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Israel Studies 3.2 (1998) 47-79

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Giving Voice to Women:
An Israeli Case Study

Leora Bilsky


THIS PAPER EXAMINES A RECENT Israeli court decision from the District Court of Tel-Aviv that involved a young woman who had suffered from a series of rapes and violent attacks from her boyfriend. The issue of violence against women has become a topic of legal discussions and reforms in the last few years in Israel. The Israeli Supreme Court has responded to growing public criticism about the legal system with several precedential decisions, among them the Buhbut case (domestic violence) and the Beeri case (a rape in Kibbutz Shomrat). 1 Compared to these celebrated decisions, my choice of a case from Tel-Aviv's District Court seems to pale. In choosing to study this case, I was informed by the methodology that I employ—a methodology that concentrates not only on the end result (the court decision), but also on the legal process that led to this decision.

The paper raises the question of the woman's voice in the courtroom. Feminist literature of the last two decades has turned to examine the issue of women's voices in general. The courtroom is one of the last arenas where the human voice still enjoys a privileged position in the search for truth. Testimonies of eye witnesses are preferred over documents and professional literature. The trial court is the level where the voices of the different participants in the proceedings reign. A close study of the woman's voice in a trial court reveals that her voice is constructed and shaped to a large degree by the rules of procedure and evidence of the courtroom. This character of a courtroom proceeding makes the feminist slogan of "giving voice to women" a problematic one, since the legal process rarely allows for an independent and uninterrupted voice to be heard.

One central way of shaping the participants' voices in the courtroom is the need to fit them under predetermined legal categories. The paper studies the effects of this process on the story that is heard in the courtroom. It [End Page 47] argues that the neat division into legal categories such as rape and battery may obscure fundamental experiences of harm to women who do not fit either category. 2 Moreover, the study reveals that Israeli legal theory suffers from "color blindness," since it ignores the social, ethnic, and national background of the participants. I argue that these factors play a central role in shaping the voices that are heard in the courtroom. The "color blind" discourse of Israeli academe obscures the dynamic of social legitimation that parades under the guise of legal reform.

The Voice Metaphor in Feminist Writing

Feminist writings in the last two decades have begun to raise the issue of women's voices. The literature examines the different ways in which women's voices are silenced, distorted, marginalized, and expelled from the public domain. The lack of voice is understood by feminist writers as a source of injustice and various ways have been devised to introduce the missing voices. This article examines the concept of "voice" in feminist writing. 3

One does not have to go very far in order to encounter the "voice" metaphor in feminist literature. 4 Two of the most influential feminist writers, Carol Gilligan and Catharine MacKinnon, devote large parts of their works to the issue of women's voices.

Carol Gilligan opens her book, In A Different Voice, with,

Over the past ten years, I have been listening to people talking about morality and about themselves. Halfway through that time, I began to hear a distinction in these voices, two ways of speaking about moral problems, two modes of describing the relationship between other and self. Differences represented in the psychological literature as steps in a developmental progression suddenly appeared instead as a contrapuntal theme, woven into the cycle of life and recurring in varying forms in people's judgments, fantasies, and thoughts. 5 [emphasis added]

This short paragraph reveals several assumptions that Gilligan holds about the...


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