The first-ever Israeli political party dedicated to ultra-Orthodox women, was unveiled Monday.
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Heading the party, called “B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change” is Ruth Colian, 33, a veteran social activist and feminist who declared that this was a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra-Orthodox women.”
At a Tel Aviv press conference, looking determined but nervous, Colian made the announcement flanked by two other young women who had accepted invitations to run on her list in the upcoming elections - Noa Erez and Keren Muzan.
She said that her party’s goal was to represent “all women” particularly the underprivileged and single mothers who “have suffered at the hands of politicians who have run for office again and again promising to help and make their lives better and nothing changed” and who live on meager paychecks and face empty refrigerators, and those who suffered from domestic abuse or are struggling against the religious establishment.
“There are many walls of fear for Haredi women within their communities. They have nowhere to turn in the Knesset.”
As examples of the failure of the current male representation in the ultra-Orthodox parties to represent the interests of women in their community, Colian noted the absence of ultra-Orthodox male MKs in Knesset sessions on breast cancer, despite the fact that the disease is twice as likely to strike Haredi women. A major part of the problem, she says, is the inability to raise public awareness for early detection because the topic is considered “immodest.”
She also pointed to the shocking story last week of an ultra-Orthodox mother of seven who was arrested for refusing to accept a Jewish divorce, and after collapsing, was handcuffed to a hospital bed by police acting on the orders of rabbinic judges. Colian asked “where were the ultra-Orthodox politicians” when this woman needed their help.
Both Colian and Erez, who are married with children, admitted they were “fearful” that there would be retribution against their families in the ultra-Orthodox community from leadership who disapproved of women entering public life and openly worried that their children would suffer in their ultra-Orthodox schools. “This isn’t easy for any of us to do this,” she said, though all said their families were supportive.
Unlike the announcement of most political parties, the room in Tel Aviv’s ZOA house was bereft of cheering crowds and fanfare - only reporters and a handful of supporters, both Haredi and secular. The event had been planned for weeks, but kept quiet for fear of backlash.
Other Haredi women pursuing political office in the past have faced ostracism and threats.
“I know we will pay a price for this,” said Colian. “But we must give Haredi women an address in our legislature. We have a lot to give and I believe we can do it.”
When asked why she did not want to enter politics as a member of a non-Haredi party, she said that “we want to preserve our identity” and demonstrate that women can be educated, be leaders and “stay Haredi.”
Colian’s decision to create her party followed attempts to pressure the existing ultra-Orthodox parties to include women on their lists, which would result in ultra-Orthodox female representation in the Knesset.
In 2013, Colian unsuccessfully petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that state funding be denied to ultra-Orthodox political parties that exclude female candidates ahead of local elections across Israel. By barring women from running on their slates, Colian wrote in her petition, these parties violate the principle of equality and women’s rights, including the right of free expression.
At the Monday press conference, she said the creation of a national Haredi women’s party came only after “we tried everything else” to gain female Haredi representation in the Knesset, “from approaching the parties politely with kid gloves, to going to the courts, to grassroots pressure.”
She scoffed at the “gimmick” of the decision of Shas to react to that grassroots pressure by forming a “women’s advisory committee” in an attempt to appear responsive to women’s concerns and appease Haredi women’s desire for a voice while keeping them behind the scenes.
“We won’t be quiet until we see that women are represented,” she said.
Her party, she said, supported the presence of ultra-Orthodox community in all aspects of society, including the workplace and service in the army. Colian said that she welcomed political support from men - as well as from secular women. “To me, a woman is a woman. And why if Shas can appeal to secular voters, we should be able to, also.”
The Haredi women in attendance at the press conference on Monday scoffed at the idea that ultra-Orthodox political leaders that they do not want to be represented by other women in the public arena.
“Every woman wants adequate health care, economic stability, no woman wants to be raped or sexually harassed,” said Penina Yehezkel-Kahlon, who described herself as an “enthusiastic supporter” of Colian and her new party. “What woman would want that?”
The only ultra-Orthodox woman to serve in the Knesset was Tzvia Greenfeld, who represented the Meretz party for one year from 2008-2009. In 2013, a group of ultra-Orthodox women ran for city council in the settlement of Elad, but failed to win a seat. That same year, a Haredi woman in Jerusalem, Rahel Ibenboim, withdrew from a bid for Jerusalem City Council in the face of threats.
Colian said that her slim chances at breaking the electoral threshold did not dissuade her from trying. “We are religious women and we have faith. That faith can take us a long way.”