Female faithfuls in combat

What's a religious girl like you doing in a place like this?

religious girls 88 298 (photo credit: Courtsy of Aluma)
religious girls 88 298
(photo credit: Courtsy of Aluma)
'On reserve duty I slept in the division commander's car," says Sharon Perel, 27. "We were out in the field on an overnight military exercise. We pitched tents for the night. Everybody else, men and women, slept together. But I didn't feel comfortable doing that. The commander understood my predicament and lent me his car." Perel is one of dozens of religious women who are called up regularly to do reserve service. These women carry with them into the army a different set of sensibilities regarding issues of modesty and faith. Coed bedding is out of the question and so is the affectionate touch of a male, even when it carries no sexual connotations. Long skirts replace tight slacks as the preferred army uniform. When pants are absolutely necessary - on the shooting range or in a tank - they are big and baggy "like potato sacks," says Perel. The environment in reserve duty that awaits these modest women can be super macho and very crude. Men separated from wives and children, from the workplace and from other frameworks that encourage refinement and civility can become some of the coarsest two-legged creatures on the face of the earth. Talk often revolves around sports, combat stories or - in cruder circles - sex. "It's a very informal, very open environment where people feel free to express themselves," says Perel. A religious woman on reserve duty is not only an eyebrow raiser, but she is a persona non grata. Not only does she ruin the purity of masculinity, she inhibits with her religious piety, or she is ignored. "It's awkward sometimes," admits Ofra Gutman, who is currently serving reserve duty in the North. "You are put in a situation where you do not feel comfortable to express yourself freely. The skirt becomes a social barrier. It sends out a message, 'I am religious.' But the skirt can also be helpful. It forewarns men that I work according to different rules." Gutman, 26, is presently serving in the "war room," where she is helping to coordinate the fighting of ground and air forces against Hizbullah. Part of her job is to update constantly on the situation. Gutman often cuts short our telephone conversations with a curt "sorry I have to go" followed by a dial tone. She was called to reserve duty at the beginning of the IDF's northern offensive and has not been home since. Gutman, who does about 40 days of reserve duty a year, says she put in a special request to continue to serve in the same position she had during regular army service. "I am good at what I do and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it." Gutman's father, Reuven, describes his daughter as "a multi-tasker; the type of woman who can keep track of three different things at the same time and still be an attentive conversationalist." When she first made her request, Gutman says, there were men in the reserve division where she was slated to serve that opposed it. "But the commander overrode them," says Gutman. Now she is on good relations with her fellow soldiers, all of whom are men. "I heard there are a few women on the way, though." ACCORDING TO the IDF spokesperson's office, only women who are officers are automatically required to do reserve duty. But many women officers do not serve in the same units where they did their regular army duty. Female reservists normally serve in the fields of medicine, intelligence or combat support. In contrast, most religious women who are officers are involved in education. But there is little, if any, demand for female reservists in education. So when women who were educators in their regular service are called to do reserve duty, it is usually in a completely different field. The total number of religious female soldiers in the IDF is small. The vast majority of Modern Orthodox rabbis are staunchly opposed to army service for women. Other rabbis, such as Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Beit El, believe it is wrong to enlist, but they also think women who do enlist should receive support. In the past, religious women who joined the army received little support from IDF rabbis. "When a religious female soldier had difficulties in the army, the attitude that some rabbis had was 'You cooked it, you eat it,'" says Yifat Sela, director of Aluma, an organization that provides information and helps religious girls cope with the difficulties of army service. "But attitudes have changed. Any rabbi who behaves that way is punished." As a result of rabbinic opposition, social pressures encourage religious women to opt for National Service instead of the IDF. There is also special legislation that exempts women from army service if it clashes with religious convictions. Nevertheless, between a quarter to 30% of all modern religious young women who graduate from state religious high schools and ulpanot [in haredi communities it is unheard of for women to serve in the army] disregard the rabbis' opinion and join the IDF. Religious women make up only a fraction of the total number of female soldiers. Religious women who join the IDF do so out of a conscious choice. The know they can opt not to serve and in many cases, they risk suffering the censure of their communities if they do serve. The added knowledge that army service does not end after regular service may make the decision even more difficult. They also may regret having gotten themselves involved in an endeavor that was never expected of them in the first place, especially when reserve duty disrupts work, university studies or other plans. Both Gutman and H., who was called to do reserve service in her IDF intelligence unit, are learning at university. The reserve duty caught them at a time when they are finishing up tests and term papers. But neither have any complaints. "I'm fulfilling my duty to the country," says Gutman. "It's part of my obligation as a citizen of Israel," says H. THE CONCEPT of reserve service for women is relatively new. It was first instituted at the beginning of 2001, a year after a law was passed in the Knesset to open up more IDF roles for women. Many have yet to become accustomed to the idea of reserve duty for women. Since most religious women do not even serve in the IDF, when a religious woman does reserve duty it surprises both her fellow reservists and also her friends, family and fellow employees who are forced to get along without her while she is away. "It's doubly weird," says H. "First, because I'm a woman and women are not expected to be called up for reserve duty. Second, because I am religious and religious women are not supposed to be in the army at all." H. foresees another difficulty: She is getting married soon. "I don't know how he [the husband-to-be] will deal with it. But I do not see anything wrong with it. My reserve duty is close to home." According to the law, women are obligated to do reserve duty until the age of 38 (in combat units until 40) or until they get pregnant (women in combat units need special permission even after pregnancy). Feminists might say the law is chauvinist. Why should a birth exempt the mother from reserve duty any more than the father? Perhaps the father should be exempt from reserve duty so he can take care of the baby while the mother fulfills her duty to the state? None of the religious women who spoke with The Jerusalem Post agreed with the feminist argument. They all agreed it would be impractical to continue to serve in the IDF after giving birth. "You don't become a feminist until the age of 30," jokes Aluma's Sela. "Since reserve duty began just five years ago there aren't any women doing army service that have reached the age of feminism yet." Sela says she believes feminism is not the motivating factor for the religious women she knows who chose to serve. "We just want to participate in all aspects of Israeli society like everybody else. The IDF is quintessentially Israeli. It is the training ground for people who want to be at the forefront of leadership in Israel. "Too many religious girls live in a protected environment. They never come in contact with other segments of society. The go from a religious high school to National Service to a religious college. Then they get married and move into an all-religious neighborhood. "I believe women should participate in the real world, even if it's hard sometimes."