Gender equality is a hot issue, and one that inflames emotions on both sides of the aisle. Whilst sexist stereotypes and practices are thought to be all but eradicated in the Western world, they are still prevalent within our society and merely run deep under the surface.Gender inequality is of course rife across most of the world, and is ingrained in every country, culture, race and religion. Much is spoken about the treatment of women in Islamic countries, where women and men are belittled by the West for their cultural norms and practices.
The West is in turn attacked for its promiscuous and heathen ways, with women often being branded ‘sluts’ and ‘prostitutes’. This attack itself of course shows its inherent bias- whereby men are seldom branded with similar slurs. The onus is nearly always placed on the woman.
Religion tends to be blamed as the primary cause of gender inequality, and the extremities are often mistaken for the norm. Whilst religion generally enforces, drives, and encourages inequality, it can hardly be blamed as the root cause.
An example is the United Kingdom, whereby the majority of the population is largely secular; with fair-weather Christians -who show up to church for the occasional wedding or funeral- making up the majority of the “religious” population. Yet double standards, gender stereo-types, and a general undercurrent of sexism still exist.
Legally speaking, men and women are wholly equal within the U.K., yet legal equality is not the same as equity; there is the gender pay gap (which has already shrunk dramatically, so much so that women in their twenties now actually earn 3.6% more than men), they makeup only one in eight of FTSE 100 company board members, and only 22% of the House of Commons are women.
They are the most underrepresented and repressed group throughout all of history- even the much lauded U.S. Declaration of Independence ignores them completely.
So what about Israel, the ‘supposed’ sole democracy in the Middle East who is surrounded by a sea of Islamic repression? In a region deeply divided by religion and culture, this pressure cooker of extremists -secular and otherwise- provides a unique case-study for a comparative look at the way the ‘modern and democratic’ Jewish state, and a potential Islamic State of Palestine, treat over half of its population.
The road began in controversy, when in 1950 the newly formed Israeli government approved the conscription of women into the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), despite strong protest by the religious community. This was of course only five years after the Holocaust, and just two years after Israel’s fight for survival in its War of Independence, known to the Palestinians as al-Nakba (the catastrophe). The move was beneficial to the progression of gender equality, and on a simply practical side, arguing that half the population should be ineligible to be trained in arms and defence seems counter-intuitive.
Their army, the IDF, is argued by most military experts to be the most forward thinking and progressive army in relation to the equality of the sexes, and is the only army who conscripts women. Women occupy roles as fighter pilots, infantry instructors, tank commanders and high level strategic command posts, and are eligible for 88% of roles within the IDF. Yet being in the front of a race can often lead to susceptibility from within; defences are lowered where feelings of invulnerability are rife, and things can change very quickly.
The problem arises from the higher birth rate of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the Haredi Jews running at an estimated six percent population increase per year; double the growth rate of the Arab population of Israel, and four times that of the secular Israeli community. Roughly a third of Orthodox Jews are Haredi (world wide) and half of those live inside Israel. Whilst many are exempt from military service due to religious study, more and more are being encouraged to join and serve past the compulsory three years (for men), and they also take up a disproportionate number of combat and infantry positions.
The growth of these groups within the IDF, and in the wider Israeli society (including the Israeli Knesset) is inevitably leading to greater restrictions on women.
A recent letter, signed by nineteen reservist Major-Generals, was sent to Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. The Generals spoke of the changing face of the IDF, and warned of the rising extremist religious trend.
Recent incidents include religious Jewish soldiers leaving an event because women were singing, with four of the cadets being removed from the officer training course for refusing to apologise. Numerous cases have arisen where female soldiers have been ousted from combat and infantry based roles.
The religious community is gaining sway, whereby Rabbi Eli Sadan, the head of the pre-military academy in Eli, recently gave a lecture praising Baruch Goldstein, the American-Jew responsible for the Hebron massacre where 29 Palestinians were gunned down in a mosque in 1993. Another recent example includes an Education-Corps directive, which was issued to prevent soldiers from attending the yearly memorial rally for assassinated Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Rabbi Eli Sadan also praised Rabin’s assassin during the same lecture.
Israeli activist, Hila Benyovich-Hoffman, explained: “The army used to be a source of pride because women served alongside men as equals. But more and more, Rabbis are influencing army behaviour.”
They can fight and die for Israel, carry and birth men’s children, but they cannot dance or sing with them?
The secular community too is under a continuous assault, with an underground war being waged over the last decade, ever since the weekly Shabbat protests at Bar-Ilan road, Jerusalem, ended. They protested Israelis working and driving on Shabbat every Saturday like Swiss clockwork; they ran for nearly fifty years and attracted up to a quarter of a million people, but abruptly ended in 1999.
Over the last decade, sections of the city have been transformed, becoming increasingly conservative and ultra-orthodox. Countless secular schools have closed, and political positions within Jerusalem have been taken by Haredi Jews, who then control vast swathes of the council budgets.
Earlier this month, Jerusalem councilwoman Rachel Azaria was fired from her post, where she was responsible for pre-school education and community councils. This was due to her High Court appeal petitioning against the separation of men and women on the streets in Mea She’arim, the Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, during the religious ceremony of Succot.
The secular Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, is fighting the Orthodox communities over its continuing attack on the rights of women, and claims he is fighting for women to reclaim their position in the public domain. His stance comes after the sharp rise in vandalism against posters depicting female models, which have been defaced, ripped down, and branded with anti-girl graffiti.
The police have done little or nothing to stop the wanton destruction, and advertising groups have been removing posters around the city, after bowing to pressure from the powerful Orthodox groups; failure to comply results in direct action against their companies.
Groups are fighting back, such as the decade old Israeli Religious Action Centre (IRAC) which tackles gender segregation in Israel, which is illegal. They estimate that daily, around 500 bus journeys are segregated- whereby the women are expected to sit at the back. They claim that most of their calls appear to be orthodox Jewish women complaining about segregation in medical centres, post offices, and buses.
Whilst Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, Naomi Tsur, admits the situation is “deplorable”, she claims women’s rights are in its best position to date to flourish, since for several decades’ billboards featuring women were not even allowed inside the city; this changed in November 2008.
Women’s rights are constantly under attack in all societies, and gender issues rarely garner much support or attention from the government, despite females making up half of the population and eligible voters.
In the occupied Palestinian Territories, women are freer than most other Arab or Islamic societies, but the situation is far from ideal. Mixed bars in Beit Shour and Bethlehem would not look amiss in London; whereas you cannot look for want of a hijab in conservative Hebron.
A girl laughing loudly from a car in Ramallah earned titters of disapproval from our Palestinian friend, who labelled such girls ‘prostitutes’. If he were to laugh loudly in the street, would he too be considered a whore?
Hamas in the Gaza Strip have steadily enforced greater restrictions on women over the past few years; from banning them from smoking water pipes in public, to removing mannequins depicting women from the public sphere, and the banning of women from riding behind men on motor-scooters.
Several other attacks on women’s rights have been attempted, only to be rebuffed due to local and international pressure; including a ban on female lawyers from attending court unless they wore headscarves. Female journalists have undergone continuous harassment for not covering their hair, and extremist groups have publicly stated that they will “cut their throats”.
Younis Al-Astal, a Hamas legislator, has previously claimed that “What you are seeing are incidents, not policy. We want Islamic law to be the standard, but we believe in persuasion.”
Conservative values can be understood and accepted, if they were gender neutral. But the reality is they rarely are, and even Palestinian women in more ‘liberal’ families behave as though they are fortunate when they are extended freedoms not experienced by many of their friends. They treat their natural rights as something that should be dictated, controlled, and provided for by their fathers, brothers and uncles, even when they are fully grown women. Once they are married of course, the responsibility for them then falls to their husband.
In reality it seems to all come down to perception. Many Muslim youth I know drink alcohol, have had physical interaction with girls, and many claim to have had sex. The guys are quick to point out that it is because they respect women that they curb this behaviour, yet most are happy to watch Western movies which contain attractive girls in bikinis and prolific sex. They are happy to watch music videos (Western, Egyptian and Lebanese alike) containing revealing clothing, with sexual innuendos and references. They are fine for somebody else’s little girl to do this, yet they are not happy to allow their daughters to have the freedom and choice to do the same.
Sons tend to be treated differently of course- boys will be boys.
Religion does not equal repression of women, but one cannot deny that they do not come hand in hand. The growing religious community inside Israel is worrying, particularly in light of a greater number signing up to the IDF. A correlation between their proportions within the Army, to abuse of powers by soldiers inside the territories, will surely be seen. Equally worrying is the growth of anti-women sentiment within Israeli society itself, being espoused by the growing Ultra-Orthodox community.
Whilst women have far greater freedom and opportunity in Israel and the West, they should not get complacent. True equality is still miles away, and women (and men) will have to fight for every inch.