Wife sues husband in historic case

February 10, 2011

An Israeli woman has successfully sued her husband for refusing to give her a divorce.

The ruling handed down last week at Tel Aviv District Court is a major victory for agunot - women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce.

The woman, who is in her late 30s and lives near Tel Aviv, has been married for 14 years but has been requesting a divorce since three months into the marriage, when they separated.

The husband must now pay her 700,000 shekels (£120,000) in damages. The panel of three judges wrote in the ruling that she has been "held hostage" in a "prison" of the husband's making. "He prevents, and prevented her, from experiencing life's joys, establishing a family, and especially from having children," the judges continued. "We are talking about immeasurable damage that increases by the day."

Susan Weiss, head of the Centre for Women's Justice, the Jerusalem-based non-profit organisation which brought the woman's case to court, said that the ruling sends out a strong message that "you can't abuse a woman by cover of religious law, and rebalances power between men and women". It will act as a "very effective tool" in deterring men who are considering making their wife an agunah, she said.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of Bar Ilan University's Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women and a member of the UN Committee For Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, said that the ruling is "extremely significant" and "a very important achievement in the struggle for agunot."

In 2004 Ms Weiss began filing lawsuits and has to date initiated 30 cases. In half of them, the man quickly granted a divorce. Of the rest, many are ongoing, and five have resulted in the award of damages by family courts.

But this ruling, the first by a district court - heard there because the husband appealed when a family court ruled against him - will constitute a precedent. Though not formally binding, all family courts are likely to follow it in future.

Last updated: 12:28pm, February 10 2011