Category Archives: women

Moving, Shaking, and Surviving: A Bedouin Woman Stands Up Against Polygamy, Honor Killings, Arranged Marriages, and Unfair Divorce in the Negev Desert

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend I stayed with a woman in a town in the Negev desert, Rahat, who used her own hardship and lack of rights as an impetus to assist women in similar positions. Between jokes about hating the beards in Rahat and delicious tea, her story left me with a great deal of hope.

The Bedouins in Israel have lived in the Negev for generations, but have faced a great deal of issues under Israeli governance. With several villages living without recognition from the Israeli government, impermanent structures dominate the expanding landscape of the desert.

Beyond the poverty and racial issues provoked on the surface of this controversy, women face an especially difficult fate. Honor killings, in which family members kill women for such crimes as sex outside of marriage, go unreported, save for a blank grave away from the village. Men take multiple wives, and since this is illegal under Israeli law, the second and third wives technically don’t exist. This leads to several issues, especially for their children who need identification cards. Most marriages are arranged, and when they fail, men automatically gain full custody of the children.

In this disempowering landscape for women, Mona found her voice. Faced with losing her six children in a divorce, she fought for four years to gain joint custody. She was confronted with fierce opposition within her town, but her unpleasant experiences led her to create an organization, Amerat, for Bedouin women in the desert. While many noteworthy organizations offer women economic empowerment and improve quality of life, Mona has crossed into more controversial waters to challenge the destructive status quo in the region.

NGOs are often deterred from addressing cultural practices that violate human rights because of the values of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, but Amerat is taking on this daunting task with passion, and avoids such controversy with a grassroots approach. Mona’s bravery astounds me; as men claim that she isn’t a true Muslim and threaten her, she continues to protect and speak up for women in the area.

Just as I expressed wonder at the bravery of Women of the Wall, who work within Judaism to create reform, I am awestruck with Amerat’s valiant battle within Islam and the Bedouin community for equal rights for women.


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Detained for Prayer

This morning at Rosh Chodesh, police monitored women gathering at the Kotel to pray. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This morning, a woman was arrested at Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll. While I have been doing some work for her organization, Women of the Wall, nothing could have prepared me for the outrage I felt watching several policemen tackle a group of women raising their voices together in prayer, and the admiration I experienced witnessing these women’s bravery.

For twenty-two years, Women of the Wall have met at the beginning of every Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh, to pray together at the Kotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Israeli and Jewish women from around the world who seek the right for Jewish women to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Currently, such action is forbidden under Israeli law, which singles out women: “No ceremony shall be held in the Wall’s women’s section. That includes reading from a Torah, blowing the ram’s horn, wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.”

Women of the Wall tefila. (Saverin/TYG)

Every month, their actions provoke an outcry from the Ultra-Orthodox community, who today screamed, “God sent Obama to take away Jerusalem,” “these women are responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews,” and because of them, “the Jews would lose Jerusalem to the Arabs.” The women sang through the chorus of accusations and screams, and complied with police monitoring of their prayer shawls and noise level. The yelling and aggressive police activity was only to be expected.

Ultra-Orthodox men shouting at the women's section of the Kotel. (Saverin/TYG)

As the group left, though, chairperson Anat Hoffman pulled out the group’s Torah scroll to lead a procession of supporters to Robinson’s Arch, where police forcefully grabbed the Torah. I stood amid violent pushing as women around me fell to the ground, until the forceful struggle ended with Anat in a police car, where she was taken to the police station and interrogated for five hours before being released and banned from the Kotel for thirty days.

The police pulling a Torah away from Anat Hoffman as she led a procession away from the Kotel plaza. (Saverin/TYG)

An escalation of force towards Women of the Wall's chairperson, Anat Hoffman. (Saverin/TYG)

This blatant inequality is the result of an eleven-year Supreme Court case, which dismisses women’s ability to pray as they wish at the Wall. This is not even to mention the fact that the women’s section of the wall was reduced from 18 to 12 meters, and the men’s section covers 48 meters. As the women celebrate the coming month of Av in the Hebrew calender, along with the men who point menacing fingers at their song from the men’s section of the Kotel, they reflect on its message of unwarranted hate, and pray for its departure from the wall as a step to ending the internal strife within Judaism and Israel.

The issues revealed today at the Kotel are representative of several in Israel. The gender inequality in religion, which prevents a woman from filing a divorce without her husband’s consent, forces her to the back of the synagogue, and emphasizes woman’s value in her ability to bear as many children as possible, continues to create controversy and divide the nation. Tension between religious and secular populations in Israel is also a major issue, which affects everything from modesty requirements, to the army, to praying at Judaism’s most holy site, and raises questions on the bounds of religion’s role in democracy.

These are issues that must be addressed. Women of the Wall is taking a seldom-trodden path by reforming women’s rights within religion, as many view feminism and the patriarchal structure of religion as incompatible. In the small overlap between the two, this group’s unyielding song is creating a precedent I hope women around the world will follow.

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The Importance of Being Pink

by Diana Saverin

It’s here: Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons, balloons, signs, and shirts have adorned the streets. Bras hang from the library. We laugh at the ridiculous posters intended to increase our “awareness” of breast cancer: Save the ta tas! Boobies rule, cancer drools! Save second base! Save the boobies! Wear pink on Friday! Everyone loves boobs! A pink ribbon can be found anywhere, thongs, bras, rainboots, perfume, blush, vests, sneakers, yogurt, outerwear, socks, ornaments, mini massagers, book lights, hair straighteners, razors, sink strainers, cookie cutters, Egyptian glass globe bottles, hats, purse hangers, flashlights, and so much more. I am quite certain that if I wished to, I could comfortably live my whole life buying only products with a pink ribbon.

In most ways, this is a great thing. The prominent US-based breast cancer foundations[1] have raised money, awareness, and research enormously. As someone who knows women who have survived breast cancer, I am grateful for these strides that have been made. Moreover, these non-profits provide a model for other causes, as their marketing schemes have worked. They have made an issue, which used to be associated with awkward-to-talk-about breasts, pink. Nowadays, money donated to breast cancer receives more money than any other one topic related to women.[2] Susan G. Komen for the Cure alone has a total expenditure of $347,858,000 a year, which is 27% of the total money spent on all women’s issues annually, ranging from sex trafficking to the compensation gap.[3]

Since giving to the pinkest cause easily translates to the most feminine cause, where do the other pinkish topics stand? These topics include the many subsets under power, human rights, education, economic justice and support, family and work issues, health and women’s bodies, and safety (with breast cancer grouped under health and women’s bodies). So where does the money go? Using the fixed amount of money given to women annually,[4] breast cancer has monopolized the landscape. Out of the over fifty diverse topics and issues related to women,[5] and out of the $1,249,541,000 given to all of those topics in a year, $410,578,000 went to breast cancer, which is 33% of that total. Girls’ education gets 2% of that same pie, work/life balance 0.5%, rape 0.5%, and the compensation gap 0.3%.[6] While I will leave the normative statements of which of these topics deserves the money the most to those wiser than I, I want to understand why breast cancer so dominates the market for women’s philanthropy.

One reason is simple: breast cancer is not considered feminist. The f-word makes the notion that boobs were ever awkward or controversial seem laughable. Supporting one of those feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority or the National Organization for Women, would be riskier, and certainly not very pink. The pink ribbon is losing its spot as the only socially acceptable women’s issue, as it is becoming trendy to talk about empowering girls[7], or giving microloans to women in developing countries[8], but proudly sporting a pink ribbon on a baseball cap or vest remains the classic symbol of political correctness in the minefields of women’s issues and feminism. But by so carefully treading over the dangerous and murky waters of the unlikeable and manly women society has warned us about, do we forget about the one in four women in the US and globally who are raped? Or the sex slavery that kidnaps innocent women and girls and sells and resells their virginity in ways that are sure to make the reader extremely uncomfortable? Or the thousands of women who are brutally killed in the name of honor under sharia law, for heinous crimes, such as wanting to choose their own husband?

Sometimes even more squeamish than these ways women are genitally mutilated and assaulted is their “masculine” ambition. Awkward. Let’s just stick with health, because with health matters it’s life or death, and what could be more important than life? Breast cancer is the best answer: clean cut, depoliticized, pink, whose perpetrators are cells in the depths of our bodies—instead of our own continually discriminating tendencies—and it certainly has some distance from those crazy feminists. But on the note of health, what happens to the women who don’t live long enough to get breast cancer? Or those women who want reproductive freedom, or maternal health care, or who have HIV/Aids? And by the way, isn’t heart disease the number one killer of women, with 1 in 4 women dying from it in the US, while 1 in 30 die from breast cancer?

It gets especially ambiguous for those poor corporations and firms, whose board and leadership statistics[9] reveal in plain sight the continued existence of the glass ceiling.[10] That’s where breast cancer comes in with its pinker than pink pink ribbon that shouts: “See, we love women!” without dealing with all of the dreaded baggage that comes with the f-word. It’s all charity anyways, so it’s all for a good cause, right?

While breast cancer research and awareness does helps 3.3% of the population, imagine if the women around the world who are literally not free, or the girls who are not allowed to go to school because they are forced to perform chores such as walk a total of four hours to get water to boil, or the women subjected to systematical violence got a share of our annual giving. Where would the world be if some of the $410,578,000 currently going to breast cancer addressed the needs of those women? The array of issues related to women’s empowerment and equality is expansive, but in taking pink route and avoiding critical thinking about the state of sexism, society has left those issues alone. We dedicate a whole month to breast cancer awareness, along with 33% of the money we give to women, but resist mustering the strength or resources to learn about the at least fifty other equally important and underfunded issues.

One of these issues is domestic violence, which affects over half of women. It also happens to be domestic violence awareness month. Would it be just too uncomfortable to spread that awareness every October, and knowing that over half of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, count ten women at our lunch tables, imagining five of their faces as they are assaulted by a family member at some point in their life? Or maybe we’ll just keep taking the shortcut, and stick to blaming tumors and cells; no one wants to see that kind of ugliness on a cupcake in every dining hall or in chalk all over the pavement anyways.

This romance with breast cancer doesn’t expose a love for women’s breasts, or the dire need to find a cure for breast cancer; it reveals the unwillingness to acknowledge the elementary facts of the sexism. It is visible in the 77 cents women make for every dollar a man makes in the US, it is visible because women still do not make up even 25% of Congress, and it is visible in seemingly benign sayings like “you play like a girl.” Sexism exists in all its black and white glory, but breast cancer awareness and funding lets us pat ourselves on the back for helping women without having to deal with creating any systematic change. Maybe pink really is more than a color; it’s our way around thinking about the ways women are treated by others, and not cells, in the home, locally, nationally, and globally.

Diana Saverin is a freshman in Berkeley College.

[1] Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Breast Cancer Research Foundation Breast Cancer Network of Strength, National Breast Cancer Foundation, Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund

[2] Diana Saverin and Mayree Clark. “Mapping the Movement.” Silverleaf Foundation, August 7, 2009.

[3] $45,221,540 of this is spent on fundraising and administrative costs, based on the Susan G. Komen 2007-2008 Annual Report

[4] This amount has increased about 6-7% over the past ten years, based on The Foundation Center’s recent research “Accelerating Change for Women and Girls; The Role of Women’s Funds”

[5] Leadership (political, judicial, corporate, professional, academic), human rights, affirmative action, taxes and inheritance, immigration, refugees, prison, LGBT rights, literacy, support for girls, affirmative action in admissions, title IX, compensation gaps, social security and welfare, minimum wage, women in business, women in non-traditional occupations, aging women, paid family leave, childcare, work/life balance, reproductive rights, mental health, HIV/Aids, Breast cancer, physiological differences between men and women, maternal health, general health, domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, trafficking, prostitution, violence arising from religious fundamentalism, poverty, peace, coping with conflict, the environment, race, economic policy, the arts, media, science, marketing, PR, and media, financing, government relations, leadership and talent development, technology, research, development, and advocacy

[6] Saverin.

[7] The NIKE foundation, which only gives to girls 10-19 have made “girls” an attractive cause, which has spurred a recent surge in investment in girls. While a meaningful task, it is confusing, because in doing so they distinctly separate the girls we ought to invest in from the women they become and the mothers who raise them.

[8] The success of microloans, which started largely with the Grameen Bank, has been phenomenal, and the research that these loans work best for women because women invest money back into the family has led to poverty alleviation for many women. According to the, women invest 90% of their income into their family, while men invest 30-40%.

[9] While women make up 46.5% of the work force, as of 2008 they make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to Catalyst’s “Women in Management” October 2008 report.

[10] Refers to sexism in the workplace, that woman can only climb the ladder of leadership before hitting the glass ceiling, and cannot get paid an equal wage for the same job as men.

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