Women & "religious" law in Israel and Iran
By Nakissa Sedaghat
July 24, 2001
G. is a brilliant lawyer from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel
(ACRI). A secular Jew herself, she has often come across cases that reflect
the tensions between the Ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular Jewish
majority in Israel. S. is a Palestinian lawyer who also practices public
interest law in Israel. She deals with a lot of female clients who are subjected
to what she believes is unequal treatment before the Palestinian Shari'a
G. and S. confirmed my worst fears about political systems in which there
is no separation from religious doctrine. Whether in Israel or Iran, women's
rights are being restricted under the pretext of "religious" law.
It is all the more difficult to attack this legal structure because "religious"
law exudes superiority, a divine origin, and a group-based philosophy which
should prevail over all other concerns of individuals. It was fascinating
to realize, for once, the similarities rather than the differences between
Israel and Iran.
As a Jewish state, Israel is by definition a country in which there is
no separation between religion and state . Even though
the Israeli constitution is committed to gender equality, this right is
specifically restricted as far as family law is concerned because in this
area, among many others, religious law is the law of the land .
Though the Ultra-Orthodox are a minority in Israel, a mere 6%, they exercise
a disproportionate amount of political influence and keep lobbying the government
to "accommodate" their needs even if it imposes on the secular
majority of the Israeli population a more restrictive standard than the
one afforded by the Israeli Constitution.
Palestinian citizens of Israel are also a minority in Israel: They represent
19% of the population of the state and include 76% Muslims, 14% Christians,
and 10% Druze. While Jews and Druze can choose between religious or civil
courts, Shari'a Courts have exclusive jurisdiction for Muslims. Christians
have parallel jurisdiction except in issues related to alimony. Issues of
marriage and divorce remain exclusively under the jurisdiction of all religious
In Iran, the revolution has resulted in a bizarre model of Islamic democracy.
The government is elected and thus is supposed to represent the will of
the people. However, since all laws have to ultimately approved by a council
of Islamic clerics who sit at the top of the pyramid of power, it is very
difficult to make any legal reforms no matter who you vote for in the elections.
All bills deemed to be non-Islamic are rejected and the Islamic clerics'
interpretation of the Koran cannot be challenged.
In both Iran and Israel, the religious law imposes unequal treatment
of women, particularly in family matters. For example, in Iran, a man has
the right to seek unilateral divorce from his wife. Custody of children
leans heavily in favor of the man. Custody based on "best interest"
of the child was not a recognized test in the Iranian family law courts
until very recently.
An Iranian husband can have up to four wives, but adultery or the loss
of "virginity" before marriage can literally become a death sentence
for Iranian women. Also, the Islamic law in Iran provides for temporary
marriage or "sigheh" whereby a husband can "legally"
have an affair with a woman outside of marriage under a contract which will
set out, among others, a time period and a sum of money to be paid to the
Similarly, the Jewish law, while it does not explicitly declare that
a wife must be submissive and obedient to her husband, has created a structure
which delegates such a degree of authority and power to the husband that
it allows him effectively to coerce his wife's obedience. And a Jewish wife
cannot divorce without her husband's "permission", leaving her
little room to leave an undesirable situation.
In S's opinion, application of the law in religious courts renders discrimination
against women a systematic institution, whether they are Shari'a courts
or church courts or Jewish courts. Regarding Muslim Palestinian women, she
points out that they cannot divorce their husbands except in cases of impotency,
mental illness and other very few restricted circumstances. If women obtain
guardianship of their children after a divorce they might lose it automatically
if they re-marry.
Women can lose all their rights if caught in adultery, and the amounts
of money for alimony and child support judged in their favor are far from
sufficient. Similar problems also occur in church courts. In addition, the
Ministry of Religion under funds religious courts and women judges are not
appointed to these courts.
Another result of "religious" law has been segregation of women,
in Iran as well as Israel. For example, there is segregation practiced in
the Israeli public transportation system and in government financed vocational
courses. In Iran, segregation occurs routinely, though many classrooms are
mixed, with the only stipulation being that genders sit at different sides
of the room.
Gender segregation is a result of religious leaders' cultural viewing
of women as sexual beings whose sole goal in life is to tempt men so that
they can fulfill their own sexual desires. This cultural view affects the
interpretation of Islamic and Jewish edicts on "modesty" of women,
resulting in the wearing of the veil in Iran and of long skirts and wigs
or hats for Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel.
This imposed "uniform" results in a further segregation of
women when they venture out of their homes into the public sphere. It succeeds
in dehumanizing them, and robbing them of their individuality. It sends
the message to: "stay away", "do not address me", "do
not even make eye contact". The dress code re-emphasizes physically
the sharp distinction that exists between the civil status of men and women
There is a high price to pay when one is not obedient to these social
norms, and this is not specific only to Iran. Israeli media has reported
many instances where secular Jewish women wearing "immodest" clothes
have been the subject of violence by Ultra-Orthodox men, including verbal
and physical assault and vandalism against their property.
In both Iran and Israel, women are encouraged culturally and religiously,
if not by law (yet), to remain in the confines of their homes to fulfill
their "duties" as wife and mother. Also, for the same reasons
of "protection" against sexuality of women, women are not allowed
to sing in public in Iran.
It is interesting to see that similar restrictions are being sought by
the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel on the public singing of women in certain circumstances.
In the area of entertainment, censorship is a normal way of life for Iranian
film and television. The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel are similarly pushing
for prohibition of theatres and other entertainment venues.
Regarding Palestinian women, S. explains that Palestinian women have
been relegated to the domestic sphere because of military orders and restrictions
imposed on them by men in their families. Their role has turned from breadwinner
(as agricultural workers) to the "preservers of Palestinian culture":
They are expected to maintain the continuity of Palestinian values, and
pass on traditions and values.
In S's opinion, Palestinian women are currently educated and socialized
within a patriarchal system that controls their public and private participation
and freedom. The discrimination practiced by the Israeli government, and
by religious courts, has only furthered their marginalization in society.
As a result, Palestinian women suffer from double discrimination, as Palestinians
and as women.
G. demonstrated through her case studies that the ACRI is reluctant to
attack the government's legal "accommodations" of the Ultra-Orthodox
minority because this group yields so much political power in Israel and
attacks ferociously those it sees as the "left-wing attackers of Jewish
The ACRI is already one of their favorite targets. Similarly, the Muslim
community regards with deep suspicion a recently created non-governmental
coalition which provides legal representation of Palestinian women in religious
courts. S. has been confronted with the hostility and open scorn of Muslim
judges in Shari'a courts time and time again. In Iran, women's rights activists
such as Mehrangiz Kar, Shirin Ebadi and Shahla Lahiji are being silenced
for their efforts to change the legal status quo.
It seems that whenever religion mixes with politics, it spells bad news
for women. Religious garments may vary in design, from the clerical robes
donned by Islamic clerics to the black coats favored by the Ultra-Orthodox,
but are they all cut from the same cloth?
 Though the founders of the Jewish state were secular Jews with a
socialist ideology, who wanted to break free from the orthodox religious
Jewish communities of Europe, they had to relinquish this idea to gain the
support of the Orthodox community who would have otherwise refused to recognize
the new state of Israel. A new balance was thus struck between religion
and the state, which has become a source of continuous controversy between
the religious and the secular Jewish population in Israel ever since.
 The Women's Equality Act, 1951, section 5, 1951 S.H. 248