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Defeating Modesty Signs in Israel... Again

Defeating Modesty Signs in Israel... Again

Signs requiring women to dress modestly written in both English and Hebrew in Beit Shemesh

You open the refrigerator only to discover that there is no milk. You can’t bear the thought of drinking your coffee black, and quickly start planning an emergency drive to the local market. The issues that run through your mind are probably a combination of these: Where are my keys? Where’s my wallet? What’s the best route to avoid traffic? Will I be able to find parking? How fast will checkout be? Will the store even be open this early in the morning?

But if you live in Israel’s port city of Ashdod, you might have to ask yourself an extra question: Are you a woman? If yes, it gets complicated because you also need to ask these questions:

  • Is the top of my shirt buttoned?
  • Am I wearing closed shoes?
  • Am I wearing black, brown, or gray? Anything else is too colorful. 
  • Is my blouse showing my shape?
  • Are my stockings transparent in any way?
  • Does my skirt fall at least nine inches below my knees?
  • If I am married, does my wig or hat cover all of my natural hair? 

Ashdod’s branch of the public supermarket Mahsanei Hashuk hung a large sign on its entrance door requiring customers to be dressed modestly, in deference to the 10% of the city’s population who identify as ultra-Orthodox. Anyone who dared to dress like the other 90% of the population risked being denied service.

At the Israel Religious Action Center, we have become experts at fighting so-called “modesty signs” like these. Last year, we forced the city of Beit Shemesh to remove signs on public streets telling women what to wear and where to walk. The judge in that case ruled that signs like these are inherently degrading to women and violate Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.  

We succeeded in Beit Shemesh only after a drawn-out two-year court battle, and only after the city was slapped with unprecedented and hefty monetary fines. Things did not take as long this time around in Ashdod. We wrote to Mahsanei Hashuk and demanded that they remove the sign, rejecting their offer to reword the sign so that it would be a request instead of a prerequisite for service. Just as we were about to prepare a new court complaint, we got word that the supermarket relented, and agreed to remove the offending sign.  

In representing the brave religious women of Beit Shemesh, we did a lot more than remove modesty signs from their town. We now have a legal precedent that can expedite the removal of similar signs anywhere in Israel.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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