ALISON STEWART, host:
Our next story takes us to Beit Shemesh, Israel, where some women have chosen on their own to cover themselves almost head to toe. Their heads, faces covered with scarves and veils. Their bodies draped in capes and shawls. They believe by doing so they are adhering to strict forms of modesty, which believe show their devotion to the religion. Sounds familiar? Well, these women actually say Muslims are imitating them. Now, it's a story that we ripped off from the headlines. Jerusalem-based reporter Sheera Frenkel wrote about these women for the British paper The Times. Hi, Sheera.
Ms. SHEERA FRENKEL (Reporter, The Times): Hi. How are you?
STEWART: Great, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. FRENKEL: Thank you for having me.
STEWART: Now, these women are followers of a specific rabbanit, Rabbanit Keren. First of all, can you tell us a little bit about who she is?
Ms. FRENKEL: Right, well, her identity is actually quite mysterious, and when I was researching this story, I found quite a few of her followers who sort of only will refer to her by a first name, which is Keren. To me, it is quite clear that that was a pseudonym, but they wouldn't allow me to attend any of her classes, or meet her in person. Essentially, they said that this woman had on her own decided that Jewish women should be wearing sort of a full-face covering, that most people would look at and consider a burqa or a niqab, and had slowly been wearing one herself, and through imitation, and through her classes and what not, other women in the community started wearing it as well.
And what's really interesting here is that this woman is not in any way rabbinically ordained, and the rabbis in the community are actually quite against it. So counter to what you would think by seeing these women who essentially their entire, or almost the entire faces are covered, only their eyes are showing, and they wear glasses over their eyes - this is actually sort of a feminist movement of women in this community that are doing this, in opposition most of the time to their husbands, and to the rabbis.
STEWART: OK. Describe for me why this would be called a feminist movement.
Ms. FRENKEL: OK. I know, it was pretty odd to me as well, when I'm sitting in front of a woman who has chosen to - it's warm here. In Jerusalem in the summer time is an incredibly warm place, and Beit Shemesh is just outside of Jerusalem, and here is a woman who is wearing a thick layer of fabric over her entire body, and it can't be comfortable. She can barely see, she has no peripheral vision, and she's sitting in front of me and telling me this is a feminist statement on her part.
What they claim is that the reason that Jewish women, and Muslim women really, do cover themselves is it comes largely from modesty. There are some religious beliefs regarding women and modesty. They think that the burqa, or like I said, the niqab, was originally a Jewish tradition, which they claim Muslims stole from Jewish women, and again I'm just going to say right now that there is no historical reference to back this claim. It's something they feel very strongly.
And they say that returning to this, as women, as a woman's movement, returning to this full-face covering, it is sort of women reclaiming their own form of modesty, was how I think they phrased it, and that the men in the community were trying to only have them cover their hairline, and since the men were asking them to cover less, and the women were insisting on covering more, it was actually a feminist movement, because it was coming from the female sense of what true modesty should be.
STEWART: Now, when we use the word like "movement," how many followers does this Rabbanit Keren actually have?
Ms. FRENKEL: Right. Well, there's about a hundred, and they're not all in Beit Shemesh. There are some who live in Jerusalem, and some who live in either settlements or outposts in the West Bank. So they are a bit scattered, although I'd say a vast majority are in Beit Shemesh.
STEWART: Now, does she recruit women to join her in this? Or are women sort of gravitating towards it themselves?
Ms. FRENKEL: It seems as though - right. So, in my interviews, all the women I spoke to took great care to say that this was a decision that they came to on their own, and that she was not preaching or teaching any philosophy of Jewish women taking on this dress. However, I did encounter pamphlets and other written materials that seemed to have originated from her, which sort of - I mean, it used a very sort of preachy tone, I'll say, to advocate why she was wearing what she was wearing.
STEWART: We're speaking with Jerusalem-based reporter Sheera Frenkel, who's written about a group of women who have chosen to cover themselves almost head to toe, a group of Jewish women, orthodox Jews, who have taken on this practice. Now, do they have an opinion about seeing - when people who wear Afghan burqas, or the hijab, or the Muslim chador?
Ms. FRENKEL: Right. Well, it's interesting as well, because looking at them on the street - one of the things they encounter on the street is that people think they are Arab women, and these deeply sort of Jewish religious communities - a lot of inherent racism against the Arabs. So, there have been quite a few street arguments as I understand, you know, these women and people on the street who don't know who they are, or why they are wearing what they're wearing.
And so they take great care not to call it a Jewish burqa, which is sort of the - you know, on the street what people refer to it as. And they've invented a new name for it called the sal. In English, I have been spelling it S-A-L, although I don't think they have an English spelling for it. And again, they say that this woman, this teacher Keren, claimed that she saw an image from several hundred years ago of Jewish and Muslim women completely covering themselves pretty much head to toe.
And that's what she's basing a lot of her ideas on, and a lot of her teachings on. Although it's not clear where this image came from, or if it's an image she had internally, or if it's an image she saw. The whole thing is very hazy, but like I said, she's managed to convince more than a hundred women in Beit Shemesh to don the scarves. So, that Keren, she is quite convincing.
STEWART: Well, one of the interesting things about it, which sort of it takes you a minute to get your head twisted around to it, is that some of the men, who are not happy about their wives donning this gear, are saying you're actually being immodest because you are drawing attention to yourself...
Ms. FRENKEL: Right.
STEWART: By wearing this.
Ms. FRENKEL: The rabbinic teaching surrounding this is that modesty is defined by sort of blending in, and not drawing attention to yourself. And the idea of wearing this full-face covering, which as I said before, a lot of people associate with religious Muslim women, draws more attention to them on the street, and that's been the basis of a lot of the rabbis, and actually a lot of men in the community, trying to discourage women from doing this. One of the women I interviewed said she had sworn this style for about a year, and then her husband threatened to leave her if she didn't stop wearing it.
STEWART: Well, I want to actually ask you a couple of questions about where this is taking place. I went on a local website that describes Beit Shemesh as a place - a great place to live if you want to commute to Tel Aviv, and they said it has, quote, "attracted many young families and educated professionals." So I'm curious, is there something about this particular town that would make the women who live here be attracted to this idea?
Ms. FRENKEL: Well, actually, Beit Shemesh is sort of a commuter town. It's sort of a suburb outside Jerusalem that's for young working professionals who can't afford to live in the city of Jerusalem, live in Beit Shemesh. This is happening in a place called Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is sort of a neighborhood just outside the main city, which is extremely religious. It's one of the more sort of orthodox enclaves in the area.
And not just that, what's interesting about it is it's largely made up of Anglos. People who came from England and from the States, who grew up secular, who converted to a very religious form of Judaism, and there's been a lot of these movements of people who start off secular, and when they become religious they go to the almost extreme form of religion.
In Hebrew it's called ba'al teshuva, and there's quite a few groups of them, and time and time again you see the more sort of extreme religious practices originating among Jews who originally were secular Americans, or secular Brits, who then take on sort of a specific teacher's way of interpreting Judaism.
STEWART: Sheera Frenkel is a Jerusalem-based reporter for the British newspaper The Times. Hey, Sheera. Thanks for sharing your reporting with us.
Ms. FRENKEL: You're welcome.
STEWART: Coming up, the Dalai Lama uses strong words this weekend to criticize China, saying the country is waging cultural genocide against supporters in Tibet, his supporters, specifically. We'll tell you the latest of what's going on. Stay with us here at The Bryant Park Project at NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.