Back in January, a group of women in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh won a lawsuit against the municipality for refusing to remove “modesty signs”—signs instructing women how to dress, placed around the city by members of the ultra-Orthodox community—which the plaintiffs argued created a threatening atmosphere for women. Each of the four women were awarded the equivalent of $4,000 in damages.

Fast forward several months: the city of Beit Shemesh has failed to remove the signs, which say things like “Dire Warning: It is forbidden to walk on our streets in immodest dress, including slutty clothing worn in a religious style.” As a result, Haaretz reports that the same four women (plus one more) have filed a petition to force Beit Shemesh’s ultra-Orthodox mayor to remove the signs. According to their lawyer, Orly Erez-Likhovski:

“While one would assume that after such a strong message from the court forcing them to pay compensation to women who were damages by the signs, that the city would finally take action and remove the humiliating signs, we have seen that it has continued to ignore the way in which they violate women’s rights - and so we have been forced to turn to the courts once again in order to force the municipality to obey the law.”

According to Haaretz, the petition cites the municipality’s excuse for delaying the signs’ removal as “their fear of a violent reactions and mass riots on the part of the extremists who hung the signs in the first place.” Nili Phillipp, one of the women filing the petition, told the newspaper:

“We have a mayor who is wasting taxpayers’ hard earned money, by forcing us to take this on to protect our rights. He knows the law - he knows that he has to take the signs down and that he has no choice. What he is doing shows absolute contempt for the city’s residents, our money and Israeli law.”

This is not a standalone case. The city of Beit Shemesh, where almost half the population is identified as Haredi, is central to the debate regarding religious extremism in Israel—an eight-year-old girl was called a whore and spat on by Haredi men in 2011 for dressing “immodestly”; women protesting gender-segregated buses in the city were pelted with rocks. The only silver lining here? Israeli women are not taking this shit lying down.

But in Elana Maryles Sztokman’s new book “The War on Women in Israel”—as quoted by Ruth Margalit’s excellent piece in the New Yorker, “Where Are Israeli Women?”—she writes:

What is perhaps most surprising about the rising oppression of women in Israel is the ease with which non-ultra-Orthodox people and groups capitulate to ultra-Orthodox demands to erase women from the public.

Although a large percentage of the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel do not work and do not join the army, contributing little but economic strain, they are increasingly influential—while Israel was founded on secular values, the ultra-Orthodox population is growing fast; some estimates predict that Haredi population in Israel will jump from 11% to 18% by 2030.

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For a society whose commitment to democracy is already steadily degrading, and whose international reputation is equally compromised, a women’s rights crisis is particularly bad news.


Contact the author at ellie@jezebel.com.

Image via Associated Press.