Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is a very beautiful woman who insists on maintaining a solid, feminine style of dress appropriate to her role and status as well as to her being a member of a religious party, HaBayit HaYehudi. Shaked is also a very talented politician. She is an intelligent woman and an active minister, committed to promoting her right-wing agenda. People can admire her. People can argue with her. What no one can do is ignore her presence and influence on the political system and, by extension, on all of our lives.
That is why it is not at all clear what message Yam Amrani, an art student at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, was trying to convey when he chose to paint a colorful, sensuous portrait of Shaked with her upper body nude and include the work in an exhibition by the school’s graduates. Was he trying to humiliate Shaked because of her opinions?
The problematic portrait was discovered a day before the exhibitions opened, and at the order of the college’s president, former Minister Yuli Tamir, it was censored. Amrani was asked to cover Shaked’s face with black tape, and he did, but not before complaining to the media, “It’s a painful, fascist measure; any art lover would say the same.”
Tamir, who is herself a beautiful woman, rightfully claimed that the painting was offensive. She explained her decision by calling the painting an act of chauvinism, marred by tawdry sexism. “As a woman who has suffered from sexist attacks on more than one occasion, I will not let it happen. I respect Ayelet Shaked as a woman, and that has nothing to do with her politics.”
Meanwhile, Amrani got what he wanted. He was written up in the press, and he managed to break through the barrier of anonymity. He did this as a man through a cheap act of provocation at the expense of Shaked (and women in general) by objectifying her and using her body in the name of art.
The censored painting offers an opportunity to look at how female politicians in Israel handle the challenge of appearance and dress. How can they remain feminine and presentable without it negatively affecting the attention they receive for their work and the agendas they hope to advance? While this may seem trivial at first, anyone giving it the slightest thought realizes that this is no easy task. The painting shows Shaked, who dresses in a restrained style, stripped of her clothes by an artist and transformed into a tool to promote the artist’s own career. It is hard to imagine a woman producing such a baseless work.
Male politicians in Israel have a very clear dress code. They come to work in a suit and tie, just like their counterparts in many places around the world, or if they invest less in their looks, in a pair of slacks and a dress shirt at the very least. For women, however, the dress code is entirely different.
Unlike in other Western countries, where there is something akin to a dress code for female politicians, in Israel almost anything goes. Each politician has her own unique style. In many cases, they are unaware of the impact the way they dress has around them and the message it conveys.
For example, when Knesset member Tamar Zandberg was starting her career, the young Meretz member went to the Knesset sleeveless during the summer. This, by the way, revealed a tattoo on her arm. While it is true that Zandberg has the right to dress however she pleases for work, the problem is that because she works in the Knesset, dressing like that draws attention and is disrespectful to her status.
In contrast, another member of the Knesset, Merav Michaeli of the Zionist Camp, made a conscious decision to follow a dress code that she developed for herself: She always wears close-fitting opaque black clothing. Michaeli, a good-looking woman, is a well-known feminist activist who once exposed her bra on television in her previous career as a TV hostess, in 2007. She did it to send a message to then-President Moshe Katzav, who was convicted of rape, against the objectification of women no matter how they dress.
After being elected to the Knesset, Michaeli decided that she wanted people to listen to her without any background noise over how she looked or what she was wearing. She explained her decision to always wear black by pointing out that the suits men wear “erase” their bodies and invite us to focus on their heads and words. Women, on the other hand, wear colorful clothing that draws our attention to their bodies.
According to Michaeli, her black clothing serves as the equivalent of a suit and makes her body irrelevant. Even if Michaeli’s style ideology can be exhausting and tends toward the extreme, one must admit that it does make sense in a certain way. She has managed to eliminate any focus on her appearance.
This approach is somewhat reminiscent of Israel’s first and so far only female prime minister, Golda Meir, who was known for dressing like a dowdy aunt. Meir had no detailed explanations for the way she dressed, but maybe subconsciously she was relaying the message that she wanted to stay on topic, an “all business” approach. If so, she was successful. It is often admiringly said of her, “She was more of a man than any man,” even if she always wore skirts and dresses. In a political arena dominated by men, that was a compliment.
Shaked, no less than Meir, has been able to operate in a tough, authoritative political environment and advance her agenda, even with her pretty face and her stylish women’s clothing. The combination may be hard to swallow. There are even those who say that her right-wing views only add to the complexity. It is quite clear that Shaked evokes interest because of all that.
In May 2015, former Minister Yosef Paritzky wrote a very rude and sexist post about her. Among other things, he quipped, “This is the first time that an Israeli justice minister could star on a pinup calendar hanging in a garage.” He added, “She is as beautiful as the women of the Third Reich.” Although it is certainly Paritzky's right to express himself that way since he is no longer a public figure (for quite a while), what he said is further evidence of the difficulty of Israelis (particularly men) to accept a pretty woman among the country’s political and legal leadership.
It is quite possible that Amrani was also “challenged” by this and therefore attempted to contend with the “image” through art. His choice of painting a nude is legitimate, of course, but since the exhibition is sponsored by an academic institution, Tamir did the right thing, as both president of the college and a former minister, when she refused to cooperate with the objectification of women in the name of art. That is also a message worth sending.
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