Women's Equality Isn't Enough

Will feminist organizations support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if, out of cynical motives, he announces he plans to appoint a female minister of women's rights to the Prime Minister's Office?

The new ad hoc women's association aimed at creating a women's lobby ahead of the coming election, as reported in Ha'aretz by Tsafi Saar, is a double-edged sword. At first glance, the initiative appears to be based on the premise that women are seeking a female model of party leadership, but experience shows that women don't tend to vote according to gender lines.

Yes, Tzipi Livni won more votes from women than from men, but it's not clear that the reason for that difference was any kind of feminist agenda on the part of the then-Kadima leader or of the voters. Meretz is currently led by a woman, but the polls aren't predicting that Zahava Gal-On is going to win masses of women's votes. Even the meteoric rise of Shelly Yacimovich has nothing to do with gender-based voting, and even though she has set aside for women 40 percent of the seats on the most powerful internal Labor Party institution - a foreign concept for the former generals who headed the party in the past - she has not announced any plans to reserve half of a prospective Labor-led cabinet for female ministers.

Will feminist organizations support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if, out of cynical motives, he announces he plans to appoint a female minister of women's rights to the Prime Minister's Office? And would such a minister be able to sit in a cabinet that is promoting an apartheid agenda? Where is the line between the subjugation of a gender and the subjugation of a nation? That's the root of the problem.

In addition, is gender politics beyond gender-based political aspirations, or is this just one more example of a particular demographic group pulling together, as with the ultra-Orthodox? And is it even possible to draw a distinction between women's rights and those of Palestinians?

These kinds of problems are an age-old bane of the feminist movement, which split over such issues in the United States, as when black American women argued that it's impossible to draw a distinction between ethnic or class exploitation and gender exploitation. In Israel, Mizrahi feminist activists like Vicki Shiran argued that the feminism of middle-class Ashkenazi women is paternalistic, and that the oppressed can also be the oppressor.

So far, efforts to exert an influence by trying to get a feminist movement into the Knesset have not succeeded. Marcia Freedman's Women's Party did not secure enough votes to make it into the Knesset during the 1977 election.

Why has a feminist movement been unable to win Knesset representation? The answer appears to be connected to the partnership between men and women within the family. Feminism is seen as having an anti-men agenda, and most women married to men are unable to identify with that in the political context because, emotionally speaking, they would be voting against the men in their own homes. And even the most enlightened of men don't see a gender-based agenda as a crucial matter, and wouldn't vote for a party like that either. In addition, men as well as women are captive to a security agenda, which is itself a male legacy.

It's important to increase public awareness of gender inequality, especially in the face of an Israeli societal tendency to repress recognition of its existence, but focusing on economic or employment issues before an election is missing the target. Yacimovich is already tackling this all-out and the feminist groups' new document won't tell her much she doesn't already know. If this is so, who are the women seeking to influence? The religious people who increasingly exclude women? The right wing, which doesn't have minority rights on its agenda in the first place?

Perhaps ahead of the election, the feminist groups should deviate from their narrow gender-based agenda and announce that they are committed to human rights and minority rights. A fight for equal rights for women? Yes, always - before elections, after elections - but not if it is cut off from the inequality dictated by the occupation or the demand to be free of the occupation. And there are feminists, such as those belonging to the nine organizations that make up the Coalition of Women for Peace, who agitate for across-the-board equality every day, not just when the elections roll around.