Segregated driving school classes, separate seating for men and women at public ceremonies, inspection of the length of high-schoolers’ shorts, and exclusion of women from opportunities in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have all become part of a modern phenomenon of women’s exclusion in Israel, reports Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), the country’s largest advocacy organization for women’s rights and gender equality.
Women’s exclusion began 22 years ago, she explains, when public buses mandated that the front of the bus would be reserved for men, and women would sit in the back.
Reactionist forces in Israel, she told the Hadassah Foundation board on June 3rd, are responsible for this development and its escalation, but IWN is fighting back. The organization is advocating to eradicate women’s exclusion in both the public sphere and the army. Its advocacy efforts involve writing letters to the men in charge of promulgating gender inequality, media campaigns to raise public awareness about women’s exclusion and gender bias, as well as bringing cases to court to challenge policies that don’t have the support of Israeli law.
For example, in July 2018, IWN gathered the testimonies of 20 women soldiers regarding their experience of gender bias in the Israeli army and issued a publication highlighting the inequities. In addition, IWN met with the “top brass” of the army to discuss the problem and to advocate for the appointment of a special person women soldiers could go to when they experience gender bias or harassment. At the same time, IWN initiated a “Know Your Rights” campaign to educate women soldiers as to what they can and cannot do, as soldiers in the IDF.
Ironically, Ms. Margaliot reports, although there are many more opportunities for women in the IDF now—a rise of 400 percent in five years—women soldiers are being pushed out of these new positions, with the excuse that the proper infrastructure is not in place. As she relates, however, the Supreme Court has said that “this is not a valid excuse.”
Examples of gender segregation abound, with countless consequences. Ms. Margaliot cites the case of a woman who was forbidden from taking her son to the library and of the husband who was not allowed to attend a parenting course with his wife.
IWN often partners with local officials to publicize gender bias and inappropriate sanctioning. For example, IWN used a Facebook post to highlight the problem of girls being lined up in high school so the length of their shorts could be measured. Local officials posed in shorts to bring the point home that schools cannot dictate what girls can or cannot wear.
When there were protests against billboards that displayed photos of women candidates for election to public office, IWN approached members of the Central Election Committee to keep the billboards on display. IWN was successful!
IWN also has had success in the courts in winning civil damages when women have been denied equal access. For example, IWN defended a woman who was not able to enroll in a driving course in Ramat Gan because it was “for men only.” Consequently, she had to take the course in another town, 50 kilometers away. The court awarded monetary damages to the woman.
It’s an uphill battle that Ms. Margaliot describes. There are now fewer feminists in the Knesset because fewer women won seats in this most recent election. “We saw that we women are not an electoral power,” she says. Nevertheless, Ms. Margaliot notes that there are many Knesset members who are willing to work with IWN on various issues, such as extending maternity leave and equal pay for women, “even though they don’t wear an ‘I am a feminist’ sign on their foreheads.”
At the same time, there are strong reactionary Knesset members such as Bezalel Smotrich, chair of Israel’s National Union party. He was cited in a recent Haaretz article as saying, “Israel, the state of the Jewish people, will with God’s help once again be run the way it was in the days of King David and King Solomon. The Jewish people is a special people, a people that received the Torah and must live a Torah life.”
IWN, however, is in gear to continue the fight for women’s inclusion and equality. In January 2019, the Hadassah Foundation awarded a $70,000 grant over two years to IWN for its project, “Fighting Exclusion, Increasing Equality,” which works to eliminate gender segregation and the exclusion of women in the public sphere and the IDF.
At the conclusion of Ms. Margaliot’s presentation, Hadassah Foundation Chair Sue Beller thanked IWN’s executive director for her leadership in “pushing back on the erosion of women’s rights in Israeli society.”