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Israeli Women’s Movement: A Long Battle Forges On

Israel-protest against gender-based violence in Israel
Women protest against gender-based violence in West Jerusalem, 13 May 2016. Photo Yonatan Sindel

A common misperception about the women’s movement in Israel, says Ella Gera, former executive director of Israel Women’s Network (IWN), is that it arose from the pioneering spirit of the kibbutzim or from females serving in the army. In fact, the struggle for gender equality dates back to the 1920s, when women fought for the right to vote in the pre-Jewish state settlements. Women believed that through suffrage they would reach equality.

Today, more than 50 women’s organizations in Israel are striving to strengthen women’s status in the family, at work, and in society. Their specific goals are to lobby and to advance the causes of equal pay, more family-friendly workplaces, and gender empowerment issues. Yet despite some progress, change is slow in coming.

The main reason, explains Rina Bar Tal, who recently completed 12 years as chairwoman of the IWN, is that “Israel is a chauvinistic society.” Much of that chauvinism originates in the culture inside the Israeli army. In fact, reports of sexual assaults in the army rose by 20 percent in 2016. That increase was fueled primarily by a growing realization among female soldiers of their rights to file complaints. Nevertheless, a senior army officer admits that this trend is worrisome. The heightened awareness of gender attitudes was reflected in a new satirical video produced by young Israeli actresses. The video, which went viral, flips the gender roles by depicting women harassing men.

Deep gender imbalances persist in Israel. For instance, just 2 percent of municipality roles in the country are held by women. That’s one reason Ben Tal urges more women to run for mayor and city councils.

Another focus for the women’s movement is the issue of agunah, a term for a woman who is chained to a marriage because her husband refuses to grant a divorce. Since Israel’s conservative Chief Rabbinate has monopoly over marriage and divorce matters, it tends to be biased toward the husband’s narrative. That leaves many women in a limbo, unable to exit the marriage or to obtain a ”get” from her husband that would free her to remarry.

Four decades after its start, Israel’s feminist movement launched a second wave after the 1973 War. Women’s exclusion from three major fronts during the war — military leadership, civilian administration and war production – helped spark the wave.

In this decade, women’s organization leaders hail mostly from academia and law. Israel Women’s Network was established in 1984 and became the country’s major advocacy group for women’s rights. The IWN formed close collaboration with Knesset members, which led to unprecedented passage of such legislation as the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law and the Prevention of Family Violence Law. IWN also successfully pushed to establish the Committee for the Advancement of Women as an official Knesset committee. IWN today is working on three primary issues:

Equal Pay

Females in Israel earn 30 percent less money than men. As is common with women around the world, many Israeli women are their family’s main caretakers for children or elderly parents. Consequently, they are investing less hours at work. They’re also less likely than men to demand benefits at work, such as car expenses or mobile phones. Israeli women accept these benefits, but they will not initiate the request. To remedy that, Bar Tal says, IWN organizes events featuring business and industry figures to help raise awareness of women’s issues.

Family Friendly Workplaces

Many studies have shown that young women working in high-tech sectors advance at an equal pace with their male peers. But that slows when the woman gives birth. Unable or unwilling to work 12-plus hour days, Israeli mothers face having to either quit their jobs or split the work hours between the office and home. The trend among many Israeli workers – women and men — is to support more accommodating arrangements for parents.

Gender Empowerment Issues

In 1999, Israel became the first country to legislate gender quotas for publicly-traded companies. In 2007, a government resolution called for all state-owned companies to have equal number of men and women on their boards within two years. Israel reached this quota in 2010.

Women’s groups are trying to build on those gains. But that has been “more challenging to do in the current political atmosphere with a conservative government,’ Bar Tal says. For example, in the Israel army, women should be able to enter any role. Ironically, since the enlistment numbers are reduced these days, the army needs more women than before. However, the point we emphasize for the past twenty years, is that she can serve in any role. In the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, there are 33 female lawmakers. They make up almost a quarter of the Knesset, and that is an encouraging sign.

So what is the future of women’s rights in Israel? Will the upheavals in the neighboring countries endanger the movement in Israel? Will a conservative government chip at the many achievements that women’s groups have made toward equal rights? Women’s empowerment is not a female issue, but a societal issue. Much depends on the answer to those questions.