A cover story
Newly-religious women walking around covered head-to-toe in black clothes are growing in numbers. Even six-year-old girls are made to hide their faces. Haredi rabbis finally condemn growing trend
by Akiva Novick
They arrive there every morning, girls aged six to 10 covered head to toe, their faces hidden behind a veil similar to a hijab. They enter an apartment at the center of Jerusalem, which serves as their school.
Hundreds of people see them walk by, including Education Ministry employees who work nearby. Somehow, though, they never seem to do anything about it.
So far, one has only heard of "Taliban mothers," haredi women covered head to toe, including a headscarf, much like Afghani women living under Taliban rule. But now one finds little girls too, the daughters of these "Taliban mothers," walking around outdoors in full body coverage.
Since no haredi school is willing to let these girls in, they go to improvised schools in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem founded especially for them by their mothers. Needless to say these schools and the curriculum are not supervised by the Education Ministry.
This phenomenon has raised many eyebrows within the haredi community. "Taliban women" and their daughters are outcasts on haredi streets. They encounter looks of disgust, bullying and constant humiliation.
M., a member of the anti-Zionist Hasidic movement Toldos Aharon, lives in Jerusalem. He said he has seen young men come up to these women trying to pull off their head covers.
"There are guys who will approach a woman and say things like: 'You look like a suicide bomber' or 'I guess your face is ugly if you keep it hidden.' There are also those who spit on them and curse at them, or just badger them with cameras so they'll run away."
'Back to sacred custom'
The fact that most of the "Taliban women" are newly-religious does not help either. "It's unacceptable that that the newly-religious will tell us that our women aren't modest and good enough," a senior haredi businessman explained.
It does make sense however that these women are newly-religious. Extremism is very common amongst people who change their lifestyle in a radical manner, from a secular life to a religious one and vise-versa.
"Similar to those who search for meaning in their lives or feel lost and seek help, these girls are inspired by a dominant figure," said a father of a newly-religious girl who now belongs to a cult. "I personally feel that in both cases it's a matter of exploiting weaknesses, but ultimately my daughter is happy and pleased with the life she has chosen, so I have to accept it."
His daughter, however, sees nothing wrong with her unusual appearance. "I think that seculars, who are used to seeing girls dressed in minimal clothing, are the weird ones," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm following the rules of modesty which are also meant to save men from themselves. A man who sees a woman's body parts is sexually aroused, and this might cause him to commit sin. Even if he doesn't actually sin physically, his impure thoughts are sin in themselves."
But what about little girls? Why do 6-year-olds need to walk around covered head-to-toe? "There are enough men who look at them as sexual objects. Such values must be taught at an early age," she explained.
Husbands of the "Taliban women" usually accept the way their wives dress. "Some of them do it out of weakness and lack of choice, others claim they put up with it because of a higher calling and purity. I think they are simply weak. If we're being honest, haredi men are not involved with what goes on at home. They spend most of their days in their yeshivot."
This past weekend the discourse surrounding "Taliban women" has extended beyond the religious community. Following repeated complaints from both religious and secular residents in Beit Shemesh, who encounter the covered girls on a daily basis, the National Council for the Child has requested the Welfare Ministry to look into the matter and make sure this behavior is not harmful to the girls.
"We don't want to intervene with their style of clothing or education," said the council's director Dr. Yitzhak Kadman. "However it's our job to check whether these kids are being harmed in any way. If you recall, the known 'Taliban mother' incident proves that an extreme lifestyle can also be harmful to the children."
The ultra-Orthodox "Jewish Taliban" cult is one of the most extreme groups ever established in Israel. Established over six years ago, when haredi women tried to fight immodesty in Israel, the group's members decided to wear a robe covering their bodies from the shoulders down.
This cult now has hundreds of members all over the country. Their motto is clear: Cover up as much as you can in the name of modesty.
This initiative was received positively by many haredi circles and was even accompanied by an enthusiastic letter of support signed by Badatz rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox court of justice, and Eda Haredit leader Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss.
Slowly but surely more women began joining the cult, covering their heads so only their faces were showing. This turned into a popular trend and in the past three years has turned into full face coverage.
"It all started with three women who covered their entire bodies," said a senior haredi businessman. "Then eight more joined in Jerusalem and 12 in Beit Shemesh, almost all of them newly-religious. Together with their daughters they are a group of about a 100 women. The rest of the 'cult' members expose their faces, and consist of roughly 500 women."
Gradually these girls dropped out or were taken out of haredi schools, prompting the cult women to form their own school system. There are about four schools in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
Film director Anat Zuria ("Purity", "Sentenced to Marriage") has encountered these "Taliban women" while working on one of her films. "Many of them were newly-religious," she said. "They talked about returning to our modest roots, dressing like our mothers from past generations."
The infamous "Taliban mother" who was accused of abusing her seven children also talked to Zuria. "On one occasion she wasn't allowed to speak. She communicated by making sounds. It was surreal. There sits a grown woman making sounds like a dolphin."
This quickly spreading phenomenon upsets the haredi community even more than the rest of the public, because of the basic haredi perception which rules out any changes in clothing, language or lifestyle. According to tradition, the Israelites survived the slavery in Egypt because they "did not alter the way they dress" therefore the dress code cannot be changed even today.
"We can accept young girls who returned to their faith as long as they accept the rules and speak Yiddish," said the businessman. "What worked for our fathers for hundreds of years still works today, and no newly-religious person can change that."
Covered even at home
This anger rapidly turned into real actions of protest against the cult. Thousands of fliers signed by rabbis were posted on the streets.
A Neturei Karta delegation approached haredi rabbis and presented them with findings regarding the "Taliban women." They said these women refused to have sexual intercourse with their husbands or take off their head covers even when they walk around the house or in the mikveh. They were even rumored to forbid contact between brothers and sisters.
The rabbis were convinced. Religious neighborhoods all over Israel were filled with harsh letters condemning the cult. "You must beware not to dress in odd and peculiar clothing (including veils), especially if the husband is against it, because it's also against halacha. All the more so these changes should not be applied in cases of young girls", they wrote.
The same rabbis who once praised the veils, now realize the situation has gotten out of hand. Recently signatures of 13 more rabbis from Beit Shemesh were added to a petition protesting the new dress code.
However, this is more than just another haredi dispute. As this phenomenon is exposed, including the fact that dozens of young girls are forced to cover their bodies from head to toe when leaving the house by their mothers, it is time for the State and welfare authorities to take a closer look at what is really going on with "Taliban women."