Middle Eastern News for the Week of September 30, 2002


JERUSALEM -- The establishment of an Orthodox kehilla (congregation) in Jerusalem this year has brought forth a new movement dedicated to the proposition that men and women are created with almost equal entitlement to participate in prayer services.

Not all parts of the service, mind you; but those parts where a rabbinic source or an interpretation can be found that allows Modern Orthodoxy to push the envelope beyond where it has gone before is where Shira Hadasha ("New Song") now stands. This introduction, written on the congregations's Web site (http: / www.geocities. com/shira_hadasha/), explains its functioning principle: Shira Hadasha strives for a serious atmosphere of avodat Hashem. We wish to express this by holding a sensitive and meaningful tefilla where those women who desire it may take an active role. Shira Hadasha is committed to following halakha and to finding solutions that enable women to participate as much as possible in tefilla and in the Torah reading. "These conversations have been going on since I was 12. When all our daughters started becoming bat mitzva, we said, 'Are we continuing this? Can we create something different?' The shock of women reading from the Torah for men also drew more people," says Haviva Ner-David, a cofounding member who also is studying to receive s'micha (rabbinical ordination) from an Orthodox rabbi.

Ner-David says the new service fills a need for people who are interested in women's participation, though there are other places that allow women's participation to varying degrees. The feminist movement as a whole, she says, "pointed to a problem in general society - when women weren't counted, it was a stain on the whole society," and that includes prayer services. "A minyan that doesn't respect women, that isn't attempting to be as inclusive of women as possible within the halachic framework of women, is a problem for the whole tzibur public ," she says. "This minyan is not to help women, but to help people who feel their kedusha holiness is compromised if it doesn't include women as much as possible. Men aren't coming to do a favor to their women; it's for their own tefilla. They feel compromised before God."

"This was people who felt a need to begin something together, with similar values, people who aren't far Right or far Left - this was not built along political lines. It's a real mix, young and old, Anglos and Israelis." Nor is it all women, contrary to what people say, says Hartman-Halbertal, who puts the female-male ratio at about 60-40. Eli Kazhdan is also a founding member of the kehilla, together with his wife, Adina Kamien-Kazhdan. For them, it was about finding a place to fit in. "In my five years since I've been married in Israel, my wife and I have not found a shul that we have been able to call our own," he says, "and there's a real pleasure to see a place where both she and I feel we are an integral part of the service."

Kazhdan, executive director of Yisrael Ba'aliya, grew up in a traditional Orthodox environment, graduating from the Maimonides High School in Boston and spending a year in the Yeshivat Sha'alvim hesder (combined army and yeshiva) program. "Coming from an Orthodox background, I was looking for a minyan that would be traditional, but inclusive enough within the framework of Halacha to allow women to play the maximum role. A widely circulated article that appeared last year in the journal of the liberal Orthodox group Edah is considered an impetus for getting Shira Hadasha off the ground. In the article, author and attorney Mendel Shapiro builds a case for women's Torah reading, arguing that the change in the sociological status of women in contemporary society should impact upon halachic understandings so that Torah reading and its attendant blessings should no longer be out of bounds for women.

CHANGE in this generation has already taken place in Jerusalem. First there was Yedidya (http: / www.yedidya.org.il/), which started in 1980 as a progressive kehilla which sought to redefine women's roles in an Orthodox congregation. All share a propensity for uplifting melodies for the prayers, many of them from the master of melody Shlomo Carlebach, but one can also hear, for example, a tune from Simon and Garfunkel at Yedidya.

Ross says the Leader minyan is independent of labels. "We don't care about definition," she says, adding that Shira Hadasha "needs to define themselves as Orthodox." Ross acknowledged that Leader might lose a few people to Shira Hadasha, especially for those whose primary issue is the place of women in the service. But the competition doesn't bother her. (The Jerusalem Post
September 27, 2002)

MOROCCO -- A recent government decision to give women thirty seats in the future 325-seat House of Representatives in Morocco has been viewed by gender and rights activists as a positive step, but they say the country still has a long way to go before Moroccan women are granted equality in all spheres. "The decision to increase the number of seats reserved for women in the future parliament is the fruit of a long struggle for the promotion of women's conditions and rights in Morocco," says Latifa Akherbach, a professor with the Moroccan Information and Communication Institute.

About 14 million Moroccans, half of them females, will this week go to polling stations around the country to nominate candidates for the House of Representatives. Although women account for nearly 50 percent of Morocco's 30-million population, only two females sit in the outgoing House. "The move to increase women's political representation is revolutionary in a country where females have not been really seen as equal to men," says Akherbache. She says Morocco is well behind its neighbors in the Maghreb in terms of women representation and while females account only for 0.6 percent of the nation's representatives in Morocco, the rate goes up to 11.5 percent in Tunisia and 6.2 percent in Algeria.

For Farida Ayari, an activist with the Women's Democratic Association (ADF), increasing the number of women legislators in the future parliament is only "half" a victory for Moroccan females. "This is only a battle in a larger war for equal citizenship. However the move does show a certain will to resolve gender-related problems," says Leila Rhioui, another ADF activist, who deplores "the lack of institutional guarantees likely to consecrate women's irrevocable participation in decision-making."

Other activists, like Huria Ayouch, see the authorities decision to promote women's representation in the future parliament as a "poisonous present." Ayouch says the move is aimed at attempting to falsely present Morocco to the world as a country respecting human rights and particularly women's rights. "If it proves that the authorities are only seeking to use women as a facade, this would be fatal for the democratic transition Morocco is going through," says Rhioui.

According to Akherbach, increasing the number of parliamentary seats for women "is not and should not be the end of the path of struggle women have been staging to gain full citizenship." She says the move does not fulfil all women's expectations, adding that other gender issues such as women's social emancipation and economic and educational rights remain pending."

Nezha Chekrouni, the sole woman sitting in the outgoing 40-member coalition government, blames the low representation of females in the Moroccan decision-making centers to economic and cultural problems, which she says hinder the entry of women into the political arena. She cites in this connection rampant illiteracy, poverty and unemployment amongst women. Nearly 70 percent of Moroccan women are illiterate against 30 per cent of males. Unemployment among females is high. Less than one percent of working women head an enterprise. Although females account for 33 percent of the working population, only five percent of them are employers.

Many activists fear the talk about women's conditions is being used for mere electioneering purposes. "As this week's elections are presented by the authorities as a decisive turning point in Morocco's transition, these same authorities have to mark a new start to end an unfair situation and give women reason to hope for a better tomorrow," says one activist. (Inter Press Service
September 24, 2002)

Previous Week's News

EGYPT -- Egypt hosted an international forum to launch a Women for Peace Movement, although the omission of any Israeli women from the invitation list left the debate lacking in punch. Nearly 100 women travelled to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the weekend forum held at the initiative of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's wife, Suzanne.

Most of the participants were political leaders, spouses of heads of states, university lecturers or women militants, mainly from the Arab world and Africa. They exchanged views on how to "advance the cause of peace" and to prepare a Women for Peace International Conference to be held in 2003 or 2004.

Palestinian social affairs minister Intisar al-Wazir and the Palestinian representative in Paris, Leila Shahid, took part in the meeting which was set to close later Sunday. Some "125 Palestinian woman have died as martyrs" since the beginning of the uprising against Israeli occupation in September 2000, Wazir said, charging that the Israeli army had "transformed Palestinian homes into jails".

In a separate address, Syrian foreign ministry official Bossaina Shaaban condemned what she called "Zionist propaganda" that "Palestinian women tell their children to sacrifice themselves" in suicide attacks. The absence of Israeli participants was a source of criticism. "Such an important meeting should have been balanced," said June Jacobs, a Briton who headed until last May an International Council of Jewish Women and who was the only delegate from a Jewish group at the Sharm el-Sheikh forum.

"How can we discuss peace if Israeli women are not here?" she asked, adding that British delegates had proposed several Israeli names to the Egyptian organisers. Jacobs and other British delegates, including MP and peace activist Joan Ruddock, also said they raised the issue of the absence of Israeli delegates with Egypt's first lady.

Italian radical MP Emma Bonino and representatives of the United Nations, which contributed to the forum's funding, also said they were astonished. Suzanne Mubarak replied that inviting Israelis was not possible because her husband was under "tremendous pressure" due to the ongoing crisis in the region. "The problem is this: If Egypt invites Israeli women, then Arab women will boycott," an Egyptian journalist explained, adding that the forum mirrored Cairo's own "cold peace" towards Israel.

Suzanne Mubarak stressed that women could play the role of "peace educators" within their families, at the forum which was also attended by Irish President Mary McAleese. "We need new voices" to counterbalance those of men, she said.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but Cairo recalled in November 2000 its ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest Israel's repression of the Palestinian intifada. Cairo continues however to receive regular visits by Israeli officals to maintain its role of mediator in the conflict. But Egyptian artists and intellectuals risk isolation in their own country if they visit Israel. Cultural, cinema, theater and music festivals organised in Egypt ignore works from Israel.(Agence France Presse September 22, 2002 BYLINE: MICHEL SAILHAN)