In the remarkable opening scene of the film Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks (played by Glynis Johns) storms into her house at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, London, waving a suffragette banner and calling to her maid and her cook to “wake up, sister suffragette” and declaring that “our daughters’ daughters will adore us.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, when Britannia was still ruling the waves, women could not vote in the general elections. They were discriminated against in property rights and, in fact, in every aspect of their lives. This injustice was first remedied in 1918 and then in 1928, following the First World War, in which women had to take on the duties of men in almost every aspect of economic activity.
Ever since these years of glorious fight for equality, we have seen three women prime ministers in the United Kingdom, a woman prime minister in Italy, a woman chancellor in Germany, and a strong presidential candidate, as well many women in the highest ministerial positions in France, including the minister of defense. In Denmark, there were two women prime ministers within the span of five years, and in the US, a woman is currently a heartbeat away from the presidency of the world’s leading power. In Israel, we had a woman prime minister, Golda Meir.
There is a clear correlation between gender equality, democracy, economic prosperity, and social and political stability. Thus, in Scandinavia, the representation of women in society and politics is awe-inspiring, and the population enjoys stability and physical security within robust economies. Western democracies practice gender equality laws, and the representation of women at the political, social, and professional echelons is continuously increasing. Israel, alas, is backtracking on this forward march.
It has become a significant issue in the general wave of protest. In the last thirty-three weeks of protesting the so-called Judicial Reform, we got used to and applaud the Women in Red, aka the Alternative Builders (in Hebrew: “Bonot Alternativa“), as an integral part of the fight for Democracy. Unfortunately, the cautions expressed by the Alternative Builders, predicting the policy of the current government’s attitude and activities against women’s rights, proved to be too modest.
The advancement of women, which was achieved through great effort in the Knesset and women’s organizations for gender equality and equal opportunity, has been halted. The autonomous Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women was dismantled and is on its way to becoming a regular department within an existing ministry. Under a political boss, it is to be stripped of its powers to act independently as a coordinating body between various government ministries or to deal with discrimination in the workplace. It will probably not be able to continue promoting women’s empowerment or to keep calling out cases of violence against women.
The most blatant phenomenon regarding women in Israel is exclusion. Gender segregation in national parks, playgrounds, family shows, and schools is spreading. Women and girls become see-through beings in the public sphere. The very discussion of reducing the public visibility of women also provides a tailwind support to the opponents of women’s rights. While it is performed by a small minority that uses its current political power to harm the liberal rights of the general public, it is an ominous harbinger of what awaits us all. Consequently, some public transportation drivers already initiate segregation on their own behalf, sending women and girls to the backseats of their buses while insulting and humiliating them, as we saw last week.
Against this backdrop, it is true that some religious and even ultra-Orthodox women joined the Alternative protest, but their numbers are still meager. In this context, it is worthwhile to applaud four brave ultra-Orthodox “Haredi” women who were interviewed openly in the leading liberal daily “Haaretz” last Friday in opposition to expanding gender exclusion, claiming that “the minority is trying to harm everyone’s rights.” As God-fearing women, they see radicalization and exclusion as an attempt to obliterate their position within their own society. They see separation as harming the family structure, preventing spending family quality time in playgrounds, cultural performances, buses, and so on. The main concern they expressed is that radicalization against women under the guise of “modesty” will only increase.
The Haredi community should not be treated as a homogenous entity. There is also religious feminism that, while not rebelling against conventions, its followers work for liberal values within the framework of Halacha. These women encounter considerable difficulties and criticism from their own establishment. For several years now, Haredi women activists were denied the opportunity to even run for the Knesset within the framework of their own Haredi parties. Some Haredi groups work to help women in the rabbinical courts, assisting Agunot (deserted women who are chained to a husband who refuses to grant them a divorce) and dealing with violence and sexual harassment, which are also subject to criticism from within the ultra-Orthodox community.
Beyond the personal harm experienced by individual women, on August 16, the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies) warned in an article titled “The Harm to Women’s Status as a National Security Challenge.” That by excluding women, the government is not only giving up on “a key resource of quality human capital… (But that) Excluding women from substantive positions in security agencies will lead to severe damage to their functioning.” The authors add that violating women’s equality will lead to a brain drain. “As the departure expands to the top security officials and senior state officials, there will be a direct threat to national security.”
In the very week of the opening of the film “Golda” on the life of Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Helen Mirren), we should remember that initially and traditionally, Israel has always aspired to take advantage of its entire human potential in the creation and nurturing of the Israeli project. Nowadays, Israel should revert to its original vision and avoid giving up on some fifty-one percent of its human power in order to placate antiquated and outdated political and tribal chieftains.