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Sarah Mann
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The right to bare arms

If public bus drivers can become modesty police, women's rights are in real danger - as is the future here for the likes of liberal me
Illustrative. Protest organizer Shikma Bressler at a rally against the government's planned judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Illustrative. Protest organizer Shikma Bressler at a rally against the government's planned judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In the 15 years I have lived in Israel, I don’t think I have ever felt more anguish — and the proposed “judicial reforms” that our deplorable government is trying to push through are just the tip of the iceberg.

Every day, I’m forced to confront new horrors in the media — the attorney general needing special protection in public (the security services fearing she may be a target for an assassination attempt); police beating protestors without mercy, breaking their noses, putting them in chokeholds, dragging them by their hair across roads; and settlers burning Palestinian villages to the ground. I wish it surprised me but it doesn’t; it simply disgusts me.

Now a new fresh hell is raising its head in my country — attempts to roll back women’s rights. Slowly, but surely, this creeping extremism has found its way to Tel Aviv, a bastion of liberalism…a city that is young, dynamic, modern, and secular. A city that prides itself on acceptance. A city I call home because, regardless of one’s sex, race, religion, or sexuality, all can feel comfortable living here.

Imagine my horror (and the horror of every woman I know) to learn of two separate incidents that have occurred in the last couple of months, where young women have been publicly shamed for the clothes they choose to wear.

The first was Tamara Lahav, a teenager told by a bus driver to “cover up” after she boarded his vehicle (on a very warm June day) wearing shorts and a tank top. When she replied that she had nothing to put over herself, he denied her entrance and promptly drove away.

The second, 20-year-old Romi Inbar, was berated in a similar fashion, a few days ago, the driver calling her tank top “immodest.”

Even worse, to my mind: every passenger on the bus (save one) remained silent as the driver humiliated Inbar. The whole incident distressed her so much, she alighted the bus two stops later.

This is not the first time women have been discriminated against on public transport in Israel. There have been several reports in the last few years of women being told to sit at the back of public buses that run through ultra-Orthodox areas and one outrageous story, of late, where a woman was told she would be denied entrance, for fear of upsetting the male Haredi passengers.

The fact that this is public transport (not just paid for by our taxes, but forbidden by law to practice discrimination) seems not to matter.  Not to the drivers themselves or even the bus companies that employ them, who have made a few half-hearted attempts to apologize, after the stories went viral on social media. (Incidentally, Tamar Lahav made an official complaint and has just received 45,000 NIS (about $12,000) compensation from the Kavim bus line for her “injury and humiliation”).

It is clear that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg — a growing trend in intolerance, similarly extremism, as well as an attempt to police women. There is a growing “national religious” movement in Israel that’s calling for more gender segregation — in lakes and rivers at national parks, concerts, and other public spaces.  And now, apparently, it has reached Tel Aviv.

I’m angry. Where will it end? Will women soon find themselves afraid to dress as they choose, for fear of being castigated on the streets?

Will more and more public spaces end up being given over to men, marginalizing us even further? Will the rabbinic courts in this country, never the ones to support women’s rights at the best of times, exert their influence even further, in an additional attempt to punish women for Eve’s bad behavior in the Garden of Eden? Will tolerance and liberalism no longer have a place in my country?

I came of age in an era where women who dressed a certain way were often regarded as “cheap,” “tarty,” and even “slutty.” God forbid we were able to make choices for ourselves about how we dressed and how we lived, and able to demand the same rights men have when they walk the streets.  Fighting for our rights was, and remains, an ongoing battle, as the “Me Too” movement showed. And now it seems this battle has come to my hometown.

It is time to take back the streets and protect our rights, before they are taken away from us, “salami style.” Because this is how it starts: with a mere “scolding” from a bus driver for “skimpy clothing.”

And how does it end? Of course, we know too well — with modesty police, burqas and niqabs, and the widescale curtailment of women’s basic rights.

I don’t want to live in a Jewish Tehran any more than I want to live in a country that disregards the Rule of Law. It’s time we took this encroachment of our freedom seriously — because if we don’t, there’s no future for us here.

The distinctive red cloaks and white bonnets used by protestors at Kaplan should be a wake-up call for us all.

Gilead is closer than we imagine, only instead of the Brothers of Jacob wielding power, a bunch of messianic zealots who — aided and abetted by our crime minister — have hijacked our government.

Stand up for the right to bare arms!

About the Author
Writer, editor, globetrotter, raised in London and living in Tel Aviv, constantly curious about the world and how she fits into it.
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