Jewish and Persian Connections Mission

In response to statements emanating from the Middle East regarding nuclear threat to both the Jewish and Persian peoples, we seek to project an alternative voice on Jewish- Persian relations that disseminates knowledge about the historical and cultural ties between these two peoples, fosters friendship and openings for creative exchange, and contributes to the identity of adults and children of mixed Jewish and Persian ancestry.

Seeking Your Personal Stories and Intellectual Contributions!

Please submit your personal writings on the following topics:
a) Relationships between Persians and Jews
b) Raising a Persian Jewish child
C) Historical and/or current affairs between Persians and Jews/ Iran and Israel
D) Current Debate: Is the current conflict between Iran and Israel inherently tied into the Israeli- Palestinian conflict?

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Divine discrimination

The Iranian. (
Nakissa Sedaghat. 07/24/2001

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 courts.

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 courts.

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 woman.

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 in society.

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 faith".

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?


[1] 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.

[2] The Women's Equality Act, 1951, section 5, 1951 S.H. 248