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Meretz Party Leader Tamar Zandberg holding a sign saying #YouWillNotEraseMe as a protest of her face being removed from Bnei Brak billboards, 2019..(Photo by: MERETZ)
Women’s faces on billboards?
“This discrimination is prohibited by law and is blatant and an ugly exclusion of women from the public sphere."
Women’s faces are vanishing from billboards in some Israeli cities. In Bnei Brak, the municipality has been accused of banning women from appearing on street signs. Tzipi Livni, Yesh Atid and Meretz have condemned the municipality and the growing culture of intolerance that is delegitimizing women in the run up to the national elections in April. The country must send a strong message that we will not tolerate the banning of women’s faces from public spaces. Special funds should be directed to protecting billboards from being defaced.

“This discrimination is prohibited by law and is blatant and an ugly exclusion of women from the public sphere. The decision is dangerous to Israeli society and to Israeli democracy,” Yesh Atid said in a statement on Sunday. A billboard that showed a variety of Center-Left candidates, including Tzipi Livni and Benny Gantz, appeared in Bnei Brak without Livni’s face.

“It’s not my face they want to remove, but the faces of you, the women of Israel, over 50% of the population,” Livni said in a statement. “The voices of you men and women that want Israel to be a liberal country with equality, in which women can speak, sing, stand on stage and lead this country,” she said.

Meretz has threatened to sue the municipality. “You must accept the possibility of women running in elections in Israel and allow them to advertise [their parties] in public,” a statement from Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said. “This is true even more so when the advertisement is respectful and not provocative.” She argued, like Livni, that it’s not just about banning the face of one candidate but about a larger culture that silences women and permits violence against them, erasing them from society.

Bnei Brak is not the only city in Israel affected by a rising intolerance towards images of women in public. In Ashdod, images of women have been recently defaced. In Jerusalem, billboards with women are often defaced with graffiti. A billboard near the central bus station posted by the Ministry for Social Equality was defaced in December, before it was taken down. Another advertisement for a TV show with two actresses was also defaced on a central boulevard. Advertisers have been accused of keeping women off billboards for fear of their ads being destroyed. Images of women in comedy shows have been ripped off Jerusalem signs. An ultra-Orthodox man was arrested in November 2017 on suspicion of defacing images of women’s faces.

This has gone on far too long and is part of a larger struggle in our society. In the IDF, soldiers have objected to women singing. Liat Zion, a singer, was asked to leave a music festival in 2013 lest it offend the religious sensibilities of some people. In 2008, young female singers who were invited to perform at a Jerusalem outdoor show, were asked to wear long coats in order to appear more modest.

There are two types of intimidation that are used to prevent women from appearing on billboards and in public spaces. One is official laws and rules, which seek to prevent women singing or from appearing on advertisements. These kinds of rules expand to include political parties that have no female representatives, clearly discriminating against women in this regard. Then there are less formal methods, including incitement against women, harassment of women in public spaces, pressure that is applied to prevent women from singing and quiet decisions made by advertisers to not show women’s faces.

Israel must stop this creeping religious intimidation and extremism and not be blackmailed by threats of violence or by claims of religious people who are offended by the image of a woman. This can be accomplished through legislation that stops the banning of women from public spaces. But that is only the first step. Efforts must be made to include women’s faces on billboards and in political campaigns. The message must be that in every case of intimidation or defacement of posters will be met with the full force of the law.

This need not be accomplished through shrill comparisons of Israel to Iran or Saudi Arabia, but rather by a consistent message of supporting women. The majority of people support seeing women’s faces in public and on billboards. A small radical minority should not be allowed to win through intimidation.
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