January 2, 2012
The past month has seen media frenzy on the issue of women’s rights in Israel. Never have the rights of women been such a hot topic, with daily front page articles, editorials, op-eds, radio and television programming. While the media attention began with the “disappearance” of women from bus advertisements and billboards in Jerusalem, several incidents of extremist Haredi (ultra Orthodox men) ordering women to sit at the back of public buses quickly gained national attention. This was followed by the despicable act of some extremist men terrorizing a Modern Orthodox 8 year old girl during her morning walk to school in the city of Bet Shemesh because her clothing was not considered sufficiently modest.
Suddenly, the whole country seems to be concerned about women’s rights, including politicians, rabbis, journalists, lawyers, military leaders, police, and academics. Several citizens’ groups have sprung up using the social network to organize daily demonstrations nationwide on behalf of women’s rights. Participants in these large public demonstrations include religious as well as secular men and women.
While most of the attention has centered on the actions of extremist Ultra Orthodox men, questions are now being asked about discrimination against women in religious courts, commercial enterprises, politics, academics, media, theater, and other aspects of public life. Female university students are pointing out that it is easy to point the finger at the ultra orthodox community, but they are finding it more difficult to combat discrimination against women as they attempt to find jobs and develop careers. Despite that many young women are “post –feminists”, some are calling themselves the “New Feminists”.
While the media blitz continues, I wanted to update my ICJW colleagues on some of the interesting developments that are taking place at this moment in time:
1. Politicians from all political parties, including the religious parties, are competing with each other as to who has done more and who is planning to act more robustly on behalf of equality for women. It is interesting to see the coalitions being formed on this issue, with regular emergency meetings of government ministers, opposition parties and Knesset committees looking into the status of women. Our Prime Minister and our President have made strong public statements, directing the police and the criminal justice system to enforce existing laws while considering new stronger sanctions against those who discriminate against women. Several female MK’s are now riding on former gender segregated buses to show solidarity with those of us who have been doing so for a year.
2. The Police Chief has held emergency meetings with his senior staff regarding enforcement of laws regarding the gender segregated buses as well as the verbal abuse of women by religious extremists. A few days ago an ultra orthodox man was arrested and charged with sexual harassment for calling a girl soldier a whore when she refused to move to the back of a bus. This is the first time that the police have made an arrest for verbal abuse on a public bus and the use of the sexual harassment law in such a case is a precedent. Violation of the law regarding verbal sexual harassment provides for a two year prison sentence. The police are now arresting extremist men in Bet Shemesh who verbally abuse young girls attending Modern Orthodox schools and are providing a regular presence as these girls walk to school each morning. Interestingly, it was pointed out by observers that the police campaign on women’s rights was announced at a meeting attended by senior police officials, all of whom were men!
3. Discrimination against women in the Rabbinical Courts has become a major public issue, with some legal experts calling for women to sit as judges (dayanim) in these courts which have always been male only. Suddenly, there is broad public attention to the absence of women in the rabbinical court system, with discussion of the need for women on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim as well as the possibility of appointing a woman as administrator of the rabbinical courts. The fact that the Israel Bar Association elected two men to the Commission recently (my article was published in the Israeli press and circulated to ICJW members) has come under strong criticism. Surprisingly, an Orthodox political party, Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) is negotiating a political deal within the Knesset regarding legislation which would give their faction the power to choose one of the Bar’s representatives to the Commission and they are stating that this representative would be a woman!!
4. Citizens have been forming new NGO’s via Facebook on an almost daily basis and within hours have gathered thousands of demonstrators in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and other cities to decry discrimination against women. Most of these demonstrators are young and educated. On January 1st, a nationwide effort had thousands boarding formerly segregated buses in several cities, accompanied by TV cameras and police escorts.
5. The Chief of Staff of IDF has held emergency meetings with military leaders regarding the role of women. He proudly stated that the IDF will not tolerate discrimination against women and pointed to the 5 young women who have just completed the combat pilot’s course of the Israeli Air Force. He stressed the importance of the contribution of women soldiers and stated that all positions are open to women in the IDF.
6. Perhaps the sweetest result of all of this publicity has been the response of my young grandsons. While they have known about my work for many years, it wasn’t a major part of their busy lives. However, now that the subject of women’s rights is being discussed in every school, my 11 year old grandson, Asaf, proudly announced in class that his grandmother has been riding in the front of the formerly gender segregated buses for a year! The teacher had him describe my work to his classmates and he was quite the star! My oldest grandson, 16 year old Yuval has several friends who joined the nationwide bus ride on January 1st and informed them that his grandmother is a regular rider on the front of these buses. As a youth movement leader, he has been leading discussions on women’s rights with his groups (when he’s not practicing basketball as he plays on two teams!).
This is only an interim report as each day brings new action and new media coverage. I will write another report as events develop. As a women’s rights activist for over four decades, I am delighted with this remarkable public interest in women’s issues in Israel. The extremists have done us a big favor as they have brought national and international attention to the issue of status of women. Now we must all harness this public attention and develop programs to ensure that women worldwide will enjoy full equality in every aspect of public and private life. This is a great opportunity for all ICJW affiliates to organize public events on the status of women in their communities.
Sharon Shenhav, J.D.
International Jewish Women’s Rights Project