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Post-Purim reflections on women's empowerment
By MARINA SMOLYANOV
20/03/2014
Since last year my costume for Purim was Queen Esther, I remembered how inspired I was from learning about this woman's courage in one of the boldest biblical stories.
 
I realized today that this is a unique year where we celebrate International Women's Day and the Jewish joyful holiday of Purim, just a week apart. Without realizing it, I got carried away making a comparison between women's rights in Israel, the Middle East and Guatemala. Unfortunately, the gaps of inequality in those countries are still significant, but Israel is an example of a country where women are more influential and are being heard. It also made me think about the inspiring women I know, and even about the role of women in the Bible. Since last year my costume for Purim was Queen Esther, I remembered how inspired I was from learning about this woman's courage in one of the boldest biblical stories.

Coming from the Middle East where in general, women are frequently excluded from public life and are even being abused, I can proudly say that Israeli women stand out as leaders in all walks of life, including law, politics, conflict resolution and civil service. In fact, since the inauguration of our new government in 2013, we have had four female ministers and three female heads of political parties, and women are represented almost equally in our judiciary and academic systems. Yes, it is true that there is still a lot to be done to ensure equality for all residents and citizens of Israel. In the meantime, many women's rights organizations are working passionately these days to improve access to healthcare for women while encountering discrimination in the religious and family court systems, and advocating for equal representation of women in public institutions, and within the media and in business.

I am personally familiar with Israeli activism through involvement in protesting for women's rights. 

I was surprised to discover that 10,000 people were marching here in Guatemala City for women's rights as part of International Women's Day. I learned that they were marching for raising awareness of the crucial role that local women's movements play, and for improving the status of Guatemalan women in society. They also marched for the elimination of economic, political, ethnic and social inequalities, and in order to reinforce compliance with their individual and collective human rights.

I found out that in Latin America -- in countries like Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico and Chile -- women’s trade unions where they are dedicated to the struggle for women's voting rights and for social justice at the workplace, initiated the International Women's Day celebrations.
 
In Guatemala, women started to raise their voices in the name of these causes in the early 80's. But only since 1994 has a public institution been dedicated in a formal way for the commemoration for International Women's Day. Currently, there are different legal frameworks that support Guatemalan women's rights internationally and nationally. The Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala passed a Social Development Act to that effect, creating laws for fair access to family planning services and sexual and reproductive health; laws of dignity for women, laws against violence towards women; laws to prevent domestic and sexual violence; and laws against the exploitation and trafficking of women.
 
It made me think of the horrible stories about the trafficking of women and sexual slavery here in Guatemala, that I heard recently from my local friend, Gabriela. It was hard for me to digest that in our modern times we can still hear about this inhuman phenomenon, and that it is occurring right under our noses. 

On a more positive note, I thought how symbolic it was that this year's International Women's Day and the Jewish joyful holiday of Purim are only a week apart from one another. Purim is a traditional Jewish holiday where we are supposed to come up with the most creative costumes for ourselves. It is also a unique celebration that comes to salute a woman's (Esther's) courage. Queen Esther was the savior of the Jewish nation from the evil Haman's plan to massacre all the Jews during the time of the Persian Empire.
 
The fact that this holiday praises a woman's courage, which saved a whole nation, is a real source of inspiration for Jewish women, and for me as well.

This makes me think that only a woman, as a wise mediator, is capable of promoting peace in the Middle East.

Purim also symbolizes the most divine level of spirituality that humankind is capable of feeling or expressing. When we put masks on our faces, this is the time for us to focus on our inner world, to reach a genuine moment with our true selves.

The costumes symbolize that sometimes our inner world can be changed by external actions and that we are taking a break from the categories that people attempt to place us into; categories such as: white, woman, Israeli, from the Middle East, vegetarian, brunette, young, etc. We can empower our inner being by shaping our outer appearance however we like.

The writer is a former spokeswoman at the Knesset, now living and working in Guatemala.
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