Women in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community near New York are taking an unusual approach to getting their voices heard: they’re going on a sex strike.

More than 800 Hasidic women have refused to sleep with their husbands in protest against a Jewish law that they say traps wives in unwanted and sometimes abusive marriages – and they’re hoping the boycott will put pressure on their partners to support their cause.

But the tactic has divided the people of Kiryas Joel, an insular Jewish community an hour from New York where women must seek permission from their rabbi to report cases domestic violence to police.

Here in this ultra-Orthodox enclave, striking women have had eggs thrown at them while facing a torrent of social media abuse.

So why are the women taking a stand, and why is their strike so controversial?

The power of the ‘get

Women in Kiryas Joel, a village about an hour’s drive from New York, are refusing to have sex with their husbands until action is taken to change a Jewish law that means that women can’t get a divorce without a very specific declaration.

Under this law, a man needs to give his wife a get, a letter written in Aramaic that declares she is no longer bound to him. Three rabbis must sign the document in order to finalise a divorce.

The law enforcing the get means women can be trapped in abusive relationships with no way out.

Men can also use it as a bargaining chip in the divorce process, withholding the get until they agree to the conditions they want, like money or custody of children.

Ultra-Orthodox women trapped in unwanted marriages are known as ‘agunahs’, or ‘chained women’. And one of them, 29-year-old Malky Berkowitz, has become the face of the Kiryas Joel sex strike.

Malky has spent four years trying to divorce her husband, Volvy. The pair separated in 2020, but Volvy has refused to give her a get. Without it, Malky can’t remarry.

Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said: ‘It shouldn’t take the threat of women to withhold sex from their husbands in order to get men’s attention – nor to get men to behave as allies toward women, and toward the halachic system that they purport to hold so dear.’

She added: ‘Using sex as a form of coercion is also highly problematic.’

A number of women shared their doubts about the sex strike in comments on an Instagram post by strike organiser Adina, who posts under the handle Flatbush Girl.

One of Sash’s followers commented on her post: ‘Totally don’t agree with this. Yes we all feel sorry for her about this entire situation and I hope that she will hopefully get the GET. But you are totally getting a sin by telling woman not to keep Mikvah. I don’t support this strike.’

Another wrote: ‘I respect your passion. But, withholding sex from your loving marriage is abusive and non-productive no matter the circumstance.’

Online tension has spilled over into the Hasidic community. A group of women protesting the get law were attacked with eggs and verbally abused at a gathering in February. A counter-protest of men then shouted ‘insolent women’ through loudspeakers at the group.

In response, Adina said: ‘They say, ‘How could you withhold sex? You’re weaponizing your body! How can you withhold sex? You’re weaponizing intimacy.’ Then how could you withhold the get? You’re weaponizing the divorce process. You are holding a woman in limbo.’

He added that ‘intimacy between a husband and wife is an expected part of a healthy marriage’ and that a strike would affect marriages negatively.

Have sex strikes worked before?

Sex strikes have a long and remarkably successful history, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

One of the earliest references to sex strikes is in a play by ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes called Lysistrata, which follows a group of women who refuse to have sex until the Peloponnesian War ends.

In the 1600s, women of the Iroquois Nation, a group of Native tribes in North America, wanted more influence over warfare, so they boycotted sex and childbearing.

The tactic worked, and the women were given the power to veto battles.

More recently, women in a town in Colombia started the ‘Crossed Legs Movement’ to protest a lack of government action on a dangerous road that connected the town to the rest of the province.

After 112 days, the Colombian government agreed to fund road repairs.

In 2009, a group of women in Kenya went on a week-long sex strike to protest political infighting. A group of women in the Philippines used the same tactic in 2011 to stop violent clashes between rival villages.

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