victim to reaffirm their place as outliers in a system not meant for them. The response? Get a job.