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Women of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Illusions

On September 12-13, I had the great privilege of being invited to speak at a Symposium on Women Victims of Fundamentalism and Domestic Violence, held under the auspices of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. Twenty countries were represented, and over 150 heads of women’s rights organization’s world-wide participated.

As I listened to Princess Widjan Ali of Jordan describe the legal framework that encourages “honor” killings in her country; Mrs. Shoukria Haidar, chairwoman of the Afghan woman’s rights organization NEGAR, talk about the unbelievable oppression of women under the Taliban regime; and Margaret Komuhang of Uganda of the Pan African Women’s Liberation Organization describe the sexual mutilation of young girls in the name of custom, a little red light went on in my head. All fundamentalist religions are the same: they distort and corrupt religious teachings, using religion as a weapon to beat women into submission.

Today, however, these weapons don’t work. From Jerusalem to Nigeria to Lebanon, there is a cadre of educated women well-versed in the sacred texts of their religion. It was fascinating to hear Mrs. Nouara Recham, of the Association of Muslim Women of Eastern France, go through the teachings of the Koran, proving that “honor” killings, mutilations, and veilings had no source in the text.

Jewish women can and are making the same case when it comes to the social norms governing birth control, marriage, divorce, child custody, and women’s place in society as opposed to what’s written in our Torah.

I was encouraged too, by the report of Mrs. Olof Olafsdottir, secretary of the Steering Committee for Equality between Men and Women of the Council of Europe. Their proposals include removing abusive men from the home, instead of having women flee to shelters; speeding up court cases, and providing free legal advice to victims. Most important is the proposal to make domestic abuse a crime against the State, as it is in Germany. When domestic abuse becomes, for example, a crime against public order, the State is then a party to the dispute, and responsible for the protection and well-being of every victim. In Canada, 57% of all murdered women are killed by their partners. In Europe, it is one out of two.

Unlike some of my fellow Jewish women activists who harbor the illusion that change will come to the Jewish world through the front door, with a groundswell of sudden rabbinic conscience, I have no such illusions. On the contrary, I believe that change will come — as it always does in Judaism – through the back door; through little, courageous, much vilified organizations like Rabbi Morgenstern’s Beit Din for Agunot; through women simply getting annulments wherever they can and going on with their lives; and through more militant and outspoken Jewish women’s organizations. It will come when the rabbinic establishment has no choice but to accept women’s rights as a fait accompli.

A few years ago, the National Council of Jewish Women presented 30,000 signatures to the chief rabbis of Israel, asking them to convene a world conference on agunot. The signatures, and the plea, was ignored. This year, the NCJW sent out invitations to 100 rabbinical leaders, once again inviting them to participate in such a conference. I plan to print each rabbi’s name and his response in this column.

What I came back with from this conference is the following: As much as we Jews like to think we are special and our problems unique, when it comes to women’s rights, Jewish women are in exactly the same boat as our sisters all over the world suffering from a false interpretation religious dogma which encourages their social imprisonment, death or injury. For the Koran, it turns out, never calls for either honor killings, mutilation, or the criminal excesses of the Taliban. This was the bright idea of the religious leaders and the community. Sound familiar? Likewise, our Torah never says that a woman has to stay married to a man she despises, or that a marriage is impossible to dissolve without the husband’s permission. Our rabbis decided that. And now — in face of all the untold suffering and intolerable injustice this is causing — it is time for them to have the courage to undecide it.

To help our religious leadership understand that patience and time are running out, the moment has come for Jewish women to raise their voices in international forums, becoming part of the world-wide struggle of women for equality and justice. We need the support of other women. And we need to be involved in supporting their just and very similar struggles. Perhaps then, our rabbis, imams, and priests will finally sit up and listen. Perhaps then, our cries will simply be too loud — or too embarrassing — to ignore.

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