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Middle East

Ultra-Orthodox rebel candidate runs for women in Israeli election

For the first time, a party fighting for the rights of ultra-Orthodox women is taking part in an Israeli election. Candidates have been greeted with hostility from other ultra-Orthodox Jews. Tania Krämer in Jerusalem.

Only a few people answered her Facebook post and came to this small park in Jerusalem, but Ruth Kolian hasn't let that discourage her. The young ultra-Orthodox woman is campaigning for her party Be'zchutan, a Hebrew play on words that translates as "Thanks to them."

On this sunny Sunday afternoon in a secular Jerusalem neighborhood, she tirelessly approaches passersby and tries to convince them about her ideas. "We need this party now because we have been marginalized for all these years," says the 33-year-old, with a smile. "It is time that we were better represented, and demand our place for ultra-Orthodox women in the Knesset."

Kolian is a co-founder of the first-ever party for ultra-Orthodox women. Four candidates want to win seats in the Knesset on Tuesday, and they're causing a sensation. Even here in this small park Kolian is surrounded by television crews and reporters, outnumbering the few potential voters.

The young politician is a mother of four, a law student and is considered a rebel in her community. "Anything is better than the current situation. Ultra-Orthodox women are really shut out of everything," she says.

Strenggläubiger Jude in Mea Sharim Jerusalem

Extreme Orthodox Jews have clearly defined roles, depending upon gender

It's an unusual and bold stance in the world of the Haredim (Hebrew for "one who trembles in awe of the word of God"). About 9 percent of the Israeli population is considered to be strictly ultra-Orthodox. Women do not have much of a place in this closed community, at least outwardly.

A different set of rules exists in Haredi residential areas. Advertisements featuring women are not allowed. In January, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper caused a sensation by photoshopping German Chancellor Angela Merkel out of a press picture taken at the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march in Paris.

The assignment of roles is clearly defined among the Haredim - women are responsible for the family and children. At the same time, women often have to earn the household income for their families while the men dedicate themselves to the study of the Torah. Some 80 percent of Haredi women work.

More rights for religious women

"We are always told that our foremost job is to be a housewife, but we do much more than that, we carry the entire load. And even then they do nothing for us," says Kolian. That means political parties, like Shas, which are dominated by ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to allow female candidates to stand for election. Kolian doesn't see herself represented by them.

With that sentiment, the young politician finds a sympathetic ear among secular Israelis. "Unfortunately, I have to say that I don't believe they have much of a chance," says Danny Rubenstein, a journalist. "But they play an important role in Israel's society and economy, because almost none of their husbands work. They sit in the yeshiva all day long, and the women have to go to work." Rubenstein thinks that it's about time that the ultra-Orthodox women were finally seated in the Knesset.

Ruth Kolian bei Wahlkampfveranstaltung in Jerusalem

Ruth Kolian is relentless in her campaigning on the streets of Jerusalem

Kolian has very clear ideas about what she would do as a member of the Knesset. She sees a need for action in the health care sector. Haredi male members often don't even bother to attend Knesset debates about women's health care issues, illustrated recently during debates about preventative breast cancer testing. Kolian says that it's considered indecent and problematic to talk about such things, as well as other taboo subjects like domestic violence.

"When an ultra-Orthodox woman is the victim of domestic violence, it's said that first she is beaten by her husband and then by the community," says Kolian. "It's not customary to talk about it openly, if a woman does so she is quickly labeled a bellyacher." And in the end the state doesn't help her either. There simply wouldn't be enough shelters for ultra-Orthodox women, whose needs are different from non-religious women.

Prison sentence for divorce?

One of her fellow campaigners experienced this firsthand. Gila Yashar stands in front of the rabbinical court on King George Street in central Jerusalem and reads out a petition. Camera teams have also congregated around her. Several passers-by stop out of curiosity. During her nasty divorce trial with her husband, the judge unceremoniously sentenced her to 10 days in prison. Now, Yashar is fighting for the right to at least keep her apartment.

"I want to campaign for the creation of independent centers that woman can truly turn to for help as an alternative to the religious courts," says Yashar, herself a mother of seven. "It simply cannot be true that women have to forfeit all of their rights when they divorce their husbands." Those women who want to get a divorce in a religious court are dependent upon the consent of their spouses.

A few supporters have also come to Yashar's protest. "I'm here because it makes me really angry that the rabbinical courts aren't doing anything to change the situation even though they could," says Naava Schafner. The young woman, who is religious herself, wants to support the women's party "because it is time to change that."

Another pedestrian, a pious Jewish man, stops to talk. "I've thought a lot about their ideas," says Yaakov Moshe Katz, "but they can't fight all of the rabbis. Every rabbi is against them, they are really all against them."

Harsh criticism and animosity

And in the world of the strictly religious, the rabbis set the standards. Yossi Elituv, editor-in-chief of the religious weekly Mishpaha, describes the new party as a "media phenomenon." Elituv says that when someone in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Mea Sharim coughs, it is immediately registered in the secular world "without really understanding what it means."

Gila Yashar Politikerin in Jerusalem

A difficult divorce has provided the inspiration for Gila Yashar to seek a change to the law

He doesn't see the women starting a revolution. "First they have to convince their sisters that it is a good idea to be on the front lines," says Elituv. "That may be the case in secular society, but in traditional Judaism there is one role for the man, and one role for the woman. It has been that way for 3,000 years, since we were given the Torah."

Kolian knows such arguments all too well, and faces a lot of animosity. But she says that she has the support of her family. "It is difficult to change things in our society. It won't happen overnight. And women from our community don't just go out into the streets to demonstrate. Apart from that, others seem to feel threatened by our ideas," she says.

Insults and hostility have become an everyday occurrence, says Kolian. She says that she has to turn off her cell phone at night to keep from being constantly harassed by abusive callers. But she has no intention of giving up. A dream result would be four in the Knesset. They may be far away from that right now, but the women of Be'zchutan have started a discussion. And that in itself is a minor revolution.