“It distracts the boys”: Israeli high school girls fight to wear shorts (& not be deemed sexual objects)

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Israel is a liberal place, right? If you walk around the mostly secular, sea-side party town of Tel Aviv, you can wear what you like and do what you like.  I mean, just compare Israel to it’s neighbours. Women have got it great here, don’t they?

Well, not quite. A new protest movement of high school girls is a potent reminder of Israel’s illiberal sides, and of the fact that rape culture is alive and well here.

High school girls are up in arms because, even in the blistering, unbearable temperatures of a recent heat wave, some high schools have banned girls from wearing shorts above a certain length. Boys, on the other hand, can wear shorts as short as they like.

The reasons these girls were given are shocking. One was told by a (female) school staff member that girls wearing shorts “distracts the boys.” Others, meanwhile, were told that shorts at mid-thigh length aren’t respectful.

Rejecting the notion that the ban on wearing shorts protects them, more and more high school girls have joined what has become a grassroots, online protest, as have some of their male peers. Students have been posting pictures on Facebook holding up signs saying things like “don’t teach us how to dress.” They have been sharing testimonies and pictures of themselves in shorts. One Facebook page, “Silent no more – Fighting for freedom and equality” has a lot of these posts. Meanwhile, on Sunday students sent a letter to Education Minister Naftali Bennett urging him to do something about this, according to Mako. A protest outside the Knesset is planned on June 16.

Speaking to Army Radio on Monday morning, Anastasia, who goes to a secular high school in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, recalled how she was sent home from her high school Bagrut exam to change her shorts.

These are the kinds of things the school’s management has been telling students, according to Anastasia: “The legs of a man aren’t like a girl’s. That girls legs attract while men’s don’t.” And also: “They told us that if we come in shorts, it means that we want someone to do something to us, that we aren’t respecting ourselves.” As she put it, “They present us as sexual objects.” Anastasia doesn’t think students should be able to wear very revealing clothes to school, which she thinks are inappropriate, but insists that the shorts she wore were completely acceptable.

This is not exactly a country-wide policy mandated by the Education Ministry. As a representative of the ministry told Army Radio, the ministry leaves it up to each school to decide on appropriate dress code. That means that this kind of misogynist message is cropping up organically across the country, from male and female management staff. As one girl wrote on Facebook: “This entire education system is trying to tell us that we are trying to be attractive, no more than that.”

As this girl well understood, the message is one that perpetuates rape culture. Women’s bodies provoke rape, they distract their male peers, and teenage girls should cover themselves up so as not to distract men – that’s the message. Men, by the way, includes adult teachers, according to some of those Facebook testimonies.

Not only that, many of the girls point out that their older, female teachers do come to work wearing relatively short shorts, skirts and dresses. So another message they are receiving is that, as young women, they are even more “dangerous” to poor, horny teenage boys. Boys, meanwhile, are hearing these messages too. One wonders what effect this has on the way they see their female peers.

One of the most depressing sides to the story is that women themselves are passing on these messages.  Female management staff are telling these girls that their thighs and arses are a dangerous sight at school, and that showing their bodies is asking for it. They are telling them that their bodies are inherently sexual, arousing desire whether they like it or not, and that their sexuality is subordinate to male desire. Women internalise these messages to such a degree that we continue to pass them on to the next generation.

Luckily, these young women are seeing through it, and this is the least depressing, most hopeful part of the story.  Hopefully, when it’s their turn to run our schools, they will apply some common sense.

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