Modesty signs are illegal

This new decision is the latest example in a series of court actions during the past few years which have had an important impact on the status of women in Israel today.

Sign in Beit Shemesh instructing women to dress modestly (photo credit: IRAC)
Sign in Beit Shemesh instructing women to dress modestly
(photo credit: IRAC)
We’ve all become accustomed to seeing the “modesty signs” on streets in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods in Jerusalem as well as in other Israeli cities, especially Bet Shemesh. These signs state that women are “requested” to dress modestly when entering these neighborhoods so as not to offend the inhabitants. Modesty signs have been part of the Israeli landscape for many decades. But are they legal? Do the local government officials have a responsibility to remove these signs?
On January 25, 2015, Judge David Gidony of the Bet Shemesh Magistrates Court handed down a precedent-setting decision in which he declared that “modesty signs” are indeed illegal and that the mayor of Bet Shemesh must have the signs removed. Furthermore, the municipality is required to pay damages to the four Modern Orthodox women who courageously filed a claim against the city of Bet Shemesh and its mayor for suffering caused by these signs.
The judge awarded each woman NIS 15,000 for the humiliation and mental anguish suffered by them as a result of the modesty signs. Furthermore, the judge ordered the municipality to pay court costs in the amount of NIS 8,000 to the lawyers of the Israel Religious Action Center. The four women plaintiffs, who dress modestly by most standards today, apparently were not modest enough for the ultra-Orthodox extremists of Bet Shemesh.
The women described the physical and verbal abuse they suffered as a result of not adhering to the modesty signs, including being spit on and called whores, as well as having rocks, eggs and tomatoes thrown at them.
In Bet Shemesh the signs spell out a standard of modest dress which requires women to wear “closed long-sleeve shirts, long skirts and to refrain from wearing pants or clothing which is short or transparent.” These large signs are posted on many main streets of Bet Shemesh as well as at the entrance of shopping centers. Furthermore, there are signs posted in public thoroughfares near synagogues informing women that they must not walk on the side of the street where the synagogue is situated and may not gather in front of the synagogue.
Municipal officials, including the mayor of Bet Shemesh, admitted that these signs are illegal. However, in order to maintain public order, they claimed that they were unable to do anything to remove the signs and protect their female citizens from the humiliation and mental anguish caused by the signs and the behavior of the religious extremist men of Bet Shemesh.
Amazingly, these officials argued that forcing removal of the illegal signs would lead to more violence on the part of the extremists and therefore the municipality refused to act. Prior to bringing their claim for damages to the court, the women had filed complaints with the police as well as the municipality.
Not surprisingly, these complaints were ignored (as we all know, the police have been busy with other activities regarding women) and the modesty signs remained in place while the abuse of women in Bet Shemesh continued.
The judge rejected the municipality’s argument, declaring that the modesty signs send a message of discrimination against women and are an infringement of women’s dignity and autonomy. He declared that the municipality had the authority as well as the obligation to remove the signs. By not using their enforcement powers, the municipality was awarding and encouraging violent behavior.
This new decision is the latest example in a series of court actions during the past few years which have had an important impact on the status of women in Israel today.
Israeli courts have consistently ruled against the attempts of religious extremists to deny women equal rights in public places. Issues dealing with gender segregation on public buses, appearance of women on billboards and on bus advertising as well as the gender segregation on the streets of Mea She’arim have all been declared illegal.
Now it will be interesting to see how and if this new decision on modesty signs is implemented. Will the municipality pay the damages ordered by the court? Will the Bet Shemesh mayor order the signs removed? Will his order be enforced? Will the removal of modesty signs in public places be monitored? Who will do the enforcing and how?
The most interesting question, of course, is what will happen in Jerusalem. Will the eternal capital of the Jewish people remove its modesty signs? Does the Jerusalem mayor have the guts to use his authority to enforce the law? Will Jerusalem women be free from abuse as they move around their city dressed as they wish? Will the many female tourists from abroad as well as from other parts of Israel finally be able to visit the city without being harassed and abused by religious extremists? Should the Jerusalem municipality refuse to act by removing the modesty signs, how many women will now turn to the courts and demand financial compensation for the humiliation and mental anguish caused by these signs?
Nir Barkat, as mayor of Jerusalem, the ball is in your court now.
The author is a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer and chairperson of the Status of Women in Jewish Law Committee of the International Council of Jewish Women.