From a Religious Settlement to Tel Aviv's SlutWalk, Organizer Sees Progress in Israel's Feminist Struggle

'Women are not fair game just because they’re women,' says Bracha Bard, who has made her mission to fight gender-based violence

Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman
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Three participants of the Tel Aviv SlutWalk, May 31, 2019.
Three participants of the Tel Aviv SlutWalk, May 31, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman

Bracha Bard, it sure is hard to make an appointment with you.

We’re right at the peak of the chaos after half a year’s work. This is a big production, the SlutWalk.

Pardon the question, but are you a slut?

In my world, a slut is a strong and amazing woman who doesn’t allow society to set her limits and humiliate her for her sexual behavior. So yes, I suppose I fit the definition. If you’re talking about the dry definition of the most terrible cuss word in the world, of a woman who has sex with many partners, I think it’s not really anyone’s business so I won’t answer. Society gave us this name because we listened, and I’m taking it, I’m not insulted and I use it in order to leverage my rights.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 29

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What’s the agenda of the demonstration?

'In my world, a slut is a strong and amazing woman who doesn’t allow society to set her limits and humiliate her for her sexual behavior,'says Bracha Bard.Credit: \ Eyal Toueg

It started in 2011 in Canada after a policeman said: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Over the years, the SlutWalk has spread to 20 countries. The initial agenda was to break the link between clothing and rape – that is, there is nothing that justifies the harm. It doesn’t matter what I wore and what I drank, if I said “No” – it’s no. This is a banal statement but even today it’s necessary to fight for it and explain why it’s correct. Only a year ago, after the gang rape in Herzliya, female lawyers talked about a photo the victim had posted of herself in a bikini on Instagram [and used it] to explain that this meant it was just sex and not rape. And we’re talking about a rape that police said was in the style of “A Clockwork Orange,” really appalling.

What was the lawyers’ explanation?

That it shows she wasn’t traumatized. As though if she was raped, she is forbidden from doing anything ever again. We have a fundamental problem in society, mainly in the justice system: They make a connection between the victim’s behavior and what happened to her and they use the one to check if the other is legitimate. This is a problem that’s hard to deal with, because that’s how the system works.

With regard to rape cases, the justice system is impotent. Rabbi Eliezer Berland was released from prison because of “his poor physical condition” after he was convicted of sexual violence toward women in his community, and he returned to a round of appearances, lighting Hanukkah candles and the bonfire at [Mount] Meron. There were 17 complaints against the Tel Aviv real estate and nightlife playboy Alon Kastiel, the gravest of which was attempted rape, and he is still appealing the sentence. There is social legitimacy for men who are sexually violent.

Maybe this comes from above?

David Keyes, who was a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, resigned last year after accusations of sexual harassment, but there was no official statement by anyone condemning his actions. Natan Eshel, who was expelled from the civil service in the wake of accusations of harassment, conducts negotiations on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu.

There’s confusion in society about what has to happen with people who have done sexual harm, an offense that carries the deepest disgrace under the law. And now, Prof. David Newman, who was convicted of sexual violence at Ben-Gurion University, has gone back to teaching.

You founded the non-profit Together Kulan.

My female friends and I.

Protesters at the Tel Aviv SlutWalk, May 31, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

What does it do?

Our main base is an educational project that conducts feminist discourse. Our online community on Facebook has 40,000 members. Every case of discrimination, chauvinism, misogyny and objectification reaches us, and immediately discussions of the subject begin. From really small things like the color of children’s clothing to cases of blaming the victim of a rape, harassment or violence in general. We also deal a lot with preventing domestic violence and gender-based violence, and for years now we have a practice of marking a day of mourning every time a woman is murdered because of her gender.

There are also arguments, I assume.

Of course, there are currents. Even my own friends and I don’t agree about everything. There are differences of opinion, mainly every time we get close to issues of the occupation and political parties – after all, everything is political.

Hang on – aren’t you leftists?

Some of us yes and some of us no.

And also not lesbians?

I’m bisexual. Everyone is represented on our team – there’s an Arab woman, there are trans women. The vast majority are straight women.

Could it be that people find it hard to define themselves as feminists because of the leftist-lesbian-anti-men image?

Opposition to feminist struggles has existed ever since the struggle for the right to vote. They’ve always said that we break up the family and destroy romance, so it’s hard for me to imagine that everyone who is opposed to the SlutWalk will stand with us and support us under a different name.

Bracha Bard. 'I fled Gush Etzion. I go back there only twice a year and out of respect for my parents, for Passover and Rosh Hashanah'Credit: Eyal Toueg

And what about the hatred of men?

We don’t hate men, we are great believers in the male sex. There are also men who participate in our campaigns, like the wonderful Israeli White Ribbon organization, Asli. It’s important to make a distinction between men and masculinity as culture and also femininity as culture. My little niece grew up in the United States and if she isn’t wearing pink, they’re sure she’s a boy. The concept that men are like this and women are like that is also harmful to men, though it’s true that women pay more of a price. Our statement is, first of all be a human being and don’t ask, “What were you wearing, why were you walking in the street?” Victim-blaming is not only done by men.

There must be people who have a hard time with the image of sluts.

There is quite a bit of criticism, which also increases as the walk gets more successful, because it’s impossible to ignore it. I understand women who can’t get behind this tactic, no matter what class or community they‘re from, because it has a price even in liberal, secular society. However, the success has already been proven and incidentally, even women who identify with provocation and sexuality deserve a protest that suits them. Our aim is to raise the issue and therefore any discourse – even if it’s critical – is welcome. The main thing is that women talk about the real problem, which is blaming the victim.

That is, provocation is a tactic.

It’s also a tactic, because there are a lot of protests no one hears about. For 20 years the aid centers have been marching, but you don’t hear about it. Also, it’s a difficult subject, dealing with rape, and saying that one out of every one will be sexually harassed, so that it’s both a tool and something fundamental – walking with no shirt on, surrounded by thousands of women, and not being afraid. There’s strength in it and it’s exciting. It empowers the victims but it can also be difficult and overwhelming.

You’ve been active for four years. What has changed?

We’re getting invited now to speak in high schools, at universities. I have a production team of 150 to 200 women – in the first year we were five. The growth is impressive both in the number of participants and with the media coverage. At first, 1,000 women came to the SlutWalk, last year 5,000 came and this year we’re expecting 10,000. We have support from local businesses and the municipality is already supporting us a bit. Female Knesset members are supporting us and we’re really seeing our legitimacy increase each time. Because it doesn’t matter how liberal we are, we’re still stuck in the old concept, looking at a woman and saying to her: You are responsible for another person’s acts.

Women don’t have any responsibility?

I’m allowed to walk down the street naked and it’s forbidden to touch me. Women are not fair game just because they’re women. I’m allowed to lie naked in someone’s bed after we’ve started messing around and even then I can tell him ‘No” and he will stop. Sex is passionate, beautiful and amazing. You’re allowed to enjoy yourself, we’re not puritans. We are the SlutWalk. But it has to be mutual. I have a female friend who told me: “I didn’t complain about sexual violence because I was the class slut, so it was acceptable to hurt me.” I know a lot of girls who were supposedly “easy” in high school and so their right to say no was taken from them. This happens to every woman, even one who isn’t a slut. That’s why so many women connect to what we’re doing.

Still sometimes it’s a thin line. For example, expecting from a man that he will hit on a woman, and not the other way around.

I know enough men who know how to suggest without hurting. People know what is permissible and what is forbidden, and if you say something to someone about how he hit on you, or a joke he told, let him say, “Okay, I’ll think about what I’ve done” instead of saying we are feminazis and we’re out to destroy romance. There’s a whole genre of romantic comedies and narratives that a man is allowed to trick you, wear you down, perform all kinds of maneuvers in order to get you because in the end there’s hearts and love. One of the problems the children’s books like “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White.” What is it to kiss someone when she’s asleep? No one wants to be kissed while sleeping. Right from the age of zero they’re teaching us like that.

Tel Aviv SlutWalk, May 31, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Was there sex in those stories?

There was romance, and there was a helpless woman. There’s this closely guarded secret that women like sex. Yes, they enjoy it, but it has to be mutual and willing and agreed-upon and with passion. That’s the ideal. Not men chasing women and women fleeing. If they understand this we’ll have a more egalitarian world and a healthier world, not one side that’s guarding the holy grail and the other side that has to obtain it. In a proper world women would be hitting on men and they wouldn’t be told they’re sluts.

The question is whether this isn’t a wrinkle in our DNA.

We defeated nature a long time ago, that’s what we do in the Western world. “It’s not natural” is conservative people’s argument to try to justify a conservative, racist and patriarchal system.

So essentially the SlutWalk is a kind of gay pride parade.

That’s my model. Twenty years ago everyone said that it was provocative, that even though the aim is important, the means are not suitable. We are best friends with LGBT people and they also come to our walk.

But you don’t agree about everything.

There are differences of opinion. In the case of surrogacy, I was torn when I had to explain to LGBT people why feminists are opposed to surrogacy.

Tell me about yourself. Where does this passion come from?

I was born in Kfar Etzion.

Protesters at the Tel Aviv SlutWalk, May 31, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

A religious kibbutz.

Yes. In the territories, not Tel Aviv at all. When I established the feminist cell at Tel Aviv University, I found myself leading struggles I hadn’t always intended to lead. I realized that not a lot of other women can do what I’m able to do, that I have an ability to make the voice of the victims heard together with a lot of other women. At the kibbutz, I was always different. I was never a part of it, I felt out of the ordinary.

When did you “leave the fold?”

I was secular from an early age. I was always having arguments with God and at the age of 16 I became a leftist.

Do you have friends from your school?

Not so much. I fled Gush Etzion. I go back there only twice a year and out of respect for my parents, for Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

How do your parents and siblings take it?

My parents are conservative nationalists who live in a bubble and one day their daughter starts saying “slut” on television. This isn’t easy for them but the more I make appearances, the more my mother understands it’s OK, even when I curse. Legitimacy is a social matter. Every year what we are doing is more legitimate.

They don’t feel that they have failed?

No, they feel that they have succeeded, because I am a person with values. My mother converted to Judaism and my father was secular. He has brothers in the United States and one of his nephews married a gentile woman, so by virtue of the fact that they are immigrants they are a little more open. What’s important is having values. And loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Maybe the religious society you left solved part of the problem by separating the sexes and modest dress?

We know it doesn’t matter what you wear. I’m not saying there aren’t advantages to the religious world. We know that with sex-segregated education, for instance, enables women to develop more freely and positively. But separating and distancing and excluding in a world with fluid sexual identity don’t neutralize harm. It just creates more complexes and moreover, in a world where female sexuality is repressed and used as a tool to serve God, women are hurt even more. In short, the religious world hasn’t solved anything. They just repress.

It’s quite sad that neither modern society or traditional society has managed to overcome this.

I believe we can do more. Women gained the right to vote and now they are fighting for the right to have an abortion. Men also deserve more than just thinking it’s impossible to educate them. When you tell a joke and they tell you it isn’t cool, you aren’t going to tell that joke anymore. It took a long time until they told Kastiel that it isn’t cool to go out with a woman who might not really be conscious. But in the end there were people who got up and did something and spoke up. Today there are bartenders who know how to identify events that could lead to something not good and they comment on this to the men. We are making progress.