Jerusalem was hot and the sun was relentless. My tracker was telling me that I had walked 10 kilometres in the holy city. Reut Raz Biran, a bright young woman, who was showing me the city, had me bewitched with the history of Jerusalem. The Indian Prime Minister Modi was in Jerusalem too and there was a political excitement around the Israeli capital.

Reut and I had a quick meal of the creamiest hummus with the freshest pita at a small, but popular eatery in the Muslim quarter and topped it with mutak, a desert with cheese stuffed in a phyllo like dough, baked and soaked in sugar syrup.

The day was not over for we had to meet Racheli Ibenboim, at around half past three in the afternoon. Racheli is a Ger Hasidic woman, fighting for women rights in her ultra-orthodox community. I drove down from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem passing through deserts that had patches of neatly cultivated palms. The date fruit hung heavy and luscious on the palm. As I entered Jerusalem, the momentum of the city hit me. After having travelled along the desert and plain mountains, Jerusalem appeared before you without much notice. Men wearing long black coats, with long beards and two curls of long hair from each side of the face were moving up and down.  Fedora hats topped their head and they barely looked around. These were the ultra-orthodox or the Haredi Jews. The kids who were with them were dressed in a similar manner sans the hat and their clothes were coloured. The women wore long skirts, modest blouses and covered their hair. These men studied the Torah, the holy book of the Jews.

Reut and I walked towards Racheli’s house that was 2 km away from the market. We got into the lift and moved up to Racheli house. I was quite excited to meet with her as she was fighting for women’s empowerment in a society of orthodox views. I was quite familiar with this scene as back home, we were fighting similar battles. Racheli answered the doorbell and sure enough, she had her head covered in a tight cap, and she wore a long skirt with socks and blouse that covered all of her.  She was eight months’ pregnant and she showed no sign of being tired or weakened by the third pregnancy. She served us cold water that was the perfect antidote to the hot Jerusalem afternoon.

We settled down comfortably in the living room and I looked around to see there was no TV and no internet at her home.

“This is very normal in a Haredi household. There is no TV nor internet,” Racheli said smilingly.

The mobile phones are kosher with no Facebook and such

And then she proceeded to explain her work that has consumed her. Born into an elitist Haredi Jew family, she grew up as per the orthodox community rules. This included gender separate schools and a certain amount of religious studies. Her transition began from the elite to the ‘middle class’ as she calls it. The middle class is those from the community that are shifting from conservative ideas to more progressive ones. And then the total shift to the progressive ideas.

‘Can you imagine women are not allowed to drive? Racheli said with indignation.

I could very well imagine because I come from a society that is layered and patriarchal. Our eyes met in mutual acknowledgement of our states. Racheli spoke less English, but when I spoke in English, she caught the word patriarchy immediately.

Racheli was not the type to be cowed down. She learned to drive much to the consternation of the community.

‘And your husband? I asked.

‘He loves me and understands what I am doing.

She pauses for a moment and then looks at me earnestly and says, “I worry about my children. Because of the lack of internet and other modern tools, are they lesser knowledgeable than the secular kids?”

By secular kids, she meant the non-Haredi kids.

The root cause of Racheli’s worry is that women do not have representation in the Haredi parties. The Haredi parties hold seats in the Israeli government

Racheli’s thought process is that Israel is a democratic state and if a party has laws to not have women elected, then that’s not democracy. She uses Facebook effectively and now has supporters who espouse her cause. She is unfazed by the consequences and is devoted to her mission of women’s empowerment. She believes that if women get voted into the party, then issues relating to women’s employment and empowerment can be handled better.

Also, since the men are studying the Torah, women are the breadwinners. The Hasidic woman makes lesser money than other women. This is largely because they have more children and need to spend more time at home. Amidst opposition and threats of excommunication, she is fighting for women rights in an orthodox society.

As I left Racheli’s place, I hugged her in solidarity, since my position was not better than hers, in any manner.  

When men make rules, it’s the women who suffer.  I walked out into the streets of Jerusalem. The holy city was glowing in the orange sun and the men in black were swarming on the streets.

(The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own)

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Picture Credit: myjewishlearning.com

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