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Jewish Women, Behind the Veil

The politics of Muslim women and the burqa has sparked debate and grabbed headlines worldwide. Numerous communities and countries have been wrestling with the question of whether banning modest dress that covers the face is protecting — or violating — human rights.

Here on The Sisterhood and in numerous feminist circles, it has been hotly argued. Jews have appeared on both sides of the debate. Some agree that fully veiled women in public is disturbing and a security risk. Some on the left, view it as free expression. And many Orthodox Jews fear the slippery slope — one day burqas and veils are banned, the next, all forms of religious garb could be in danger.

The phenomenon of veiled Jewish women has been a non-existent to fringe issue in the debate. It was unheard of until a few years ago when some extreme Haredi women in Beit Shemesh in Israel began covering their faces. The media spotlight shone briefly on the phenomenon, when one of these women, dubbed the “Taliban Mother” in the Israeli press was accused of child abuse.

But now the Israeli Haredi press is reporting both a growth and strengthening of the trend — and a backlash against it. Two English-language blogs that have been covering the trend faithfully are A Mother in Israel and Life in Israel.

This Hebrew-language Haredi website “B’Hadrei HaHederim” which both blogs cite, reports that more women have been convinced by other charismatic “Taliban” women to adopt the veil, and that “Taliban Moms” can now be found in Jerusalem and Elad.

In Beit Shemesh, the publication reports, has reached the “point of no return.” According to a report, 20 of the families in Beit Shemesh sent a letter to their town, saying that the ultra-Orthodox school their children attend is inappropriate because the teachers’ wives do not veil, and the group expressed a desire to start an exclusively “pro-veiling” school. This would institutionalize the phenomenon and give them a base for growth.

And then there is the backlash, which is the most fascinating aspect of the story. While, in Muslim communities, it is widely understood that increased modesty in dress is a result of pressure from men — and indeed, many Haredi men seem obsessed with extreme Jewish women’s dress as well — in this case, at least some of the Haredi men don’t appear to be crazy about their wives’ being draped in fabric from head to toe.

The Haredi website reports appeals from a group of husbands of veiled women to influential Haredi rabbis, asking them to declare an outright ban on full veiling. According to the husbands behind the appeal, this is the only way they can convince their wives to uncover.

So far, the rabbis have been unresponsive. So far, no men have come forward publicly to denounce the trend. So until an ambitious reporter can truly “pierce the veil” it is difficult to know whether indeed, the trend is indeed fully driven by the women or is encouraged by their fathers and husbands.

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