Religious Pluralism & Women’s Rights
Meet four incredible individuals driving some of the New Israel Fund of Canada’s projects this year and blazing trails for inclusion, for equality, and for social change: Batya Kahana Dror, Edan Ring, Ghebrehiwot Tekle, and Nisreen Alyan. Click here to read part one of their stories.
Who is Batya Kahana Dror?
After everything Batya Kahana Dror, 53, has accomplished in the past 12 years, you would think she might be ready to hang up her hat and retire to the beach. A mother of four teenagers, Kahana Dror lives in a village near Jerusalem. As director of Mavoi Satum, an NGO that empowers women denied a Jewish divorce (a ‘get’) through legal representation and psychological support, Kahana Dror has won precedent-setting Supreme Court decisions. Under her leadership, each year Mavoi Satum helps free about 100 agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, or Jewish divorce) from marriages they’re desperate to leave.
“In the past, it didn’t occur to [Israel’s religious courts] to cope with an aguna’s complaint; today, they know they have to”
Kahana Dror was born and raised in Haifa to what was, in several senses, a mixed family. Her father is Ashkenazi; her mom Sephardi. Her paternal grandfather was a Vizhnitz Chassid and a Holocaust survivor; her maternal grandparents were traditional though liberal. One of five children, she described her family as “hard core religious Zionists.” Her father, a school principal, was active in the Hapoel Hamizrachi party. Her mom taught preschool.
What’s inspired her?
Early on, Kahana Dror was exposed to religious conflict, and she quickly developed a social conscience. As a child, she was bothered by things like having to go straight to the back, because of her gender, when she entered a synagogue. She was the only one from her religious high school class to serve in the army.
She reflected: “The more religiously Orthodox Israel becomes, the lower the status of women…This is not right for women, and not right for Judaism…”I’m committed to halacha. The status of women is our biggest halachic challenge today. There are no women municipal rabbis, no women religious court judges.”
How has she changed Israeli society?
In order to influence issues of women, religion and state, Kahana Dror studied Communications in university, and subsequently got a job in television. In 1992, when basic laws safeguarding human rights were passed in Israel, and the Supreme Court became more influential in public life, she decided to study law.
Twelve years ago, she began working as a lawyer for Mavoi Satum. The NGO’s team of lawyers and social workers guide, accompany and represent agunot in the courts, and also advocate for policy change. Two years later, Kahana Dror was promoted to Mavoi Satum’s director, though she’s made a conscious effort to stay connected to the litigation work. “I like to be – I need to be – connected to the field,” she told the New Israel Fund of Canada.
The case she’s most proud of involved convincing the Supreme Court to forbid a rabbinical court from hearing an appeal to a case Mavoi Satum had won, to ensure that a get was granted to a woman whose husband was in a coma. The decision “conveyed to the religious establishment that there is a limit to their power. They cannot cause a woman an injustice.
“I’m often stressed and angry. What keeps me going is knowing I’m working for the good of people, of women”
“We subordinated the religious system to the secular one,” says Batya. “It was a success for Israeli democracy, and it set a precedent.”
Although they remain quite conservative, Kahana Dror said Israel’s religious courts are increasingly recognizing the rights of women. They have even begun to use some of the language of human rights. “In the past, it didn’t occur to them to cope with an aguna’s complaint; today, they know they have to.”
For the work she does, Kahana Dror faces battles both in the Knesset and courts and on a personal front. “I pay a price,” she said. “The religious courts constantly file complaints against me. I’m often stressed and angry. What keeps me going is knowing I’m working for the good of people, of women.”
Winning cases and getting pro-women legislation passed gives Kahana Dror great satisfaction, and she’s hopeful her generation will leave the succeeding ones a state that is less discriminatory, and a legal system that causes less injustice to women. “Because I am connected to and understand both the religious and the liberal worlds, I have a role to play. It’s a great joy to encounter and live out [this] role.”
Written and reported by Ruth Mason.
Meet three other trailblazers who are working to make Israel a better, fairer, more equal place. Click here to read part one of their stories.