Just when you thought the policing of Haredi women’s appearance couldn’t get more extreme — it does. According to Ynet, a kosher certificate for women’s fashions now exists. An ultra-Orthodox body called “the Committee for the Sanctity of the Camp” has begun supervising clothing stores offering such heckshers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula.
Here’s how it works: The merchandise of various stores is inspected for sufficient modesty by female inspectors armed with such rabbinical standards as making sure skirts are not too short or necklines too low. Afterwards, the names of those with the official stamp of approval are published in ultra-Orthodox publications, and women urged to buy there. Presumably, those retailers that do not measure up will run the risk of protests, boycotts or worse.
An advertisement taken out for the Committee states that stores that do not sell sufficiently modest clothing are “damaging our camp’s modesty” and “experience shows that there is no other way to defeat this horrible breach other than having rabbis supervise the clothes’ kashrut.”
Modest Western clothing, of course, is not enough for the small but growing cult-like group of Jewish women concentrated in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem who insist on completely draping their bodies in clothing burqa-style.
A report on Israeli television this week offered a fascinating peek into their bizarre thinking when a female reporter infiltrated the group and brought in a hidden camera to the weekly meetings in which Haredi women are indoctrinated into the group’s “modesty doctrine.” The full report can be viewed in Hebrew here.
The camera records their teacher explaining to them that the more layers of fabric a woman swathes herself in, the holier she “wraps herself in order to protect her diamond. What is her diamond? The diamond of her soul.” She demonstrates the techniques of wrapping up, noting that any exposure of skin to air, including hair-combing and other grooming and changing of clothes should take place under a blanket, even when a woman is alone, so that “even the walls can’t see you.”
The women commiserate about negative public reaction to their appearance, including scoffing by those who accuse them of dressing like Muslims.
“Are Muslim women wearing a cloak, and a veil and an apron? Is she wearing five pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings? No! Muslem women are practically naked!” cries the instructor indignantly.
After months of ingratiating herself, the undercover reporter manages to record a conversation with Rabbanit Bracha Ben-Izri, the 50-year-old mother of 10 who is the cult’s acknowledged spiritual leader. On camera, Ben-Izri claims there are 10,000 burqa-wearing Jewish women in Israel, including those who go to the extreme of extreme modesty: wearing veils covering their entire face. “I would wear one too if my husband let me,” Ben-Izri says wistfully.
The truly disturbing part of the show doesn’t relate to the adult women who insist on wrapping themselves up even when their own husbands are unhappy about it; it is the apparent indoctrination of the next generation — young girls who, swathed in clothing, have their mobility hampered at a young age — and the reports of beatings of girls who rebel against the strict dress standards.
The best-known of the “Taliban women” — Ben-Izri’s predecessor — is currently serving a prison sentence for child abuse.
And indeed, when Ben-Izri learns that the reporter has a daughter, she tells the journalist that the most important thing to teach her is to cover up.
“Modesty. That’s what she is,” Ben-Izri said. “That’s her substance, that’s her currency, in this world, and the world to come. And she needs to be punished if heaven forbid, she isn’t modest. That’s her job. Modesty.”
When the reporter asks if her daughter doesn’t have any other mission to make the world a better and holier place, she replies emphatically, “That’s her holiness — her modesty.”
You hear that, girls? Put down your prayer books. It’s all about the clothes.