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Going under cover: the Jewish women who are taking the veil


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From March 7, 2008

Several cars slow and one stops when Sarah walks down the street in her home town of Beit Shemesh, an ultra-orthodox Jewish enclave west of Jerusalem.

On this morning, the streets teem with women herding their children to school in the modest garb and head-coverings befitting their religious beliefs. For years, Sarah walked among them similarly dressed, but today a dark cloth is secured across her face, hiding everything save her eyes. It resembles the head-to-toe covering that is associated with religious Muslim women in the Gulf States.

“People in cars driving by often stop and stare. Some people are rude — they shout things at me because they think I am Arab,” said Sarah (not her real name).

Sarah is part of a budding movement of about 100 Jewish women in this city who have begun covering their bodies. Some cover just their hair and neck; others wrap their entire face, save their eyes, with the loose cloth. They call their head-covering a sal, refusing to acknowledge the resemblance to its Muslim twin, the hijab. In Beit Shemesh, the political line is strictly right wing, with many of the religious leaders advocating expulsion of Arabs from the biblical boundaries of the land of Israel. But the two communities may have more in common than they think.

Orthodox Jewish women have long concealed their hair with a scarf or wig upon marriage. Muslim women, who don a covering upon reaching puberty, traditionally sheath their necks as well as their hair. Depending on the country, the covering could be fashioned into a number of variations such as the chador, a loose cloak worn by women in Iran, or the burka, an enveloping garment that allows only for mesh netting over the eyes, worn in Afghanistan.

“The full body, or full face covering that people think is only part of the Arab world actually started with Jewish women,” said a woman who asked to be identified by her first initial, M.

“Muslim women are imitating Jews to try to gain God’s favour with modesty. The truth is that the women of Israel are lessening in God’s eyes because the Arabs are more modest in dress. If the Jews want to conquer the Arabs in this land they must enhance their modesty,” added M, who covered her face for over a year, but currently wears just a loose cloak over her garments.

The first time that M saw a sal was at the Western Wall, one of the holiest Jewish sites. “I saw a woman who looked like an Arab and I was scared. I got near her, to try to determine why she was there, and saw that she was praying in Hebrew. I began to talk to her and became curious and then attended her classes,” she said.

The woman M met that day was a religious instructor in Beit Shemesh, and the founder of the sal style. “We have been criticised by so many in the community who see what we are doing as the opposite of Jewish law. Many women have stopped wearing the sal because of pressure from their husbands or rabbis,” said M, who adds that her family persuaded her to stop wearing the garment.

Part of Jewish religious teaching states that a woman should not draw unnecessary attention to herself — a rule that some rabbis feel the sal breaches, said Chevy Weiss, a liaison between the religious community in Beit Shemesh and its leadership. “If that is what these women need to do to feel a stronger connection to God, I have respect for them,” she said.

For Sarah, wearing the sal is worth the stares and occasional harassment. “In my heart I know this is what God wants me to wear. God willing, more women will see the truth.”

Dressing down

— Hair covering among Jewish women can be traced to Jewish law. The 13th-century scholar Moses Maimonides is quoted in the Mishneh Torah as stating that the covering of a woman’s hair is from the teachings handed down to the biblical figure of Moses, or rather from the Old Testament.

Times Database


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