'Exclusion of Women' in Israel Is Nothing New

Merav Michaeli
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Merav Michaeli

I am simply wondering why and wherefore this "exclusion of women" festival is taking place at the moment. Why right now? What has changed? I mean, the exclusion and discrimination are far from new. Not on the buses, not on the billboards, not in the streets of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or in secular and perfectly Tel Avivian spaces - in the army, in the Knesset, in the government, in the print media and television, on various public committees and in the workforce.

It is so tiring to constantly reiterate that the struggle against segregation on the buses has been taking place for more than a decade; that over the years, there has been a struggle to appoint a woman to the committee that selects rabbinical court judges; that the judges themselves are always men; and that both secular and religious women are totally subjected to them for as long as there is no civil marriage in Israel.

It is exhausting to bring up time and again, as part of the ongoing struggle of decades, the income gaps, the low status of housework and raising children, the poor representation of women in the public arena, the stereotypical portrayals of women in the media, the sexual exploitation, the small number of female representatives in the Knesset and the even smaller number of female cabinet ministers, the physical oppression, and the number of women who are murdered by abusive partners every year.

And women have long been aware of these issues. Feminist organizations - religious Jewish feminists and Arab feminists included - have been fighting for decades against all aspects of exclusion and discrimination. Even women who do not call themselves feminists know exactly what kind of oppression they live under, even if they call it by other names. In lectures that I give, I hear - below the myth adopted by women that equality reigns and the sky is the limit - the awareness of this oppression, and the fear of recognizing it openly.

None of this is new for men either. The rhetoric about discrimination against women has been around for quite some time. There are only a few men who discuss discrimination against women or attempt to change the situation, but most men do not consider it to be their problem. They place themselves somewhere between sympathizing with women and feigning denial of any kind of oppression. Either way, it does not take any of them by surprise.

So what happened? Perhaps the political climate that brings the right-wing, super-Jewish, anti-democratic feelings - as well as various forms of oppression - to the surface is causing more and more people to lose any shame they might have had about excluding women. And perhaps this sloughing off of shame is what is annoying the public. Exclusion and discrimination are acceptable, but they must be done quietly to maintain the facade of equality. Perhaps this is a kind of inertia, in a good way. The masses protested the cost of living and the difficulties of life this summer with all their might, but nothing much happened; this is another way of shouting that people are still unhappy. And perhaps it's good news that when men and women think something is no good, they feel they can do something about it.

It is clear now that when something happens and it's not clear why it is happening, the talmudic question must be asked: Mai nafka mina? What practical difference does it make? Or as the Arabic saying goes, who is getting something out of this?

The ones who benefit from this festival of (and against ) the exclusion of women include secular men, who are taking the opportunity to be seen as enlightened by hatefully condemning religious people, even as they themselves continue to exclude women. Others who benefit include the men in the army, who don't want women to be too high-ranking and have the rabbis keeping women down for them; the men in politics, who come out looking like knights but won't be vacating their spot in the party for a woman; the men in the media and in advertising, for whom women do the work and claim their right to be sex objects on display; the rich men, who have been spared being targets of protests against economic inequality; and the men in the government, who do not have to deal with the occupation or the lack of hope now that all topics other than the exclusion of women have been shunted aside.

After all, this is the perfect subject: All those in favor of doing away with the exclusion of women, please raise your hands. Sure, why wouldn't the men raise their hands? And thus do they all benefit from the festivities. Instead of making it possible for women to take part in the public discourse and do real things, they keep us busy and distracted by all this talk about, and struggle against, the exclusion of women.

Read this article in Hebrew.