Reality Check: Taking back the billboards

Women have been steadily disappearing from street advertising in the capital, due to self-censorship by secular advertisers scared of antagonizing haredim.

woman jerusalem store ads 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
woman jerusalem store ads 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Just as women marchers at Take Back the Night rallies around the world don’t simply protest the issue of violence against women but also show that women united can resist fear and violence, a group of Jerusalem women are uniting to show that Israeli women can’t be airbrushed out of the capital’s advertising billboards.
In a guerrilla advertising campaign, six Jerusalem women have been photographed so that their pictures can be hung from balconies and windows throughout the capital with the slogan “Returning women to Jerusalem billboards.”
Over the past months, women have been steadily disappearing from street advertising in the capital, due in no small part to self-censorship on the part of secular advertisers scared of antagonizing the increasingly strident haredi community. While the rest of the country can see model Sandy Bar wearing a wool knit outfit in a Honigman store ad, in Jerusalem all that remains of the model on the billboard are her arm and purse. Another advertisement, which in the rest of the country shows a mosaic of a mixed-sex group of people, becomes a men-only mosaic when published in Jerusalem.
While there’s definitely an argument to be made decrying the use of sexually provocative images of young women to sell consumer products, there is a huge difference between not running posters of scantily clad women at bus shelters and airbrushing women out of any and every advertisement. By eliminating images of women from public advertising, it sends the message that women are not important, that they don’t have a voice or a role to play in day-to-day life.
And of course, in the most extreme sect among the haredi community in Jerusalem, women are not just non-existent in street furniture, they’re also non-existent on the street itself. During Succot, the Toldot Aharon group erected a barrier to divide a street in Mea She’arim by gender outside their main synagogue, while large posters throughout the neighborhood forbade women to enter another street during the festival celebrations. Although the High Court has banned dividing streets on a gender basis, this is no guarantee that Toldot Aharon will not try to do the same thing again next year.
BUT IT’S not just the haredi sector that is seeking to reduce the profile of women outside of the home.
There have been two serious incidents within the Israel Defense Forces over the past couple of months that highlight the increasing religious stringency entering general Israeli life, to the detriment of women. Due to the religious prohibition on men hearing a woman sing (on the spurious grounds that it might lead to “impure” thoughts), nine religious officer cadets walked out of a seminar on the legacy of Operation Cast Lead when a band comprising two male and two female vocalists took the stage to sing.
Thankfully, in this case, the IDF stood its ground and dismissed four of these cadets from their officer training course after they said they would repeat their actions, even though doing so contravened IDF rules prohibiting religious soldiers from boycotting mainstream (as opposed to cultural) events that include female vocalists. The IDF, as a people’s army that includes both male and female soldiers, is right to insist that women can sing at military ceremonies and, just as importantly, that religious soldiers are not exempt from attending these events.
Over Succot the IDF was less successful in protecting female soldiers’ rights when a group of women soldiers at the army’s celebration marking the end of Simhat Torah were moved to a separate section, cut off from the main event. Initially, in line with the tradition among most Orthodox sectors in the country, the women soldiers had been dancing at one side of the arena, separated from the men by a long table, but this was not good enough for the army’s rabbinate, who ordered them to go to a separate, closed area about 50 meters away. Quite rightly, the commanders of the female soldiers decided to have their charges leave the event rather than be treated as second-class participants.
THE FACT that there are a number of extremely high-profile women in Israel – Shelly Yacimovich was recently elected the new head of the Labor Party, Tzipi Livni heads the opposition and Dorit Beinisch presides over the Supreme Court – masks the real story that the status of women in Israel has gradually worsened over the years. According to 2011’s Global Gender Gap Index, published last week by the World Economic Forum, Israel ranks 55th on a list of 135 states in terms of sexual equality.
The survey benchmarks gender differences on economic, political, educational and health-based criteria and Israel’s standing has been steadily deteriorating since 2007, when the country ranked 36th on the list.
According to Central Bureau of Statistics figures, the wage gap between men and women, once taking into consideration factors such as women on average working fewer hours than men do, stands at 20 percent.
And even if women reach an executive position in their company, they’re still likely to earn less than their male counterparts.
If women are to achieve real equality, they first have to be seen as equals. The Jerusalem women taking back the billboards are making an important contribution to this battle.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.