Israel Is No Country for Women

Feminism is arguably the most successful revolution in contemporary times, but a close examination of the situation for women in Israel in recent years reveals a number of worrisome steps backward.


International Women's Day is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but before we clear our schedules to join in the festivities - like a day of pampering at the spa, or getting flowers from the bank that charges us excessive interest for pointless services - it's worth reminding ourselves what the celebration is actually about and asking whether it is justified.

March 8 has been designated to commemorate the time when women joined the economy in general and the workforce in particular. In this respect, as in many respects that concern women's lives, far-reaching changes have indeed been made. Feminism is arguably the most successful revolution in contemporary times. But a close examination of the situation for women in Israel in recent years reveals a number of worrisome steps backward.

Let us set aside for the moment the really serious problems - trafficking in women, child marriages (Balad MK Hanin Zuabi is to submit a bill calling to raise the legal age at which girls can get married, but agreements between families in fact bypass even the existing law ), child prostitution, violence against women and so forth - and focus on the average woman here. A woman from the middle class, who has been told by the government that her life has improved immeasurably in recent years thanks to the impressive growth of the economy.

What does she have to complain about? She has a job, an apartment, a car, and let's assume also a husband and two or three children, as is accepted practice in Israel. She attended university, where she specialized in a modern profession and now, at the age of 37, let's say, she enjoys good health and the kind of freedom her great grandmother could have only dreamed of. But perhaps not.

Her great grandmother was indeed married off and had five children at a young age, without anyone consulting her; she barely ever left the kitchen, and no one heard her opinion about anything. The great granddaughter, by contrast, looks more like a small personal enterprise than a human being. When today's woman reached the age of 29, and was still not married, her surrounding environment - which until then had politely clapped its hands over her academic and professional achievements - stopped being enthusiastic and started to get worried.

When she got married, everyone heaved a sigh of relief, but when she was not yet pregnant at the age of 33, all the well-wishers began asking what she was waiting for, whether the time had not yet come and whether she perhaps needed the address of an excellent specialist in fertilization. From the moment she became pregnant, she became the property of everyone in sight. All her work colleagues asked personal and embarrassing questions and the family interfered in every decision. This merely grew worse once the baby was born, and she joined the club of those women who "combine a career and a family."

This nasty phrase is the front for an entire system of social codes, all of which demand the young woman be an exemplary mother who will nurse her baby, take him to all the developmental groups, and swimming and yoga classes; that she be an excellent cook and a sweet wife; but also that she keep her trim figure by taking exercise classes, and give off an aura of sexiness (but not too much, of course ) and charm - and all of this without losing the momentum of her success at work.

Her partner, too, who is supposed to be attentive and sensitive, a model father and a wonderful husband (there's no way he would forget a birthday ), while also developing a brilliant career and an impressive income, is collapsing under the pressure. To this we must add the crazy prices of apartments, massive mortgages, the lack of security about employment, and the huge costs of day care centers, emergency visits to the doctor, special medication, dental treatments and additional academic study - all those services that a welfare state is supposed to provide its citizens - and you have a desperate and fearful couple. Only the woman even more so.

Women in Israel earn about one third less than men. Compared to their counterparts in the West, they are doubly inferior. The majority of women here serve in the army, which means they must delay their academic and professional plans; they are under pressure to start a family at a young age and to give birth to more children than what is accepted practice in the West; and all of this in a traditional and conservative environment that denounces any exceptions (and this is several times more serious when talking about Arab women ), despite the dramatic rise in the number of divorces. Of course, they find themselves facing additional emotional and economic struggles.

On the one hand, women are subject to draconian laws with regard to marital ties and must face rabbinical courts that are galloping back to the Middle Ages; and on the other hand, they must contend with the oppressive demand for eternal youth (to be obtained through botox injections ) and success in a wild work market filled with hatred toward families in general, and specifically toward mothers (as well as fathers ) who are merely trying to remain sane.

In short, the Israel of 2011 is not a state for women. Instead of a holiday, could we perhaps just have a little rest?