Ahead of the March 23 election for Israel’s 24th Knesset, women have reigned front and center in politics around the world.
The number of women entering the next Knesset “will be close to the high record reached after the previous election: 30 MKs,” predicted Prof. Ofer Kenig, a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a research fellow for the Israel Democracy Institute.
In the U.S., Vice President Kamala Harris, who made history as the first Asian-American woman and also the first African-American woman elected into her office, was previously well-known for working to decrease criminal recidivism as well as to promote education and employment for first-time drug-related offenders. The former California senator’s charisma and relatability made President Joe Biden’s choice widely celebrated among Democrats, with many finding her even more likeable than Biden himself.
Harris was nominated in part because she is a woman, not in spite of it. Biden had pledged to choose a female running mate — a decision that reflects both a reality and an ideal. Following the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, the U.S. has seen a sharp rise in demand for, and celebration of, female leadership.
“If we build a world that works for women, our nations will all be safer, stronger, and more prosperous,” Harris said in a speech before the European Parliament on March 8 for International Women’s Day.
It is a new day for women in politics, one when it is commonplace to discuss how to better uplift female voices. Going beyond the argument that any democratic country should have female leaders to adequately represent the needs and experiences of nearly half the population, most agree that amplifying female voices through political leadership significantly benefits the entire society in which they lead.
This trend is just as true historically in the west as it in the east.
In Israel, powerful women predate the state itself. Special operations executive Hannah Szenes parachuted into Yugoslavia during World War II in order to rescue Hungarian Jews from being deported to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. She resisted revealing details of her mission even after being imprisoned and tortured. In the 1960s, Golda Meir became the fourth prime minister of Israel at a time when female political leadership was nearly unheard of. Today, Israel’s unique female leaders include Member of Knesset Gadeer Mreeh, a woman of Druze ethnicity, and the president’s chief of staff Rivka Ravitz, a mother of 11 children.
The Muslim-majority country of Azerbaijan also presents a compelling paradigm for women’s equality as the first Islamic country to grant women the right to vote in 1919 — even before the U.S. The first ever parliamentary republic with a predominantly Muslim population, Azerbaijan has an open and diverse society where female leaders enjoy high public visibility and direct participation in decision-making and policy formulation.
The history of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918-1920, the predecessor of the current Republic of Azerbaijan, set a shining example of women’s liberation and advancement in a Muslim-majority nation. At the second meeting of the ADR Parliament, newly introduced constitutional articles on work conditions for women ensured reproductive rights and maternity leave with pay, the creation of child-care facilities for mothers, health care and equal pay.
Today, most prominent among modern Azerbaijan’s female leaders are First Vice President and the First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva as well as Parliament Speaker Dr. Sahiba Qafarova. A medical doctor by training, Aliyeva demonstrates a strong commitment to Azerbaijan’s traditions of cultural diversity and religious tolerance, emphasizes education for young women and leads reforms to expand the role of women in a predominantly Muslim society. For a nation like Azerbaijan which borders Russia and Iran, that counts as a major success.
As the profile of women rises worldwide, the experiences of Israel and Azerbaijan demonstrate the need for and benefits of having female leaders, from east to west.