Each year, the marking of International Women’s Day commences at the beginning of March, culminates in a broad array of activities on March 8th, and subsides gradually as the month proceeds.
This year too, in Israel and elsewhere, many rich and diverse events are planned to highlight the current situation of women. These can be divided roughly into two types: those that underline the condition of women as victims and those that applaud their achievements during the past year. Few would suggest that the two are frequently intertwined, but in fact they are. Success often breeds more sophisticated forms of discrimination and gender-based prejudice. This pattern has become more noticeable during the past year — it transforms female achievers into victims of a new sort because they defy conventional norms and are committed to improving their societies by altering asymmetrical power structures.
The democratic world is getting accustomed to seeing women in decision-making positions as long as they don’t challenge the status quo. But as soon as they insist on becoming agents of change, their intelligence, experience and competence count for naught. They are castigated for their leadership qualities and suffer the worst kind of gender discrimination — that which dismisses their skills under a thick cloud of purported enlightenment. Ask Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel; talk to Zehava Galon and Shelly Yachimovich; compare Miri Regev with Gila Gamliel, and do remember the late Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, whose legacies are integrally tied to their capacity to conserve, rather than improve their environments.
Angela Merkel rose to the top of the political pyramid in Germany as the purveyor of continuity and stability socially, economically and politically. She too learned through experience that efficiency and good sense were no guarantee to success. Indeed, her political ascent was initially impeded by male opponents convinced that they could easily outshine the perhaps credible but seemingly lackluster Merkel. It was only in 2005, after her predecessors had failed twice to lead the party to victory, that she showed them how a successful electoral campaign should be conducted. As Germany’s first female chancellor, she fast became the symbol of that efficient solidity she embodied.
This past year, however, Angela Merkel dared to diverge from her role as the purveyor of consensus and the facilitator of the mainstream when she took a principled position on the absorption of immigrants from the beleaguered Middle East. After three successful terms in office, her leadership is now being challenged not only by the opposition, but also by colleagues from within her own party. Her moral steadfastness is portrayed by her detractors as a sign of weakness: an unacceptable deviation from conventional practices. It may yet cost her her position at the helm of Europe’s largest and most influential country. Intriguingly, her courage as a leader has exposed her to attacks both on her competence and on her gender.
Hillary Clinton, for some years, has accumulated significant experience in this kind of subtle gender prejudice. Her achievements have been belittled while her frailties have been magnified beyond all proportion. Her palpable competence and vast experience (which she dwells on consistently) have curiously become a source if alienation. It is not so much her establishment ties that hold her back as the deep-seated fear of formidable women. Many American voters preferred her as the helpless victim of the Levinsky affair than as the intelligent presidential aspirant. Even liberals have been happy to abandon her because she is linked to the rich as well as the poor, to the moderates as well as the progressives, to the doers as well as the talkers. For many in her own party, if she’s so good then something must be wrong. That’s why many of them opted for Barack Obama eight years ago. That is also why she is facing such a hard time against Bernie Sanders. None are willing to admit that they are simply terrified of successful women.
The patterns evident in Europe and North America have also been replicated in Israel. Golda Meir, the embodiment of the Mapai establishment, could hold sway precisely because she unwaveringly pursued the status quo — even when it might prove disastrous. She was at loggerheads with the outspoken Shulamit Aloni who openly queried the existing order and the mindset that kept in place. For decades, Golda’s legacy hardly encouraged women to take the lead in transforming the public realm in Israel.
Until this very day, women who act for change are bullied for their zeal, while those who protect the current structures are richly rewarded. This past year has witnessed the meteoric rise of Miri Regev, the vocal defender of the populist right. She has become the darling of those who do not want any sort of change. She is heralded as the representative of those who breed on fear and hatred in the name of tradition. And, tellingly, her power base has expanded.
This year has also sustained demeaning assaults on women who want to alter the foundations of intolerance and revive the legitimacy of dissent. Zehava Galon or Aida Touma Sliman — both unabashed feminists and consistent supporters of equality — are subjected to assaults on a daily basis. The ruthless attacks on Hanin Zoabi, who seeks to upend the system in its entirety, are legion: she is being pilloried at every turn. The fate of Tzipi Livni (the darling of the Likud who has become one of its targets simply because she started to ask questions) is not much better. Shelly Yechimovich is still smarting from the drumming she received in the 2013 elections; she like most women at the top in Israel, is hard-pressed to assert her credentials in the sphere of defense or to make a dent in altering the security discourse in the country.
The most change-oriented women in Israel are also the most notable victims of its highly gender-segregated system. Women of the Wall recorded a historic victory only to see that gender equity comes with a new kind of exclusion. Political leadership breeds unique forms of marginalization on both the left and the right. And only the victims of violence and harassment receive a measure of compassion. But then they don’t really threaten anyone; they don’t challenge conventions; they don’t demand full equality; and they don’t struggle for a just and better Israel.
The contribution of women leaders goes well beyond their substantive input. Those who are path-breakers really seek to reorganize the hegemonic structures that dominate our lives. That is why they pose a real threat to powerbrokers and why they are hounded also as women. This coming year, however, may be a turning point. It may yet turn out to be the year of the Hillarys and the Galons, of the Merkels and the Michaelis. This could be the year in which the brave victims finally become the victors. And perhaps this might yet turn into the year in which many women as well as men refuse to be afraid of successful, sensible, intelligent and forward looking women who may become the harbingers of true gender equality and societal change.