From the ‘Wall of Women’ to Women of the Wall

Last week, I was thrown off balance by a headline from one of Israel’s leading news outlets: “A Victory For Women of the Wall of India.”

The article reported an astonishing 385-mile human chain, which consisted of five million Hindu women along the national Highway 66 in Kerala, India. The Hindu women are fighting for the right for women of all ages to be granted access into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

Humbled by the flattering comparison, I recognized that the editor who chose the headline appreciates the elements common to both struggles: namely, the use of religious rhetoric and opportunely made-up rules to exclude women and to maintain power imbalances.

There are many similarities between Women of the Wall’s battle and that of the Hindu women in Kerala. Women aged 10-50 are barred from entering one of Hinduism’s most sacred sites due to claims about menstrual impurity. Likewise, at the Western Wall, women are not allowed to read from the Torah scroll for the same reason (with no basis in Jewish Law). Two religions, two holy places – one damaging mechanism barring women from praying freely and taking part in sacred religious activity.

Like WOW, the women in Kerala spent years submitting petitions to the government, meeting repeatedly for discussions with relevant figures of authority. For 11 years, WOW’s concerns were rejected with vague claims about sensitivity to “the feelings of other worshippers” and “injury to public sentiment.” Our sincere striving for the very opportunities men take for granted at this national site are portrayed as a disruption to the “status quo” and a threat to the integrity of the sacred place.

In Women of the Wall’s journey, and in the recent story of the brave women of Kerala, this pattern of “religious” appeals for exclusion reveals a deep-seated desire to maintain existing power structures and systems of control. The Hindu women activists, for instance, shared a statement by the Sabarimala temple chief, “that he would allow women to enter only after a machine was invented to detect if they were ‘pure’ –  they weren’t menstruating.” It brings to mind an eerie yet valid parallel at the Western Wall: guards and the invasive screening machine used to ensure that WOW does not bring in a Torah scroll. We are marked impure and suspicious – in order to secure hegemonic status.

Another point of intersection exists between Women of the Wall’s trials and the battle of the women in Kerala – the disparity between legal action and the reality on the ground. While WOW, for example, has achieved significant progress in the Court through steadfast appeals to principles of justice, the opposition we face monthly at the Kotel shows that these successes are only partial. We are greeted with crowds of organized protesters who lob projectiles and death threats; spitting and pushing, they refuse to let us to pray in peace. Similarly, while the Supreme Court ordered the Hindu temple in Sabarimala to open its doors to all, “not a single woman was able to enter because of the protesters.” While legal statements and reforms are critical to forward movement in any struggle for equality, without significant changes within society itself, victory is untenable.

I applaud the campaign’s founder Nikita Azad who told the BBC “that women should have the right to go ‘wherever they want to and whenever they want to.’” The ongoing battles for women’s religious freedoms are, at their essence, calls for equal recognition and respect in the public sphere. Refusing to submit to a version of reality in which men own and dictate collective spaces, women are taking claim of what is rightfully ours.

And I am struck by one final, salient point of common ground between Women of the Wall’s warriors and the heroic Hindu activists in Sabarimala: resilience. While both battles feature the manipulative rhetorical tactics of “religious” intolerance, as well as the familiar tensions over power and control, these struggles each reveal a deeper and more hopeful truth: in the face of injustice and exclusion, women’s solidarity and determination will ultimately win.

The remarkable organizing efforts of the Hindu women in Kerala, gathering millions to form a “wall of women,” led to their triumphant success. Entering the temple finally, the women saw their perseverance yield the fruits of justice. I am moved and inspired by the women of Sabarimala to continue fighting, praying, and singing our way to true progress at the Western Wall and beyond.

About the Author
Lesley Sachs is the 2014 recipient of the NCJW Jewel Bellush Outstanding Israeli Feminist award and was one of the founding members of “Isha L’isha – Haifa’s Feminist Center” and worked for 10 years in the Israel Women’s Network. Lesley served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), vice president of the World Union For Progressive Judaism and founding director of Project, Kesher Israel. She is currently working as the executive director of Women of the Wall. She served on the board of directors for the Jerusalem Women’s Shelter, board of directors for the JNF-KKL and currently she is chair of the pre-army mechina Michmanim in Jaffa.
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