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Fashion will seem far less frivolous on Friday as top Israeli designers join forces to raise awareness about the plight of agunot, the countless women who are refused divorces by their husbands. A fashion show at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv will feature 25 dresses created by top Israeli designers like Michal Negrin and Dorin Frankfurt in the hopes that the event will raise money and elicit change.
The "Agunot" or "Chained" Project, was the brainchild of Adi Yekutieli, an Israeli artist who works with the Association for Art and Community. "I deal with social organizations that are interested in resolving conflicts through art," Yekutieli tells The Jerusalem Post. "By creating art in a grassroots effort and displaying it in public spaces, [we have] a chance to speak and interact."
Together with the International Coalition for Aguna Rights (ICAR), Yekutieli devised a twofold artistic endeavor to promote the rights of thousands of agunot. The first part of the project is the fashion show in Tel Aviv, in which each of the dresses was designed for one Israeli aguna based on a personal interview with the designer. "These dresses were made specific women, based on each one's personal story and experience," says Aluma Klein, one of the young Israeli designers participating in the project. "The dress I designed looks like it's been through hell, and I am hoping that this project will open a dialogue that will raise public involvement in a serious issue that is not openly discussed - especially in the religious world."
On June 28, the largest embroidered dress in the world will be hoisted over 15 meters onto a giant mannequin in the center of Tel Aviv's Rabin Square as the second part of the Chained project. Each embroidered patch was constructed by agunot in workshops across the country, and the final gown will span a circumference of 20 meters upon completion.
"The images within each square are embroidered with things that these women felt represented their lives and the situations they are living with now," says Roy Yellin, the spokesperson for the project and former advisor to Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. "In addition, the initials of the agunot and those who donated money to the project make up part of the patchwork."
According to Robyn Shames, the executive director of ICAR, the issue of agunot in Israel is often swept under the rug. "There are solutions to this problem and there are things that can be done, but in order to get them accomplished, we need the support of the public," says Shames from her Jerusalem office. One of the goals of ICAR is to fight the current legal system and pass new laws in the Knesset that will no longer leave the power to divorce solely in the hands of husbands.
Although Shames refuses to speak in terms of absolute numbers of agunot, claiming that actual figures are not the issue, she cites one recent study that currently estimates about 100,000 agunot in Israel. "There is no basis for that number, though, because the women in this situation usually keep their situation confidential, and the rabbinate refuses to release the figures," Shames explains. "But the point is that it's not a small problem. Everyone knows someone in this situation, and women should not have to wait for a get [divorce paper]."
Another lesser known point, Shames says, is that despite what some may think, even Israelis who go abroad to marry in order to avoid the rabbinate are subject to religious laws of divorce. "Any Jewish woman who marries in an Orthodox ceremony cannot leave [her marriage] of her own free will, even if she was married in Cyprus. It is totally up to the good will of the husbands, and many women today are being put into situations where they are forced to give up child support or material possessions in order to 'bribe' their husbands into granting a divorce," Shames says.
G, one aguna who wishes to remain anonymous, has been trying unsuccessfully to obtain a divorce from her husband for the last 13 years. "I think this is his way of getting attention, but I am not free to move on with my life. He has been given sanctions and jailed a few times, but he refuses to give in," she says. "I don't see any changes being made or have any hope for the future, but at least there is strength in numbers. Maybe one day I will get out of this private jail I live in and be free to move on with my life."
G is hoping that people who see the unique dresses and the largest dress in the world will become more aware of the agunot's situation and get more involved. "The more support we have, the more political pressure we can put on the Knesset to change these laws and set the agunot free."
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