Your lights go out. Your refrigerator stops working. Your washing machine wheezes to a halt in the middle of a rinse cycle. Your air conditioner dies on the hottest day of the year, or your TV goes dark during the season finale of Lost. As an old song used to ask, "Who 'ya gonna call?" Until very recently, you would call the appropriate repairman, who - as the term implies - would almost certainly be a man.
After a woman in Tel Aviv was raped in her own home by a repairman several months ago, however, women now have the option of calling repairwomen, thanks to a new project sponsored and coordinated by the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center. In scarcely more than five months, the project has already managed to locate, contact and recruit almost 80 living, breathing specimens of professional personnel that few people knew existed - female "handymen," carpenters, house painters, renovators, locksmiths, movers, gardeners, plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, and appliance installers and technicians. And the center's roster of such professionals grows longer and more diverse every day.
The Women's Professional Service Network is the creation of Iris Stern-Levy, 55, a Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center volunteer coordinator for the past 15 years. Smiling easily and speaking with an accent that immediately reveals her Australian origins, Stern-Levy paints a bleak picture of human behavior - which, she insists, has remained virtually unchanged despite 40 years of feminism, advocacy and consciousness-raising. "Rape can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The myth is that the rapist is some dark, evil stranger waiting in the shadows. Statistics, however, show that 97 percent of abusers are people already known to their victims. 'Known' means someone you've spoken to. Someone who sells you vegetables in the market. Someone like that." And that, says Stern-Levy, is where her project comes in.
"It all happened with one phone call, but it's one of many. A woman was raped by a refrigerator technician. He came into her house. We all think that our house is our protected castle. We come in, we lock the doors, we feel safe. Then we invite someone in to do a job - someone we've spoken to before. So this guy came into a woman's home and apart from fixing her fridge, he also raped her. It's happened quite a few times, by people we've invited into our houses. I'm not saying that every technician is a rapist, just as I'm not saying that every father rapes his daughter. But statistics say that one out of every five women is raped by someone in the family. Anyway, this woman phoned and said that she wished there was some way to ask for a woman to do these things, because now she didn't trust any man [enough] to let him into her house."
Stern-Levy was instantly galvanized. "I thought, okay, why not? Why aren't there women doing these things? It doesn't require any great amount of strength to be, say, an electrician. If we can go study in universities and learn to become doctors, can't we learn to be electricians, or to fix a fridge? This is a niche that women do not have any access to, socially. So I decided to see if these women exist."
After turning unsuccessfully to the IDF, where some women do learn various technical skills, Stern-Levy scoured the country's technical schools. She discovered that, as in the army, women in these schools studied technical subjects but did not continue on to technical careers. She then sent messages out through all of the e-mail lists to which she belongs, asking for female electricians, repairmen, and other types of technicians. "And that's when the names started coming in," she says.
The list now amounts to some 80 names for women to choose from, reflecting a wide spectrum of professional services, from all over the country. "In addition to carpenters, plumbers, painters, and electricians, I also got several driving instructors - because there's a lot of harassment during those lessons - as well as taxi drivers. I've even got two hassidic women taxi drivers. We've got women doing all these jobs; we just don't hear about them. Now we have a list of these women that we can choose from. And the list is not just for rape victims. It's for any woman who feels more comfortable dealing with women."
Several questions arise. Is there a downside to this project? Does encouraging women to patronize female professionals entail merely another, more subtle form of discrimination? Mightn't a "female-only" hiring policy bring back uncomfortable memories of "men-only," "whites-only," "gentlemen's agreements" against hiring Jews, and "Irish need not apply"?
"Absolutely not," according to Stern-Levy. "These are simply options that I want to give women. It's all about having the ability to choose whom you want to bring into your life. And up to now, we haven't had it. If we needed a technician, it was a man. If we needed a plumber, it was a man. Whenever we get into a taxi, the driver is a man. When we take driving lessons, the teacher is a man. I'm not saying, 'Don't use a male plumber or electrician.' I'm not saying, 'Hire only women.' I'm saying that now we can choose, that now we have options. There are women who do these jobs, and I found them."
What kind of women did Stern-Levy find? While not one can really be seen as "typical," Alona Ofner-Aviram, 36, is an interesting example. An electrician for 15 years, she covers territory in the center of the country, from Ramle and Lod in the south to Petah Tikva in the north. Asked if her husband is also an electrician, she laughs and says, "No! He's in computers!" Asked how she became an electrician, she replies, "I studied it in high school and loved it right away. My mother could see how enthusiastic I was about it, so she was supportive." Ofner-Aviram has also become very enthusiastic about the women's service network project, largely because of the way it has changed her professional life. "Before, I would answer my business phone, or come to someone's house to do a job, and have the customer tell me, 'What's this? You're a woman? I don't want a woman!' Now when I arrive, the customer is happy to see that I'm a woman, because she actually asked for one," she relates, laughing.
No less remarkable is Batya El Chai, who immigrated to Israel 14 years ago from London's Hackney district. Thirty-three years old and the mother of two boys, El Chai is a professional mover, with her own truck, a female friend who works with her, and a small group of occasional helpers for big jobs, both girls and boys. She's been working at this full-time for a year, she says, and on and off before that. As a hobby, she also raises horses. Asked if she herself does all the lifting and carrying, she replies, "Oh, yeah. I do everything - furniture, refrigerators, everything."
Unlike other women who were introduced and attracted to their future professions while in school, El Chai found her calling during a period of adversity. "It started with a marriage that went terribly wrong, a marriage to the wrong man. I found myself in a woman's shelter, with no family here in Israel and no support, with my two kids to raise, all by myself. After a while I found work in special education, as a horseback riding teacher. Then, when I received my own piece of land as part of the divorce settlement, I gave up teaching to build on the land. I had my own horses and needed occasionally to haul them around. But that's a very expensive business. So I bought my own really old truck so I could move my horses around myself, without having to lean on anyone or be dependent on anyone for help." Then she says, she and a friend had an idea about how to make money using the truck. They put up advertisements around Jerusalem and in her area of Gush Etzion. "We met some professional movers - people who'd been in the business for years - who told us how to pick up things like refrigerators and other heavy equipment with the use of ropes. And so we practiced a bit at home, and we became very good at it. And now, we're very busy."
Stern-Levy's project has already proven beneficial beyond its original remit of providing women with the services of female service professionals, she says. It has also provided the women professionals with a platform to advertise their skills and gain greater access to the market. "Plus, I've had one woman who said, 'You know what? I'm going to go study to be a plumber! Why not? This is something I can do!'"
Although the Women's Professional Service Network is relatively new, the organization that runs it is not. Founded 30 years ago as the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, the center later changed its name to reflect its expanded emphasis on all forms of sexual assault - physical, verbal, harassment, incest, post-assault trauma, and so on. And while the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center's core mission continues to involve providing a 24-hour, 7-day-a week hotline for women (1202), a hotline for sexually abused men and boys is also available (1203), as well as a hotline for sexually abused religious men and youth (02-532-8000).
While the women's hotline received some 12,000 calls during 2007, Stern-Levy acknowledges that neither of the male hotlines receives many calls. "It's very difficult for men to talk about sexual abuse," she says. "What does happen though, for example with the religious men, when someone in the yeshiva speaks out and says he's been sexually assaulted in the yeshiva, once that opens up we find a whole row of boys who have been abused there." Asked if abusers of males are always male, Stern-Levy replies, "Yes, unless it was a babysitter when the man was a small child, it's generally men that are doing the abuse. And it's not a homosexual thing. The abuse is about strength, power and being able to belittle someone else."
The Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center was the first of its kind in Israel - there are now 11 others around the country - and continues to offer the widest array of services, implemented by a small full-time staff and upwards of 200 intensively trained volunteers. In addition to the hotline counseling, the center offers such supplementary assistance as support groups and referrals for victims of rape and incest, bringing victims to the hospital, helping victims through the police and judicial process, and operating a witness assistance program. The center also provides a series of community outreach programs, such as giving lectures and workshops in junior and senior high schools, prisons and kibbutzim; providing training sessions for law enforcement officers working with sexual assault victims; and lobbying local and national government officials.
The center's small, cramped, spartanly-furnished suite of offices in a rundown old building in central Tel Aviv attests to a "shoestring" operating budget. As a private nonprofit social service organization, the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center relies on charitable contributions to fund both its programs and its day-to-day operating expenses. Hopefully, the center will continue to be at the other end of the telephone line, providing its indispensable programs and services for as long as they are needed.
And in the meantime, Iris Stern-Levy is looking for more women plumbers and electricians.
Those interested in the Women's Professional Service Network, or any of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center's programs are invited to call (03) 516-7664 for more information, or visit the center's Web site at http://tlv.1202.org.il/English.