Sisters in arms

It is rare that one finds hundreds of women, of all ages and from all walks of life, religious and secular, supporting each other as sisters.

agunot 88 298 (photo credit: Illustrative)
agunot 88 298
(photo credit: Illustrative)
It is rare that one finds hundreds of women, of all ages and from all walks of life, religious and secular, supporting each other as sisters. Soldiers in combat together know the feeling of brotherhood, but women in Israel don't have many occasions to sense the feeling of sisterhood outside the family or neighborhood. But this was the strong feeling I took away with me on that Friday morning at Tel Aviv's Dan Panorama Congress Center. The occasion was a fashion show, where many of the models were talented career women in their 30s - actresses, singers, a TV presenter, an acclaimed writer - who donated their Friday morning to help the agunot, "chained" women who can't get their longed-for divorce. There was no atmosphere of combat, no angry cries - all of that was left behind. Instead there was support, empathy, and sisterly love. The thick carpeted floors, exquisite food and carefully chosen centerpieces on the tables - a large butterfly atop an empty glass vase, a heavy chain sliding down the side of the vase, and large nails sprinkled at its base - added to the ambiance of quiet solidarity and female empowerment. The nineteen models each wore an extraordinarily striking outfit designed especially to highlight the plight of 19 "asurot," the imprisoned agunot. Some of these women have been imprisoned in their marriage, waiting for their divorce for up to 18 years. If they were to bear a child in these years from a man who is not their husband, this child would be stigmatized as a mamzer (bastard), and not permitted to marry a Jew according to Jewish law. Several outfits had torn skirts, symbolizing the women's ripped-up love lives. Many were also strongly corseted, highly restraining, strangling, belted or tied, significantly limiting the women's movements. Others were decorated with golden chains, also reflecting the constraints on those who have been waiting years for their freedom from their failed marriages. Some of the dresses were red - the color of the fresh blood of marital battles - to depict the women's turbulent emotions. One was all black, and torn; others combined black and white, darkness and light, to convey both pessimism and optimism. A couple of outfits were made from altered wedding gowns, to highlight the way the women's wedding dreams had spoiled. Several outfits were covered in a cumbersome but elegant, weighty, enveloping outer layer, representing the burden of the husband whom the woman still seeks to shake off. Some conveyed the women's battered spirits with printed words on the fabric of the dress. One dress displayed the motif of the butterfly, since the aguna whose story it reflected admitted that she felt like a butterfly when she finally won her long-awaited divorce. However, the considerable exposure of naked skin, the massive décolletés, bare backs, and exposed arms and legs make it highly unlikely that the rabbinate will pay even an ounce of attention to this show. Also, although there were many religious women in attendance, I heard that some people (who didn't come and didn't participate) interpreted the show merely as an anti-religious statement, which it wasn't. The aim of this show was to raise public awareness, to add to the already plentiful (but apparently still insufficient) media attention to the issue of the archaic, inflexible and unacceptable rabbinic approach to divorce that creates situations where a woman - whether she is religious or secular - spends 18 years in this day and age waiting to free herself from a bad marriage. In addition to all the women's organizations involved in pushing for change in the rabbinic understanding of divorce laws, the Harbour Trust, David Uri Memorial Trust, Hanadiv Foundation, and a major grant from the Leverhulme Trust are funding serious research into the halachic issues at the Agunah Research Unit at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, UK. The halachic problems and relevant primary sources are easily available on the internet, for all who are interested: The question is whether the results of this study will have any impact on Jewish divorce laws for future generations. For the moment, the June 22 fashion show and the display on June 28 of the "largest embroidered patchwork dress in the world," which is also low-cut and sleeveless, will not influence rabbis in the rabbinical courts in any positive way, and it is unlikely to bring about changes in civil law that could help those who cannot gain their desired divorce. But it might influence just a few passing couples that are about to enter into marriage to write prenuptial contracts concerning their assets, as couples used to do in the Middle Ages. In our circle of friends, however, young couples shy away from doing this, as they say it implies distrust in their beloved. We did not encourage our own children to write a prenuptial document when they married. There is still a long way to go in educating people on how to take precautions against archaic laws. Which will change first, our innocence or our laws?