Women's Rights in Israel: Girls as Young as 3 Face Gender Discrimination

ByMatan Jonas

The Israeli public is no stranger to the concept of war, but in recent years they've had to adapt to a new type of war: a war on women. The political catchphrase, heavily used in recent months in the 2012 presidential elections, carries a slightly different meaning in Israel. While Americans associate the term with issues like abortion, and governmental funding for contraception, in Israel "war on women" means something much simpler. In Israel, the phrase refers to freedom of movement, the right to participate in official ceremonies, or even the way women dress in public. This issue is so severe that just over a year ago, Secretary of State Clinton publicly expressed her worry for the growing discrimination against women in Israel, comparing the situation to the one in Iran.

In recent times, the gender discrimination issues in Israel have taken a worrisome turn. The ultra-orthodox approach to Tzniut (modesty) has been forced upon under-aged girls, as young as 8 years old. Merely a couple of weeks after Secretary Clinton's statements, there were reports of ultra-orthodox attacks on 8-year-old Na'ama Margolis from Beit Shemesh. The attacks were so harsh that the girl became terrified of walking the 300 meter road from her home to school on her own. Spitting, cursing and threats over not complying to ultra-orthodox Tzniut demands have become a fairly regular sight in Haredi population areas, and tension has been growing and simmering for quite a while.

Just this week a new story broke, when a 10-year-old girl from the town of Alfei Menashe was denied participation in an official basketball league match against a religious opposition team from the city of Ra'anana. As it turns out, the official regulations of the children's basketball league in Israel state that in case of a mixed-gender team playing a religious team, the opposition can refuse to play with a girl present in the match, and a technical defeat is automatically given — not to the religious team, but for the mixed one. This may sound like a minor incident, but it is a sign that ultra-religious norms are slowly trickling into mainstream Israeli society in a worrying fashion. According to these norms, it is completely just to discriminate on a gender basis from early childhood, as early as primary school or even kindergarten.

A recent Tzniut pamphlet published by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading Rabbi among the Orthodox public in Israel, noted in a very detailed and disturbing manner the dress code required by girls aged 3 and older. Aviner says the length of skirts, so it should surpass the knee by 10 cm when lifting one leg on a chair. He requires Israeli girls to cover their arms at least below the elbow, but preferably until the wrist, and that no dress, skirt or shirt can be of a "tight-fitting" fashion. Girls older than the age of 3 should abstain from wearing clothes in red, yellow, green, orange, gold or silver. The language used in the detail of these dress codes is surprisingly rich, quasi-erotic even, which paints the whole pamphlet in a very disturbing color.

The Israeli general public traditionally refrained from sticking its nose into religious matters. Generally speaking, they ignore and write off whatever bigoted remarks and demands are made by Orthodox Rabbis. They allow the Haredi public to run by their own rules, even though most Israelis would strongly disagree with these norms. But the recent events show a very worrying trend, with the pestering of under-aged girls and increasing discrimination in public spaces.

In a world already full of gender based discrimination, the girls of Israel are now learning about gender differences and restrictions from a very early age, an age normally associated with complete innocence. From childhood these girls are treated as obstacles, forbidden things, people who should be ashamed of what and who they are. What used to be a small, far-from-the-eye phenomenon, that secular and traditional people of Israel could somewhat ignore, has become a burning issue concerning most people in the country. It must be addressed, and quickly, before Secretary Clinton's remarks become the sad and depressing reality, in an increasingly religious Middle East.