February 28, 2024

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Pharmacy chain facing boycott threat after covering up pictures of women on products

The Bnei Brak branch of a major pharmacy chain has been concealing the faces of women on the store’s products to comply with extreme ultra-Orthodox modesty customs widely decried as discriminatory, marking the latest instance of women being erased from Haredi public life.

A photo from the branch of Shufersal’s Be pharmacy showing a shelf of hair products with purple stickers placed on the boxes to hide images of women’s faces and hair sparked a storm this week, drawing calls for a boycott of the chain.

The outcry marked the latest instance of a large Israeli company running into trouble by attempting to cater to the demands of Israel’s large and growing ultra-Orthodox population, where public displays deemed immodest or outside rabbinical approval are shunned and can lead to vandalism or organized boycotts. Photos of women, including young girls and even babies, are generally kept out of newspapers or magazines, advertisements, product branding, or any other printed material aimed at the ultra-Orthodox community.

The photo of the stickers over the products was taken Monday by social worker Galit Siton and quickly spread online after a Channel 12 news item on the pharmacy that evening. The cascade of responses included some saying they would no longer shop at the pharmacy, or the even larger Shufersal supermarket chain.

“The second I saw it I thought what kind of message does that send,” Siton told the network. “A woman’s face is a bad thing? We are teaching people that women are impure, how much that damages someone’s self-image. … It’s like Tehran in Iran. It’s the same fanaticism. If we let it grow, where will it lead?”

Though Siton said she had not noticed the stickers before despite having been in the store previously, and others attempted to link the pharmacy’s move to the current political atmosphere, evidence online showed that the stickers have been around since October 2021 at least.

In response to Siton’s picture, members of the gender-equality pressure group Bonot Alternativa posted notices reading “Attention, they erase women here,” outside several Be locations around Israel.

Others took more strident action, such as Guy Ophir, a local lawyer who posted a video on Facebook of him confronting the branch manager inside the store and demanding that the stickers be removed because they are disrespectful to women.

The branch manager responded that he would only remove the stickers if given an order to do so and police were called to the scene to force Ophir to leave.

And some have turned mockups of the purple stickers into a trendy, tongue-in-cheek accessory for pictures posted online, covering faces of women in normal situations or historical photos to drive home the effect of the controversial practice.

 

In a statement, Shufersal said that the Bnei Brak chain is designed especially for the ultra-Orthodox community that it serves, adding that this is their only store that conceals the faces of women.

According to business daily TheMarker, local rabbis had threatened to declare a boycott against the store if the company did not comply with demands to hide women’s faces. Be had reached an agreement with the rabbis to hire a “kosher supervisor” at the store to oversee compliance with their demands, TheMarker reported.

In an informal Twitter poll by Yaya Fink, an Orthodox Labor party activist who founded a group this month aimed at organizing masses of consumers to support stores boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox, nonetheless found that most thought Be was a legitimate target for a boycott by his group.

Discrimination against women in the ultra-Orthodox public sphere is prevalent in Israel.

Earlier this month, a video surfaced of Haredi men denying entry to a woman trying to board a bus. And this week, an ad in a Beit Shemesh circular calling for small girls not to play where men can see them drew condemnation and charges that it was supporting pedophilia.

Photographs of women on billboards or signs in Jerusalem and other cities are regularly defaced. In the capital, the Egged bus cooperative had been sued several times for refusing to allow ads with pictures of women on buses that travel through ultra-Orthodox areas.

In Rosh Ha’ayin, a largely secular city, some have complained in recent days after the city began selling tickets to a children’s show, with only males allowed to sit in the first 10 rows and women relegated to the back rows of the auditorium.

Only 39 of the venue’s 600 seats are being sold for families that wish to sit together.

A screenshot of the seating arrangement at the children’s play in Rosh Ha’ayin. Rows 1-10 are reserved for men, rows 11-19 are reserved for women and the side sections G and C are reserved for families. (Screenshot via makombalev.co.il)

“When you start to normalize gender segregation in a public sphere and the erasure of women from any public appearance, you will end up with horrific incidents like the ones we’ve been seeing the last few days,” said Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet, an NGO that deals with religion and state issues.

The city denied segregating the venue by gender and said the seating arrangements were organized so the family event could be used by all according to their needs.

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