Last month, Belgium’s lower house of parliament backed a bill to ban face-covering clothing in public. Now, Kadima’s Marina Solodkin has resolved to introduce similar legislation to the Knesset, directed at Muslim women and members of a tiny Charedi cult in Beit Shemesh who have begun covering their faces.
For precedent she does not cite the Belgians but a political force rarely held up in Israel as an inspiration – the Soviets.
“As someone brought up in the Former Soviet Union, I know how important it is for women not to cover their faces because in the 1920s the Soviet government forbade central Asian women from covering their faces,” she said.
Ms Solodkin, an MK for 14 years, claims this was a turning-point for women in central Asia, who became empowered in education and in the workplace. She believes it could have a similar effect on Israeli Arab women.
Ms Solodkin says her proposal is necessary because many women do not want to cover their faces, but are forced to by male family members. Since women find it so hard to resist the pressure, “it has to be the state for its citizens.
“People say it’s what women want,” she added, “but people said that in China when women bound their feet and in India when they went to burn themselves together with their husbands.”
Arab leaders say that Ms Solodkin is not trying to address women’s status but rather trying to get herself in to the public eye, riding a wave of anti-Arab sentiment.
Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights, said that she has honed in on a rare practice among Israeli Arabs – he claimed that only one per cent of women wear the burka and use it “for political benefit”.
“If they [politicians] want to enhance the rights of Arab women they should concentrate on economic advancement,” he said.
In the Jewish community, women’s groups asked whether the proposed ban would really serve women’s interests. Zipi Amiri, spokeswoman for Wizo, said that while her organisation does not get involved in political lobbying for or against bills, “on a theoretical level” they oppose it. Women “have the right to decide for themselves on their mode of dress,” she said.
But if Ms Solodkin is acting, as her critics claim, to gain popularity, there is some indication her plan may backfire. While certain political measures aimed at the Arab community do prove popular, there is evidence that Jewish Israelis draw the line at legislation that interferes with religious practice.
In November, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban the building of mosque minarets. But while in the Swiss referendum 57.5 per cent of voters were for banning minarets and just 42.5 per cent against, a poll by Keevoon Research showed that just 28 per cent of Israeli Jews would support a similar ban, with 43 per cent against. Opposition was strongest among a demographic that usually embraces anti-Arab measures – voters of right-wing parties.
Keevoon’s CEO Mitchell Barak said that this indicates that the proposed burka ban will fail to impress Israelis.
If, however, the proposed ban does progress, experts predict that it could have serious implications for Israeli-Arab relations.
“It would cause further deep friction in relations with Palestinians and the Arab world,” said Tel Aviv University political scientist Dani Koren.