Israel’s First All-Female Ultra-Orthodox Political Party Started By Haredi Woman

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The definition of feminism is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. But what about religious equality? When religion is tied into so many facets of our culture today, especially politics, how can it be an area that we ignore? It is often something we talk about here at GTHQ, as we firmly believe it is the fourth missing strand in the definition of feminism.

Just a quick look at how women are pushing for equality in many of the major world religions shows you what an influence feminism has had on all areas of life, including faith.

In Israel, the heart and birthplace of Judaism, there is a movement happening amongst a specific religious sect where women are pushing for greater representation in politics.

The “Bezchutan: Haredi Women Making Change” party is the first all-female ultra-Orthodox party catering to Haredi women in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Orthodox law prohibits women from voting and from having a role in public life, while the big decisions are left to the men and the husbands. Women surprisingly are also expected to be the bread winners of the family, while the men devote their lives to religious education.

One brave Orthodox woman, Ruth Colian, decided to go against tradition, not to trample all over her beliefs, but in order to create a way for religious women to be equally represented in their society.

Currently, the two ultra-orthodox parties represented in the Knesset are unsurprisingly exclusively male. Ruth formed Bezchutan in time for the March federal elections and hope that it will give ultra-orthodox women a voice in politics like never before.

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They are not campaigning with expensive advertising, recommendations from local Rabbis or even TV commercials. They are relying on word of mouth. The news of this party is creating quite a buzz amongst Israeli feminists who are heralding the move as courageous and much-needed.

“Considering that these women are coming from a world where they have been prohibited from holding public office, the new Haredi feminist movement is radical and revolutionary,” said Elana Sztokman, an Israeli feminist. “It’s creating a buzz both within and outside the community.”

They aren’t predicted to get enough votes to win a seat (they need at least 120,000 to get across the line), but the mere visibility of their existence in political life is huge.

“In theory a Haredi woman votes according to what her husband tells her, which is based on what the rabbi tells him,” said Ruth Colian, a 34 year-old activist, mother of four, and a Haredi new to politics who founded the party in January. “But we know that in the voting booth that decision is between the woman and God.”

According to data, nearly 12% of Israelis are Haredi Jews, and they have been instrumental in domestic policy, from social-welfare packages for the poor to military exemptions for yeshiva students. To have women now part of this important conversation is a major step forward toward religious and gender equality.

Ruth’s party is certainly making headlines around the world, but she has also had to put up with her fair share of expected criticism.

“People have threatened me, harassed me by phone. They have called me a slut for daring to run for office.”

Haredi men have told her the women should remain in the “background”.

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Ruth and the eight other Bezchutan candidates — six women, two men — running in the election are focusing on women’s issues. She said Haredi schools pay teachers lower wages than teachers in regular schools, “because Haredi women don’t know their rights.”

She also said twice as many Haredi women die from breast cancer than non-Haredi women, because many don’t go for screenings. “In Haredi society it is considered immodest to say the word ‘breast’,” she added.”Thousands of women are praying for our success. I can’t let them down.”

The party believes Haredi women should be afforded the same rights and same equalities as other women in Israel. They have been getting support from many non-religious women’s groups in the country, and despite Rabbis prohibiting members from watching TV and surfing the internet, social media has been a huge part of how word is getting out about Bezchutan.

“Social media has definitely given a power to this kind of political movement that didn’t exist before,” said Elana Sztokman. “You can be sure Bezchutan is the subject of conversation at countless Shabbat lunches, even if it’s in the kitchen among the women. That in itself is a huge shift. Its very existence has already started to have an influence. Haredi men have no choice but to acknowledge that things are changing around them.”

While this is the first time a major women’s Haredi party is campaigning for a seat at the highest level of government, Haredi women have served in local municipal seats in the past. In 2013 Shira Gergi became the first Haredi woman to sit on a municipal council. There has been another Haredi woman serve in the Knesset, Tzvia Greenfeld, but she ran as part of the secular Meretz party list in 2008.

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Slate reports that Ruth was asked why she didn’t just run on a non-Haredi ticket, she emphasized the importance of preserving her identity and demonstrating that educated women and leaders can still be Haredi.

“The formation of a women’s party is a very different political strategy than forming an advocacy group to get religious parties to allow women on the lists. [Colian’s] approach takes the movement for social change outside of the existing systems and suggests that change for women can only come when women have a “room of their own.” said Elana Sztokman in a blog post for Forward.

“Clearly we are witnessing a turning point for haredi women, one that may be a result of a confluence of factors. One factor is that haredi women have been working and advancing careers and integrating with secular society in ways that men have not, and are thus being exposed to modern ideas and practices around gender. Another factor may be growing frustration with increasing gender-based radicalism that is sweeping through their communities, where rabbis are constantly coming up with new ways to keep women down,” she continued.

Elana says the party is yet to clarify the specific areas they will campaign for that affect the Haredi community, including encouraging men to work and enlist in the army. But overall she believes it is a political tipping point for Israel and is a signal to the rest of the world that this is not necessarily an isolated incident, thanks to the growing feminist movement.

“This movement could be a backlash against [radicalism], where women are saying, ‘Enough!’ Or it could be part of a larger trend in Israel and around the world where feminist ideology is gaining traction among women everywhere — even in the most traditional societies. Maybe it was just a matter of time before the feminist revolution reached even haredi society. ”

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