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The Haredi burqa sect (Hebrew: נשות השָאלִים Nešót HaŠälím, meaning “Shal(-wearing) Women”), is a religious group, primarily concentrated in Israel, in which ultra-Orthodox Jewish (Haredi) women claim that modesty calls for a burqa-style covering of the entire body, a shal (plural shalim, English shawl), including a veil covering the face. The garment, which looks more like a niqab than a burqa, is also called frumka, a play of the word frum (Yiddish for devout) and burqa. The group, which was estimated to number around 100 in 2008 and several hundred in 2011, is concentrated in the town of Beit Shemesh.
The issue has proven controversial in Haredi circles, with vocal condemnation of the face covering veil by some Haredi organizations, including Edah HaChareidis.
The frumka as a mode of dress for Haredi women was encouraged by Bruria Keren, an Israeli religious leader who taught a strict (by Orthodox standards) interpretation of Jewish scripture for female adherents. Keren, who covers herself in several layers of clothing, claims that covering women was originally a Jewish tradition, and that she has seen a 400-year-old picture of Jewish women covered from head to toe. There are also Sephardic women, who claim that their mothers covered their bodies entirely so that one cannot discern their figures. Keren declares to “follow these rules of modesty to save men from themselves. A man who sees a woman’s body parts is sexually aroused, and this might cause him to commit sin. Even if he doesn’t actually sin physically, his impure thoughts are sin in themselves”. Some of her followers also have their small girls covering themselves in the same way, and the women do not expose their face even at home.The religious group, which was estimated to number around 100 in 2008 and may have grown to several hundred by 2011, is concentrated in Beit Shemesh, but also has followers in Safed and Jerusalem. The majority of the women have secular backgrounds.
In February 2008, Bruria Keren was arrested on charges of severely abusing her children. Identified in court as “B.”, she was convicted by the Jerusalem District Court in 2009 on three counts of abuse of a minor or helpless person and 25 counts of assault in aggravated circumstances, and sentenced to four years in prison. Her husband, identified in court as “M.” was also convicted of 10 counts of assault and three counts of abuse of a minor or helpless person, and was sentenced to six months in jail. After being sentenced to prison, Keren was succeeded as leader of the group by Bracha Benizri, who adopted the shawl out of concern for “the deteriorating state of modesty in the ultra-Orthodox community,” according to her husband Rabbi David Benizri, who reportedly claims that there are close to 30,000 women wearing the shawl in Israel.
Bruria Keren does not speak in front of men and has taken on various ascetic practices. During her prison term, she was hospitalized several times for malnutrition and other maladies as a result of her unwillingness to eat the food provided. Some members of the group reportedly do not believe in vaccination or treatments. On February 8, 2013, one woman’s baby allegedly died from untreated flu, with the parents then fleeing from the law. On another occasion, a new born baby had to be taken to hospital by force, after the mother had refused to go to hospital to give birth to avoid contact with hospitals and physicians. Other cases of child abuse and neglect have been reported within the group.
Children have been removed from school by their mothers and in one case a woman fled with her children because of a disagreement with a school. The women have also been reported to refuse marital relations. In another case, a 15-year-old boy was married to a 23-year-old woman at the decision of two of the group’s leaders. After the wedding, the groom wanted to divorce his wife, but she refused. As a result, the boy took an additional wife, with his family’s blessing. Halacha does not permit bigamy, and the new marriage caused a burst of anger and led the first wife to ultimately agree to the divorce.
Perception in Israeli society
The Israeli press has adopted the informal epithet “Taliban mothers” to refer to the followers of Bruria Keren’s teachings on modesty. According to Miriam Shaviv the estimated 100 “gullible and needy” Jewish women for whom Keren was a holy woman, were not forced but convinced by Keren “that the ideal for a woman was not to be seen in public (and not even to be heard – she used to stop talking for days on end). Negating themselves, she was telling them, making themselves invisible, was the height of frumkeit, while in fact it has no basis whatsoever in halachah”. The Israel National Council for the Child has requested the Welfare Ministry to look into the matter and make sure this behavior is not harmful to the girls.
Religious and legal reaction
The response by other Orthodox schools has been stronger than the rest of the public, and characterized by consternation, particularly against the shal garment. An anonymous pashkevil condemning the “cult” of “epikoros” women was posted in Jerusalem in September 2011. The Edah HaChareidis issued an edict declaring the act of wearing the shawl to be a sexual fetish as deviant as scant clothing or nudity. “There is a real danger that by exaggerating, you are doing the opposite of what is intended [resulting in] severe transgressions in sexual matters,” explains Edah member Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim. The religious court of Beit Shemesh has issued a sharp condemnation of the group, and warned Jewish women and girls not to be drawn after them or follow their customs.
People in Beit Shemesh, which includes some of the most religiously radical sects in Orthodoxy, considered the group of women ridiculously – even psychotically – zealous.Even Sikrikim came out against the phenomenon of wearing veils, which they consider extreme. The women were regularly ostracized and humiliated by the local haredi community because of their clothing. “We pulled them off buses and yelled at them, ‘Desecrators of God’s name!'”, one inhabitant said. The movement has caused severe distress among the women’s husbands and relatives, although most husbands endure it. Some men accuse the covered women of being immodest, because they draw more attention to themselves with their unusual dress. One man went to a rabbinical court in an attempt to get a ruling to force his wife to stop wearing the burka. Instead, the court, however, found the woman’s behaviour so “extreme” that it ordered the couple to undergo an immediate religious divorce.
In 2014, Israeli police shot a member of the sect after she walked into the Western Wall area without stopping at a security checkpoint. She survived and was taken to the hospital for treatment.
Yair Nehorai, an Israeli lawyer who has represented individuals involved in the “Taliban Mother” case and other orthodox extremists, has written a book loosely based on the real-life “Taliban Mother” case. The book, “Taliban Son” has been released in Hebrew and in German translation.
Another Haredi group which requires female adherents to wear such shawls is the Lev Tahor group of Israeli-Canadian rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. A Messianic claimant and faith healer from Tel Aviv named Goel Ratzon reportedly lived with 32 women who neighbors said “wore modest clothing that neighbors likened to those of religious Muslims” before he was arrested.