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Orit Noked, the new Labor Party MK has managed to record her first achievement as a parliamentarian even before making her first speech in the Knesset.

When she joined the Knesset (replacing Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, who resigned), she increased the number of women in the Knesset to 17, the highest ever. When the Knesset was founded, there were 11 female MKs. In the third Knesset there were 12 women (10 percent), but by the beginning of the 12th Knesset, their number had dropped to seven - its lowest ever - and in the Knesset led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, there were nine women.

It is still too early to rejoice, however. If we compare the status of women in the Knesset to other parliaments around the world, Israel is still far behind - in 56th place, with just 14.2 percent representation. Israel is stuck between Andorra (14.3 percent) and Slovakia (14 percent).

At the top of the list for true equal rights are Sweden (42.7 percent), Denmark (38 percent), Finland (36.5 percent) and Norway (36.4 percent). Germany is in seventh place (31.7 percent), followed by Spain (28.3 percent) and even China has a higher percentage of women parliamentarians (21.8 percent) than Israel. England has 17.9 percent. We could perhaps gain some comfort from the fact that the situation here is somewhat better than in the United States, where only 14 percent of parliamentarians are women. Women in Arab countries are worse off than in Israel. Only 2.4 percent of Egypt's parliament members are women, while this figure in Jordan is just 1.3 percent and in Morocco, 0.6 percent.

"It's disgraceful," says MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) about Israel's place on the table of women parliamentarians worldwide. "Unfortunately stereotypes and barriers still prevent women from proper representation. I feel the only way to increase female representation in the Knesset is via affirmative action. Four of Meretz's 10 MKs are women because our constitutions states that every group of 10 candidates must contain four women."

The Labor Party's constitution calls for 25 percent of those elected to be women. Minister Tzipi Livni (Likud) also believes that places should be reserved for women on the party lists for the Knesset, "because otherwise we would not have reached 17 MKs."

MK Colette Avital (Labor) is initiating a bill together with MK Naomi Chazan (Meretz) that would encourage the political parties to give fair representation to women. "Men have difficulty giving up their seats," says Avital. "They react as if they are being deprived of something that is their legitimate right."

MK Nehama Ronen (Center) admits that in the past she opposed affirmative action for women, but says that since she entered the Knesset, she has changed her mind. There are also women MKs, such as Yehudit Naot (Shinui), who strongly oppose reserving seats for women. "It's humiliating," she says.

MK Yael Dayan (Labor) who chairs the Committee for the Advancement of Women, feels that statistical data concerning the number of women in the Knesset is misleading because one has to take into account that the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) will not let women onto their lists, nor will the Arab parties (Balad, the United Arab List and Ta'al). This means that the real rate of female representation is 19.1 percent (17 our of 89 MKs).

Chazan disagrees with that analysis. "We mustn't reconcile ourselves to a reality in which certain parties lock their gates to women, because in doing so, they deny the basic right of a woman to be elected."

The power of 17 women

Despite the different opinions that separate them on political and security matters, all the women MKs on the right and left support increasing cooperation among themselves. "I believe we can become a very united force of 17 opposite Shas' 17 and make real progress in matters concerning the status of women, discrimination against women, amendments to personal status laws, the status of the rabbinical courts, etc.," says Naot.

"We have to devote at least 30 percent of our attention to problems that trouble women," says Deputy Infrastructure Minister Naomi Blumenthal (Likud). "If we don't, no one else will do it in our stead."

Chazan feels that cooperation between the women MKs must be strengthened, not only on purely feminine issues such as the severity of punishment for men who are violent toward their spouses, increasing budget allocations for battered women's shelters and improving women's wages, "but also for the advancement of women and fair representation in government positions and other positions of authority."

"When there is strong feminist awareness, women MKs can do a lot to promote women's rights in various fields," says former cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni, who served in the Knesset for over 20 years, "even if their world views on political issues differ." MK Tamar Gozansky (Hadash), currently the longest-serving female MK (she was elected in 1990), disagrees with that point of view. "There is a long list of issues on which women MKs cannot reach agreement. The separation of state and religion, for example, or the rights of Palestinian women in the territories. It's the same with all issues of worldview. You have to remember that worldview is not determined in the womb or by the genes."

Former Knesset speaker Prof. Shevah Weiss (who is currently serving as Israel's ambassador to Poland) believes that the record number of 17 women MKs is a "revolution." He feels the trend toward integrating women in politics has increased considerably in recent years. "I feel it will get even stronger in the coming years," he says, "particularly in light of the fact that the women MKs work very hard at their jobs."

The statistical data provided by the Knesset's computing department corroborates Weiss's opinion. Women have posted significant legislative achievements in the current Knesset. Naot is in second place among all the lawmakers, together with MK Zevulun Orlev and right behind MK Ophir Pines-Paz. Naot and Orlev both managed to get 11 laws passed on their second and third readings, while Gozansky was in third place with 10 laws, followed by Dayan with nine.

Gozansky is the leading woman MK for making speeches in the Knesset (with 465 speeches, compared to 569 for Orlev, who is in first place). MK Anat Maor (Meretz) has spoken 191 times and Naot has spoken 127. The women MKs also have good attendance records. Chazan has been present the most of any female MK, having been absent only 7 percent of the days the Knesset has been in session (MK Michael Eitan [Likud] holds the record for the men, with only 2 percent absenteeism. Gal-On and Naot are a close second to Chazan, with 90-percent attendance.)

Busy women

Gozansky feels their excellence as MKs stems from the high expectations of the women themselves, as they feel a need to prove themselves and therefore try harder. Despite their considerable contributions to the workings of the Knesset, women have still not managed to capture the more important and prestigious positions. No woman has ever served as Knesset speaker, and it is doubtful this will happen in the coming years due to the anticipated objections from the ultra-Orthodox parties. Women have also never been appointed to chair the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee, or the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

"The advancement of women in the Knesset is slow," says Chazan, "but there has definitely been progress."

"Women are playing a greater role in all fields," says Dayan. "There are already three ministers and two deputy ministers in the government; there are more women judges in the courts and for the first time a woman has been appointed spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces."