Israeli party seeks to give voice to ultra-Orthodox women

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women pray in the northern Israeli village of Meron on April 28, 2013. The leader of "B'Zchutan: Haredi Women Making Change" party said she is fighting in next month's general election to give a voice to the downtrodden group (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
Steve Weizman

Jerusalem (AFP) - The leader of Israel's first ultra-Orthodox Jewish women's party said Monday that she is fighting in next month's general election to give a voice to a deeply downtrodden group.

Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old mother of four, told journalists that she founded the party -- "B'Zchutan: Haredi Women Making Change" -- to combat wage discrimination, domestic violence and health problems suffered by many ultra-Orthodox women.

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population and are known as haredi in Hebrew, are a powerful political force in the Jewish state but do not accept women candidates.

Israel is holding a general election on March 17 and Colian said her party has registered nine candidates for the vote.

Among the key issues the party will be promoting, she said, are health problems suffered by women in the community.

She said, for example, that ultra-Orthodox women suffer twice the national average rate of breast cancer deaths, largely because discussion and information on screening are considered "immodest" and therefore taboo.

When parliament's health committee held a special session on the issue in November, not one of its 18 ultra-Orthodox MPs -- all men -- attended.

"It was like a punch in the stomach," she said. "Because we have no representation nobody hears our voice. We are at the bottom of the food chain."

There are plenty of other grievances too.

Haredi women are expected to raise large families, keep house and financially support their spouses, who spend their time studying scripture, Colian said.

They are afraid to complain to secular authorities about domestic abuse because they will be ostracised by their community if they do, she said.

The only haredi woman to serve in parliament held a seat for the secular left-wing Meretz party -- for whom women's rights are a central tenet -- from 2008 until she lost it in the following year's election.

- "We shall make history" -

Colian said she believes the new party could win five or six seats in the 120-member Knesset, but she has no polling data to support that view.

She said the party has raised a campaign fund of just 7,500 shekels ($1,900/1,700 euros) from private donors, but she is defiant nevertheless.

"With this we shall make history," she said.

She has petitioned Israel's Central Elections Committee to compel haredi newspapers and radio stations to allow the party to advertise with them, something which the community's modesty code says that women cannot do.

Her target audience does not use the secular media, which it regards as a corruptive influence.

Even if word of the party spreads, Colian said that ultra-Orthodox women have traditionally not voted for whomever they please.

"The haredi woman votes according to what her husband tells her, which is whatever the rabbis decree," she said.

But she hopes to buck the trend and challenge tradition, citing as one of her role models African-American civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

"It's an honour to say her name," Colian said. "It's no simple matter to stand up and say, 'Stop! You're all wrong,'".