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Radio Station Lawsuit Highlights Battle Over Women's Rights In Israel

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Israel, as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community grows, so do efforts to protect women's rights. The latest controversy is about their voices. A religious radio station refused to air anything coming from a female mouth - not a single word. That prompted a class-action lawsuit that highlighted the debate over women's rights. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Women sing as they march through the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: They're from a group called Women of the Wall, which lobbies for women to be allowed to pray and sing aloud at the Western Wall. They often get heckled by ultra-Orthodox men. And today is no different.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: These men object to women singing in public, a subject of theological debate here. In Israel, it's rare to hear a woman even speaking on ultra-Orthodox radio. And four years ago, a lawsuit was filed by a feminist group called Kolech.

YAEL ROCKMAN: Our name is Kolech, which, in Hebrew, is your voice in feminine.

FRAYER: Executive director Yael Rockman says her group sued on behalf of all female listeners of Kol Barama, which was then an all-male, ultra-Orthodox radio station.

ROCKMAN: There were no women interviewing. You wouldn't be able to hear a woman in this radio channel. Now, not only that - this radio channel is not private. They get money from the government.

FRAYER: The discrimination lawsuit went all the way to Israel's highest court. And in late 2014, the feminists won. Kol Barama declined NPR's requests for an interview. Under court order, it recently allowed women on call-in shows. They used to have to fax their questions to be read on air by a man or child. Now for two hours a week...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: A husband and wife host a program about family values. But the station is now fighting the feminists' request that it pay $26 million in damages for the years it didn't air any female voices. It's the largest claim, advocates say, ever made for women's rights in Israel. A ruling is expected next year.

MENI SCHWARTZ: My name is Meni Gera Schwartz.

FRAYER: Meni Schwartz is editor of a big ultra-Orthodox news website which doesn't publish photos of women, though it recently made an exception for Hillary Clinton. He defends Kol Barama.

SCWARTZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: He says niche media cater to their audiences. It's a business. Outsiders might be offended. "But go ask women in this ultra-Orthodox neighborhood," he says, pointing out his window. And so I did. I went to a nearby restaurant that happened to be hosting a bris or circumcision ceremony, where men in black hats and silk suits dance and sing while women mingle behind a partition.

CHANA: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "No, the radio shouldn't ever air women's voices. That's forbidden," says Chana, who didn't want to give her last name because she thinks women, including even herself, should not be on the radio. A dozen women around her nod in agreement. Israeli courts have ruled that these women were discriminated against on the radio, even if they don't think so themselves. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.