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When Religious Girls Become Beauty Queens

Maayan Madar won the title “Miss Gedera” in her local beauty pageant. And then she was kicked out of school. The 18-year old, who is finishing 12th grade in a state religious high school in Israel, was told by her principal that her participation in the pageant went against school rules. Most importantly, the principal reportedly said, Madar wore a strapless dress.

“I don’t think the school has the right to interfere in my personal life,” Madar, who is now a local celebrity, told reporters this week. “And anyway, before I entered the pageant, I made sure that there was no swimwear competition, and that the dresses were not low-cut.” In fact, Guy Harari, the pageant producer, said he arranged in advance with the head of the municipal council of Gedera Yoel Gamliel —himself a religious Zionist man — that the pageant would not have “immodest” components out of respect to the large religious community in the town.

Her parents are incensed about the principal’s actions, and Madar is worried about her future. She was meant to matriculate in a few months, and she is not sure what will happen to her next. The Ministry of Education has come out in support of the principal but said in an official statement that it is still “investigating the matter”.

Meanwhile, the religious Zionist community in the mixed town of Gedera had mixed reactions to these events. “I’m a religious woman,” a Gedera resident named Esther told Ynet, “but with all due respect, this is not Iran…The girls were lovely. Too bad the Ministry of Education ruined the occasion and destroyed the girls’ experience.”

Leah Barak, a former school principal in this sector, disagreed. She said that participation in a pageant “does not suit the world view of religious education” even if the girl claims to be maintaining modesty, because “there will always be a question to what extent she defines modesty, and whether her definition meets with the standards.” It is not entirely clear what kind of standards Barak is referring to, although I suspect it has to do with assumptions about the girl’s sexual behavior. The implication seems to be, if a girl dresses like this, we must wonder what else she’s doing.

This is not the first time religious girls have challenged their boundaries of modesty by entering the beauty industry. Last year, Modern Orthodox young woman Esther Petrack famously removed her sweater on national television while competing to become “America’s Next Top Model”, revealing a bra/bikini top. Hardly the stuff of the ulpana upbringing. In Israel, Hava Mond is a successful religious model who has described her life as a panoply of cleavage, miniskirts, and morning prayers. Although Petrack was heavily criticized in the religious community for not being more steadfast in her public commitment to observance (though her mother says that her comments were badly edited), I’m not sure that the navigation of halacha is the most troubling aspect of these girls’ choices.

Dr. Beverly Gribetz, veteran educator of religious girls and founder of the Tehilla religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem, once shared with me an astute insight into what this all may mean for religious education. She said that she often hears religious educators lamenting the fact that girls walk around in slacks in the mall during their free time. “The problem is not that they’re wearing slacks; the problem is that they’re spending their free time in the mall”.

Maayan Madar’s principal should not see Madar’s clothing as a rejection of religion but should see Madar’s beauty queen aspiration as a failure of her own educational system. Rather than expel a student for succeeding in what she set out to do, the school should be asking itself why this was her goal, why this is the best value system she came out with in terms of girls’ roles in society, why her teachers were unable to transmit an image of religious womanhood that was more attractive than becoming a beauty queen. This is a failure of the religious education system — and actually the entire Israeli education system — and a victory for superficiality, for the reality television-high fashion culture from which the religious community is hardly immune or exempt.

All I can say is, at least Madar won the competition. She should emerge with at least some social capital that may enable her to do other things. Maybe she’ll get a university scholarship or a car. Or at least a chance to earn her way as a weather girl. And at least she has some ambition for herself. I’m glad she is insisting that she has to finish school and matriculate. Maybe her story will offer a surprise ending.


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