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On Israel campaign trail, Orthodox women beat lonely path

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews stand on a street as thousands of them take part in a rally to show support to their political parties a few days before Israel votes in a snap general election, on March 11, 2015 in Bnei Brak, near the coastal city of Tel Aviv. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN

Ultra-Orthodox Jews stand on a street as thousands of them take part in a rally to show support to their political parties a few days before Israel votes in a snap general election, on March 11, 2015 in Bnei Brak, near the coastal city of Tel Aviv. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN

Armed with flyers and with set jaws, two young women stride through the streets of Israeli town Beit Shemesh on a campaign to win female votes within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Their mission is not an easy one: they are looking to secure support for B’Zchutan, a new women’s party running in Tuesday’s general election, to tackle issues affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox women.

Never before has Israel had a political party run by ultra-Orthodox women for ultra-Orthodox women. Until now, women in this tightly-knit and closed community have had to rely on male-only representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

But Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old law student and mother-of-four who founded and heads B’Zchutan, says traditional ultra-Orthodox parties have done nothing to advance critical issues facing their community.

Colian notes domestic violence, chronic wage discrimination and a breast cancer death rate more than double the national average.

Days before the vote, Colian and her deputy Noa Erez brought their campaign to Beit Shemesh, a city of 94,000 located 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of Jerusalem, where some 55 percent of the population are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim.

In recent years, the city has hit the headlines after a series of verbal and physical attacks on women over “modesty” issues.

As night falls, the streets are largely empty, with only a handful of traditionally-dressed men in black milling around the local synagogue.

On the pavement outside is a large sign in Hebrew which reads: “Women are requested to avoid walking or standing on this pavement which is used for those coming to the synagogue.”

“Whores!” someone hisses in Yiddish at Colian and Erez.

From out of nowhere, a bag filled with water explodes on the road next to them as they try to talk to a lone woman in a headscarf.

“You don’t represent us… don’t come here making problems,” she scolds, trying to shoo them away.

“When my rabbi tells me, I will know what to vote.”

– Suffering in silence –

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up around 10 percent of Israel’s population of 8.3 million, are a powerful political force who have been part of all but two Israeli governments since the foundation of the state in 1948.

While there are no clear figures on the number of Orthodox women, the Haredi community is known for its high turnout during elections.

But the main ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, do not accept female candidates, with women expected to vote in line with what their husbands tell them, which is whatever the rabbis decree, activists say.

For Erez, running as number 2 on B’Zchutan’s list, the party’s aim is to give a voice to a deeply downtrodden sector of society, suffering from pressing issues which are simply not discussed.

“There are many, many women suffering from domestic violence who just have to keep their mouths shut. But the moment they try to expose the problem, they are outcast, banished,” says the 31-year-old mother-of-four who is studying criminal law.

“We simply want to support women who are afraid, to tell them: we’re here for you.”

Haredi women also suffer from poor health education, with most ignorant of the dangers posed by breast or ovarian cancer.

“It’s just not seen as ‘modest’ to talk about breast cancer or ovarian cancer,” she said. “Women simply don’t know about it.”

Although there was no physical violence against Colian and Erez in Beit Shemesh, there were frequent expressions of hostility.

“A woman should be at home, not wandering around the streets. It’s not modest,” shouts a man from a passing car.

“The highest place for a woman is in her home,” says a softly-spoken woman called Esther pushing a buggy.

“There are problems, nobody is denying that. But women who place themselves above the rabbis have got it wrong.”

Professor Tamar El Or, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said it was unlikely that B’Zchutan would achieve more than a couple of hundred votes.

“Forget about seats. They will get only a few votes. If they get 300-500 votes this will be a lot — but it will come from non-Orthodox supporters, so it’s not from the right community,” she told AFP.

But although the party was unlikely to make much impact on support for the traditional Haredi parties, El Or said the very fact of its formation was a key step towards breaking the glass ceiling.

“It is important: these are brave women and this is how revolutions start.



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