The Bare Fact of Her Bodily Presence

10.15.12 1:30 PM ET

If you’re looking for tips on how to break up a late-night men-only ultra-Orthodox dance party, look no further: Sarit Hashkes has you covered. Her tip? Uncover yourself.

During the recent Sukkot holiday, Hashkes, a 28-year-old student, stumbled upon a group of religious men dancing to loud music on a street in downtown Jerusalem. As she later told Maariv, she was infuriated by the ultra-Orthodox tendency to bar women from such celebrations, so she took the hand of a secular boy and started dancing with him. Spotting Hashkes, the event organizer grabbed the boy’s hand away from her and told her to leave the premises. Instead, she did something I can’t help wishing more Israeli women would have the guts to do: she took off her shirt, leaving the men to ogle at her bra in silence.

Stunned, the men quickly looked away and sent a female ultra-Orthodox contingent to prevail upon Hashkes to get dressed and go. But Hashkes stood her ground. She called the police and, soon enough, they came to break up the party.

Back home, Hashkes posted an account of what happened on her Facebook page, along with a photo showing her at the scene. Over 3,300 people liked it, but the 1,400-odd comments yielded a striking divergence of opinions. Some called her “brave.” Others called her a “whore.” One kind soul said that it was too bad the men hadn’t stoned her then and there, since that’s what she truly deserved. Many people accused her of simply wanting to provoke.

But here’s the thing: if you’re going to accuse Hashkes of unwarranted provocation, you have to understand that her actions aren’t coming out of nowhere. They’re coming on the heels of a disturbing spike in gender segregation and discrimination against women in Israeli society.

I’m talking about Naama Margolese, the 8-year-old girl who was spit on by ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh because, according to them, her dress made her look like a prostitute. And about the female passengers who are being ordered to move to the back of strictly “kosher” buses (an experience Hashkes has also written about) despite the fact that, by law, everyone has the right to sit wherever they want. And about the modestly dressed women who used to appear in ads and on billboards, but whose images are steadily disappearing from the public sphere.

Oh, and I’m talking about Rivka, the Beit Shemesh resident who told the New York Times about that time “the extremists came and removed all the public benches from the neighborhood, so that the women could no longer sit outside with their children in the street.”

Ultra-Orthodox attitudes, particularly as they pertain to gender segregation and the exclusion of women from public life, concern secular and religious Israelis alike. According to a recent study:

The most acute conflict within Israeli society is the one between secular and ultra-Orthodox, far surpassing all other domestic tensions. 71% view this as the most or second most acute tension in Israeli society.

64% of the public, including 56% of religious Jews, support making segregation of women in the public domain a criminal offence.

Against the backdrop of these heightened tensions, it’s not hard to see why Sarit Hashkes did what she did. She did it for the same reason, I presume, that she participated in Jerusalem’s SlutWalk last May: Women’s bodies are slowly but surely being covered up, shunted aside, or banished from the public domain. In order to push back on this—in order to reclaim their right to visibility on streets, buses and billboards—women need to put their bodies front and center.

Of course, Hashkes’s way of doing so was provocative. And not every protest against gender segregation and discrimination needs to take that form. But if Hashkes acted provocatively by taking her shirt off in public, she did so to challenge the disturbing, traction-gaining notion that a woman’s existence in public space—the bare fact of her bodily presence—is itself provocative.

So, Sarit Hashkes, allow me to add my plaudit to those already offered you by your 3,300-plus supporters. Brava, and—if I may be so bold—encore.