Thousands of men and women clad in black streamed to a Tel Aviv beach Monday to attend a protest rally. The demonstrators came from many different communities and belonged to a raft of organizations, as reflected on their banners. But they all came to express their anger at the continued murder of women by their partners and the incompetence of the authorities.
Several speakers were bereaved siblings who had lost a beloved sister, murdered by her partner. Their pain lays bare how, when a woman is killed, an entire family is destroyed, hurting everyone who loved her. Every murderer takes not only the life of the woman who shared her life with him, but also the joy of living of her parents, siblings, friends and, of course, her children.
Some speakers, women in the campaign against gender-related violence, made clear that murder is only the most extreme manifestation of violence against women. Harassment, sexual assault, rape, expressions of jealousy, domineering behavior, economic oppression, verbal and physical violence – all this serves the patriarchal oppression of women. The campaign against the murder of women is an inseparable part of the campaign against all kinds of gender-related violence and the patriarchy it serves.
This feminist insight seems to have been embraced by certain segments of society. Another insight is no less important: The murder of women is enabled and supported by patriarchal practices, structures and arrangements that ostensibly aren’t violent or linked to murder.
An example is the allotting of marriage and divorce to the rabbinical courts, which operate under patriarchal and anachronistic laws. In Israel’s 72 years, the legislature hasn’t bothered to pass a law sorting out marriage and divorce. Instead, the Knesset maintains the Ottomans’ procedure, under which each religious community has its own religious laws and courts.
For Israel’s Jewish majority, this means rabbinical courts apply their strict archaic Orthodox interpretation to ancient religious laws that don’t even pretend to recognize a woman’s equal rights. Under this arrangement, a Jewish woman in Israel can’t divorce her partner unless, in writing, he agrees to “release” her. Thus a woman who knows that her husband is jealous and domineering knows there’s no point trying to divorce him. This increases her sense that she is trapped, and weakens her resolve.
Moreover, the gender discrimination in the workforce – the glass ceiling that blocks the path to the top for most women, discriminatory wages and employers’ firing of female employee more readily – makes it difficult for women to achieve financial independence, increasing their dependence on their partners. A woman who knows she can’t make a living without her partner won’t rush to leave him.
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Obviously, societal norms also play a role. As in every patriarchal society, in Israel a woman who isn’t in a permanent relationship with a man is less valued than a married woman. She is perceived as someone who hasn’t managed to find a partner, someone who has failed in the ultimate female mission of maintaining a family. In many sections of Israeli society, the price paid by a woman for separating from a man is high, as is her incentive to remain in a family framework, even if this risks her life.
A no-less harmful convention is that a good wife should be tolerant of her husband, taking care of him, easing his pain and soothing his anger, even if this means sacrificing her own well-being. Such a convention makes it difficult for a woman to pinpoint the moment a partner’s anger, frustration, suspicion or jealousy becomes a danger not to be ignored. No one teaches a woman how to identify that moment, and the proverbial hanging out of dirty laundry is often seen as humiliating.
There is no question that combating the murder of women requires hefty budgets for treating violent men and their victims. But above all, people must learn basic feminist insights that aren't yet taught in schools or any other framework. We must address not only all types of gender-related violence (which are obviously connected to other forms of societal violence), but also other forms of patriarchal oppression. This includes the absence of civil divorce – which could allow an exit from dangerous ties – discrimination at the workplace and societal conventions that encourage a woman to stick with her man and nurture him even when her life is endangered.
It’s important to identify signs of domination and gender aggression – not ignore them – and sound a warning. But it’s also important to insist that the legislature enable civil marriage, which would allow separation from a dangerous partner. It’s important to fight for equality in the workforce and drop conventions that make it difficult for women to leave their partners, even when they’re dangerous.
If we have the courage to look inward, we’ll find that even the enlightened could do a lot to change their perceptions – as well as improve the message we send to women who may be at risk. If we dare weaken the conventions that tether women to dangerous partners, we’ll help save lives.