Agunot Speak Up After Sephardi Rabbi Cancels Conference

"I don't want people to think of us as miserable," says Ariella Dadon. "We are ordinary women who just want to get back their normal lives. Nothing more. We have left the cycle of suffering and violence. But we are still prisoners of the rabbinical courts."

Dadon, an aguna, or chained woman, was speaking last night at a conference in Jerusalem organized by Mavoy Satum (Dead End), a non-profit body that assists chained women; the conference was devoted to the attitude of the rabbinical courts toward women whose husbands have refused to grant them a religious divorces. The conference is the first of a series of events that will be held by women's organizations on behalf of the chained women this week and next week, in protest against the decision to cancel the chief rabbinate's conference called to alleviate the plight of these women.

The rabbinical conference was canceled by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar a few days before it was due to meet, at the instruction of Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox public.

One after the other, women who had suffered years of pain in their marriages, told the audience at last night's conference, how the rabbinical courts had refrained from considering their suffering and had let their cases drag on for years without forcing the husbands to give them a divorce. Their stories painted a picture of cooperation between rabbis and husbands who drag out negotiations to force their wives to give up alimony and property in return for a divorce.

Dadon, a religious woman from Netivot, was the youngest participant in the Mavoy Satum conference. She is 26 and the mother of two children aged four and six. Her appearance and her ability to express herself are very impressive. Her case has so far been in the rabbinical courts for three and a half years but no "get" (religious divorce) is in sight. At the conference she met women who had waited a decade and 13 years. "I am still optimistic that the rabbis will be convinced and will rule that I must get a get," she says, "But I see women here whom that also has not helped."

Her marriage lasted only two and a half years and during that time, she suffered mental and physical abuse from her husband who also unfaithful. The husband continues to tell the court that he wants to rehabilitate the marriage, a winning claim known as "shlom bayit" (reconciliation). The religious judges therefore do not believe there is a reason to grant a divorce. Dadon said numerous court sessions are canceled and strange demands are made of her. "I am the one who was betrayed," she says. "I am the one who suffered in the marriage. But the judges do not believe me. They demanded I contact the women with whom he betrayed me and bring them to the court as witnesses. What chance do I have for them to cooperate with me?"

G., who is in her sixties, has been waiting for 13 years for a get. Her husband has been jailed for short periods but still refuses to divorce her. "The judges, I must admit, were in my favor all along," she says, "but they are too soft with my husband." She says they are afraid to send him again to jail because he looks old and sick. Her husband told her that he would never divorce her "because he does not want to go into the next world as a divorced man." He lived for two years with another woman, but even this did not persuade him.

G. believes the struggle should not be between the chained women and the courts but that the Knesset must intervene. "It is up to the state and the Knesset to find a solution. The religious judges will not solve the problem. Why do I have to fight all day and every day?" she asks.

Mavoy Satum holds a workshop for the chained women where they learn to be interviewed and express themselves with confidence. Dadon would like to see other women in her situation joining in the protest. "I want people to know about us, and to listen to us. We are not a silent voice," she says.