Sunday 29 November 2009

How Equal are Israeli Women?

Judaism seems to have a somewhat ambivalent approach to the role of women in society and in the religion. On the one hand, female characters like the first women Eve, the four mothers Rachel, Sarah, Rivka and Leah, Ruth the Moabite and her mother-in-law Naomi and many others have strong positions in biblical stories and religious significance. Yet, the Jewish religion seems to firmly place women into a predetermined role as a home-maker. In addition, women are absolved or excluded from many of the religious practices. One example is the exclusion of women from the honour of being called up to the reading of the holy Torah. We are told that this exclusion is not one which is based upon biblical prohibition, but rather on interpretations and edicts issued by rabbis over the years, mainly for social reasons.

This ambivalence is also reflected in modern-day Israeli society. Women have an important role in society and, in many cases, there is an expectation that they fulfil duties that require them to be equal to their male counterparts. Israel is the only country in the world which has compulsory military conscription for women as well as men. More than 70% of women between the ages of 25 and 64 years old are currently in the Israeli workforce. This compares to approximately 60% in the USA. Golda Meir was only the third woman in world history to become the Prime Minister of her country. Tzipi Livni recently completed a stint as the country's foreign minister and continues as the leader of the Kadima party in parliament. A woman has occupied the position of CEO of a major Israeli bank, and there are women to be found in many senior positions in Israeli academia and industry. On the face of it, there would appear to be plenty of evidence of equal opportunities being afforded to Israeli women.

When scratching slightly below the surface, the picture of the role of women in Israeli society is not quite so rosy. Although women are conscripted into the army, the roles that most serve during the period of their military service are clerical and secretarial duties. It is known that those girls wishing to serve in fighting units or other front-line positions are required to fight hard for the right to do so. Such roles are usually allocated to their male counterparts and females wishing to fill them are forced to prove themselves way beyond their male equivalents. Alice Miller was excluded from the pilots' training course because she was a women. She was forced to petition the country's law courts before she was finally accepted to the course. This was only 14 years ago.

Incidents of sexual harassment in the military are commonly spoken about and well known, despite the fact that relatively few formal claims have been successfully pursued. Incidents of sexual harassment and cases where women are being taken advantage of by more senior men seem to be prevalent in all walks of Israeli society. The ongoing shameful court case against former president Moshe Katsav, or the conviction of former defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai on rape charges is evidence of this at the very highest levels.

In the workplace, there still seems to be a good deal of discrimination against women. It would appear that certain types of clerical roles are still associated with and reserved for women. The average salary earned by women in Israel is consistently and significantly lower than that earned by men. Although many of Israel's residents do not originate from Middle Eastern countries, the classic Middle Eastern stereotyping of women seems to be as prevalent here as it is in many of our neighbouring countries.

The real irony of the role of women can be found in the ultra-orthodox communities. Here, the men are expected to spend their days in learning institutions devoting their time and energies to the study of Judaism and the Torah. There are many thousands of such men engaged full-time in this activity. In return, they receive a stipend from the institution with which they study, money which is government-funded. Traditionally, it is expected that the wives of these men are at home raising (significant numbers of) children and taking care of the home. Because of financial pressures, more and more of these women are going out to find work and extra income. There are businesses, particularly in the Jerusalem area, that employ only ultra-orthodox women. The irony is that these women, who do not have the right to take part in many of the religious rituals, are the ones upon whom the entire home economy rests upon whilst their husbands are studying.

The good thing in Israel is that boys and girls have equal opportunities in the educational system to pursue an education and to follow their specialities and their dreams. Many high schools have successful girls' sports teams, and there are many girls who are following scientific specialisations such as physics, chemistry and robotics. Even though the average girl is toughened up during the course of her military training, something seems to happen between that event and the time that she enters the workplace. Even those women who have risen to the top of their professions and companies, have been forced to work harder and to endure unpleasantness at the hands of their male colleagues along the way only because they are women. This clearly needs to change.

The real interest for me is how modern Israeli society will continue to live alongside the traditions and laws of the Jewish religion, or perhaps the other way around. It seems as if those who safeguard the religion and the role of women in the religion, will be forced to reconsider their position on a good many issues in order to remain relevant. This does not mean that should sell the religion out and make changes to its most fundamental beliefs. It may, however, require the modern rabbis to question the edicts of rabbis from days in which the role of men and women were very different from the current day. Just as rabbis in days of old took it upon themselves to issue rabbinical laws to conform to their society, it is incumbent on our rabbis today to reopen these decisions, and to issue laws that will allow women to fill their rightful role in our society.

No comments: