Last year, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia caused a minor sensation when he and his brother, Crown Prince Sultan, appeared in a photograph with a group of women who, while modestly dressed, had their faces bare. "I think this is a great picture and everyone is talking about it," a government adviser told The Guardian. "This is a picture that sent a message that it is OK to work with women ... and that there's nothing wrong with that."
Gallery: Ultra-Orthodoctored Photos
After an uproar, Der Tzitung apologized, sort of. The editors regretted breaking the rules and offending people, but insisted, “The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel.” It is true that Der Tzitung doesn’t seem to have a problem with women being in politics—as Politico reported, the paper actually backed Clinton during the 2008 primaries. But it’s hard not to see something profoundly disrespectful in the notion that a woman’s face is, in and of itself, offensive.
Nor were these isolated incidents. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, papers routinely refuse to show women, including Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima party and a likely future prime minister. A 2008 Jerusalem Post story quoted someone from the community explaining, “Photoshop works overtime in a haredi newspaper.”
If there is a clash of civilizations, it’s between rigid religious absolutists in all societies, and those they’d like to erase from view.
Indeed, in a strangely immodest attempt to prove themselves as modest as their Muslim neighbors, some haredi women in Israel have even started donning burqas. “At first, I just wore a wig," one of these women told Haaretz newspaper. "Now when I see a woman with a wig, I pray to God to forgive her for wearing that thing on her head."
The tempest over the Situation Room photograph is actually a salutary reminder that religious extremists often have more in common with each other than they do with moderates in their own communities. The idea that women must be cloaked and hidden from display lest they arouse male lust is not unique to Islam. It’s there in most forms of religious fundamentalism. If there is indeed a clash of civilizations in this world, it’s not between the Muslim world and the Judeo-Christian one, or between East and West. It’s between rigid religious absolutists in all societies, and those they’d like to erase from view.
Correction: This article originally reported that The Jewish daily newspaper Hamodia cropped Hillary Clinton out of the situation room photo. Hamodia did not publish this picture at all. The paper does have a policy of cropping women out of photos.
Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress, and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.