Here’s a quiz:
In which Middle Eastern country will you find:
a) neighbourhoods that require women in public to have all parts of their body covered except for the face and hands; b) cities with an absence of women’s images from public posters and advertisements; c) soldiers disobeying orders if they mean listening to women sing; d) religious groups that traditionally eschewed anything political becoming increasingly powerful from their involvement in elections; e) shops, even in mixed communities, being told they must display “we-dress-modestly” certificates if they expect any religious customers.
Saudi Arabia? Iran? Egypt’s Salafist neighbourhoods?
Close. Indeed you’d find some of these points in those three countries, but it’s in Israel that you’ll find all five.
Returning recently to Jerusalem after several days among Salafists in Egypt – those are the religious extremists who believe Muslims today should live as Muslims did in the seventh century – it was striking to find the similarities between that community and the ever-expanding Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel.
They too believe in a lifestyle and religious practice found in previous centuries.
To be sure, there are lots of parts of Israel that are far more liberal than anything you’ll find in Saudi Arabia or even in Egypt. But the spread of Haredi influence is substantial and often confrontational, especially in Jerusalem, as well as in parts of Tel Aviv and in cities such as Beit Shemesh and Safed that more recently have come to be dominated by the ultra-Orthodox.
The latest clashes here have been over images of women appearing on billboards and ads on the sides of buses – not just scantily-clad or immodest-looking women, any women. Buses and bus shelters bearing women’s images were being stoned and damaged by members of religious communities until the public Jerusalem bus system removed all such ads.
This was followed by an outcry from defenders of women’s rights and the solution has been to keep women’s images off any buses that even pass through religious districts. Elsewhere in the city, you may still see pictures of women.
This dispute followed the introduction of segregated buses in several parts of the country that have substantial religious communities. On some such vehicles, women board and sit at the back of the bus; in other cases, completely separate buses are used.
It was only because of such policies that buses have dared again to enter some religious neighbourhoods after an absence of two years because of vicious attacks being carried out on the buses.
It was such conditions and situations that recently prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to criticize Israel for tolerating such discriminatory practices.
No wonder. In Israel, those religious parties that now are deeply involved in politics won’t allow women candidates. Even Egypt’s Salafist extremists are fielding women candidates, just not showing their pictures.