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Israeli women defy disappearance of female images from billboards

Source: Inter Press Service - Tue, 22 Nov 2011 02:05 GMT
Author: By Pierre Klochendler
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Pierre Klochendler Inter Press Service   JERUSALEM, Nov 20 (IPS) - They're looking at you "uncensored". Posters of women by women have recently multiplied on the holy city walls. "Women on billboards are back in Jerusalem," they proclaim defiantly. The campaign is designed to fight against the virtual disappearance of women from public spaces. It's hard to notice someone who's kept away from the public eye. After all, can the invisible exist? So, for some indeterminate time, gradually, Jerusalemite passersby have been accustomed to regale themselves with women-free male-only ads on wall billboards and bus placards. It's an essential fact of life here: women have simply disappeared from the city space, as if it was solely inhabited by men. The phenomenon has reached the apex of ridicule – a ridicule, yet shaping, reality. Take for instance the world-renowned Israeli model Bar Refaeli: forced to the status of invisible woman, her beauty reappears on the Fox fashion chain's winter campaign in flesh and wool only outside the city's limits. Top model Sandy Bar features for the fashion company Honigman…headless, with only her arm and purse. The clothing firm Castro has simply decided that in the cradle of the three monotheistic faiths, its products will be lifeless. Model Gal Gadot has 'evaporated' through the outfit's wool-knit pores. The posters counter-campaign was conceived last week by six local women. A Facebook appeal calls on women to be photographed and hang their picture on balconies. One of them, Idit Karni, declared, "I'm against cheap exploitation of a woman's body. But a minority can't take over the city, cause women and girls to disappear. I have four daughters. I don't intend to leave them a city that's lost its sanity." The "minority" in question is the fast-growing Haredim, those who "tremble in awe of God". The ultra- orthodox community constitutes some 15 percent of the population, but they're 30 percent of the city's Jewish population. The segregation of women is nothing new amongst the ultra-orthodox community who itself lives segregated from the rest of the population, by choice. In the downtown Mea She'arim neighbourhood that's populated by Haredi Jews, signs warn women not to enter the quarter dressed "immodestly". A woman's appearance is "immodest by nature", said a rabbi who insisted he would remain anonymous for fear of "offending sensitivities". "Our demand isn't geared at oppressing women – the opposite. Our intent is to protect their honour and dignity." Actually, the law of the market often overpowers religious codes of conduct. The Jewish anti-women 'crusade' is at least 20 years old, part of a broader Kulturkampf between religious and secular Israelis. Bus stops have occasionally been burnt, placards defaced, because their Plexiglas flanks are adorned with charming models showing a shoulder or a knee. A fortnight ago, bus ads for the national transplant centre ADI promoting organ donation displayed a mosaic of men and women holding donor cards. Pressed by the Haredi community, the Canaan advertising agency quickly requested permission from ADI to replace the 'she' faces with 'hes' – as if 'shes' had no heart, so to speak. "The photos showed no nude shoulders or anything provocative. But we were warned, buses might burn," ADI spokeswoman Dvora Sherer acknowledged. During a 2007 campaign featuring a donor with her infant, billboards were vandalised; a bus was torched. Alluding to the "financial cost", Canaan spokesman Ohad Gibli defended the unwarranted self-censorship by invoking the pragmatic dimension of the campaign: "The main consideration in replacing the female portraits is to serve the campaign's purpose – augment the number of people signing donor cards, save as many lives as possible." Sure, in Tel Aviv, sexy-sexist posters are aplenty. The metropolis is branded by liberals as hub of modernity, by advocates of moral purity as modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Here's a country at the vanguard of harsh legislation against sexual harassment. Former State President Moshe Katsav has been sentenced to seven years in prison for the rape of two staffers. The leaders of the two main opposition parties are from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposite sex. Not to mention Prime Minister Golda Meir (1969-1974), aka "the only man in the government" who, the legend goes, ran the cabinet with a steely hand from her "kitchen". Women, albeit religious, serve in the army, while most Haredim don’t. Four religious male cadets deserted a recent army happening. Women were singing. Yet, women fear that the above-the-law backlash of tolerance for sexist exclusion, discrimination and segregation risks engulfing the whole society. Hence, during last month's Feast of the Tabernacles, women were banned from walking on the Mea She'arim main street pavement, in defiance of a Supreme Court injunction calling the measure discriminatory. Besides, women boarding city-franchised, "kosher-franchised', buses traveling through religious neighbourhoods take back seats to avoid mingling of the sexes. Supermarkets with an ultra-orthodox clientele open at separate hours according to sexual identity. Haredi radio stations won't air female voices for these might be enchanting – worse, tempting. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index that measures indicators of equality based upon health, education, economics and politics, Israel ranks 55th amongst 135 states. In 2007, it was ranked 36th. So, in a protest Friday last week, hundreds sang against women's marginalisation. One protester lamented, "Haredim want us to vanish or what? This is creeping violation of our basic rights. Since no one reacts, they push further until it'll be irreversible, too late." Former (and first) ultra-orthodox legislator (on a left-wing party list) Tzvia Greenfeld hoped the counter- campaign will reverse the pattern of exclusion. "We don't want mingling of the public territory and of the private space perceived as religious. But in areas shared by all, such coerced separation should be forbidden," the advocate of separation of State and religion cautions. "Women will be back on the city's walls in such a way that their display will be boring again. No one will notice us." Read the original article here.

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