Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Should Israel ban the burka?

According to the Jerusalem Post, MK Marina Solodkin is going to introduce a bill that would ban full-body and and face coverings for women.

The Post makes a persuasive case for supporting the bill - read its editorial here. But it makes too little of the phenomenon of Jewish women (at least 100, not a dozen or two, as it claims) taking on the veil. These sad cases - which I have written about extensively - further illustrate why the burka should be outlawed.

The 'frumkas' - as they became known - were first adopted by a mentally ill woman, Bruria Keren, later convicted of abusing her children. Despite what she said, covering up her face (and wearing multiple layers of clothing) was not a religious issue; it was a mental health issue.

Now, let's be clear - I am not saying this is the case for everyone who takes on the burka. But that was its root in Israel.

The practice was quickly copied by over 100 women who considered Bruria Keren to be a holy woman. Nobody forced them; however, she clearly convinced these gullible and needy women that the ideal for a woman was not to be seen in public (and not even to be heard - she used to stop talking for days on end). Negating themselves, she was telling them, making themselves invisible, was the height of frumkeit, while in fact it has no basis whatsoever in halachah.

Even her imprisonment has not been enough to change the behaviour of her followers, who remain loyal to her, and who knows how many more women have adopted this mode of dress in the meantime (one was arrested a few weeks back when attempting to board a bus; she was mistaken for a terrorist).

Other Charedi women were terrified by this development. They clearly understood two things: that the trend in the Charedi world was increasingly towards 'hyper-modesty' and erasing women from public spaces; and that despite the revulsion expressed by most Charedi men, stringencies tend to spread like wildfire and even crazy things can quickly become the norm.

The Israeli-Jewish experience, then, shows clearly how burkas can be used to entrench the victimisation of poor, vulnerable women. And the majority of women are terrified that they are going to end up coerced, effectively, into wearing one by societal forces greater than themselves.

In Israel this hasn't happened yet. But that is why a public statement that society will not abide either the burka or the frumka would be a good thing, now, before this phenomenon spreads any further.

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