For 25 years, the Jewish feminist activists known as Women of the Wall have faced arrests, court battles, and allegations of upsetting public order for wrapping themselves in prayer shawls and carrying Torah scrolls – two accoutrements normally reserved for men – at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
Though the WOW movement has gained momentum in recent months, it has largely failed to garner much mainstream support in Israel, where much of the population is secular and the more modern, gender-egalitarian Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are fairly marginal among religious Jews.
But the women activists have caught the eye of designers at Comme Il Faut, one of Tel Aviv’s most cutting-edge fashion houses, and inspired their 2013-14 winter collection – entitled "There is none other besides her."
“We heard that the Women of the Wall wanted to pray out loud, which in Judaism is: Oi va voy, the responsibility is for men, and women have to shut up,” says the company's secular CEO and founder Sybil Goldfiner, who adds it's a perfect match given her company’s penchant for social commentary. “We saw their stand for women’s rights really admirable.”
Tapping into the styles worn by men in the most conservative and socially insulated Jewish community in Israel, the designers tailored elegant silhouettes that are still patently feminine. Starchy white button-down shirts, the fringed prayer shawl (or tallit), and the heavy coat were reinterpreted for pieces such as “Rachel,” which like all of the collection’s pieces is named after a biblical figure.
Beyond the aesthetics, both the designers and the activists hope to bring the controversy around religious pluralism and women’s rights to Israel’s mainstream. The world of Tel Aviv – considered the country’s commercial and cultural “bubble” – and Jerusalem, its religious and political center, "couldn't be farther apart," says WOW's PR director Shira Pruce. “But Jewish women in Israel are hungry for a way to be empowered religiously, without being stifled or silenced.”
The Comme Il Faut designers attended WOW's 25th anniversary gathering at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and proceeds from a T-shirt featuring the slogan, We lovingly give permission to one another will go to the organization.
Ms. Goldfiner, the CEO, acknowledges that her line is a political statement, but asserts that from challenging conventional images of beauty to supporting women’s prayer rights, the fashion industry has a social responsibility.
“We don’t want to just be provocative, but for us the personal is political,” she says.