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'Sickening' And 'Radical': Why These Women Are So Controversial

A Jewish sect that wears burqas. Not much is widely known about the ultra-Orthodox and controversial Haredi burqa sect.

The Jewish women are recognisable for their highly conservative dress. They cover themselves head to toe in multiple layers of black fabric.

Their faces are covered with cloth. Nothing is exposed. No hands, no feet, no eyes.

They call the covering the 'frumqa' or the Jewish burqa, and they're controversial because both their dress and their attitude are considered an inappropriate expression of the Jewish faith by some Jews.

The group of just a few hundred followers is concentrated largely in the Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, and has never attracted rabbinical endorsement.

Women in the Haredi burqa sect in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood . Image: AFP.

"Although Israel is a free country where people can dress how they wish, to purport that this dress code has its origins anywhere in Jewish law is utterly untrue and grossly misleading," Senior Rabbi Yaakov Glasman of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation in Melbourne and immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand told 10 daily.

"The fact that this practice has been roundly condemned by all streams within the Jewish world, including ultra-orthodox groups, illustrates that it has no place whatsoever in Judaism."

The sect was started by Bruria Keren -- nicknamed 'Mama Taliban' --who taught a very strict interpretation of Jewish scripture. Keren, who was known to wear 27 layers of clothing, claimed women who covered themselves were preventing the men from committing sexual sin when they saw a woman's body.

Women from the Haredi burqa sect. Image: AFP.

“I follow these rules of modesty to save men from themselves," Keren is believed to have said when she explained the basis of her teachings to followers.

"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."

Under her teachings, women are also encouraged not to speak in front of men, to avoid all forms of self indulgence, and adapt to a life of total discipline.

"They claim that by donning floor-length black garments and shawls ... which conceal their entire bodies, that they are following the teachings of Maimonides, considered the greatest Jewish philosopher in history and the author of many Jewish Laws," Dr Dvir Abramovich, The Israel Kipen director of the Jewish Culture and Society program at the University of Melbourne, told 10 daily.

The group has long been deemed controversial in Judaism, as it is not regarded as a true presentation of Jewish practice. Regardless, the sect believes their practices and dress are the epitome of commitment to religious law.

"They believe that by maintaining this hyper-modesty and chastity in public, that they will reach salvation," Abramovich said.

"However, a majority of rabbis in Israel and abroad reject this extreme dress code, arguing that this rationale for covering up every inch of the body has no religious backing, and that there is nothing in Judaism that mandates this radical attire."

The sect attracted an even greater amount of backlash when Keren was convicted of abusing her own children and served four years in prison.

"It is true they are not endorsed," Claudia Mendoza, director of policy and public affairs at the Jewish Leadership Council, told 10 daily.

"They are viewed as radical because there is nothing in the Talmud which says you must cover your body and face in such a way."

A woman from the controversial Haredi burqa sect. Image: Twitter/ Bradley Purdue.

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Mendoza said while the dress is condemned, it is the wider attitude of the women that sees them treated as outcasts.

"I think the concern is more about what attitude comes with the sect, rather than the actual clothing, which many find in bad taste anyway," she said.

Abramovich concurred, saying the sect is not accepted by wider Israeli society.

"Most Israelis find this controversial phenomenon disturbing and have expressed their disgust at what they consider a sickening exploitation of young girls and a warped distortion of the Jewish faith," he said.

Featured Image: AFP. 

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au