It is doubtful that the fathers of the modern Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century, such as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, would have predicted that the opening event of the Olympic Games in London 2012 would be a women’s soccer game between Great Britain and New Zealand, and that Arabia would be represented by two Saudi Arabian female athletes, competing in Judo and Athletics.

In the first modern Olympics in 1896, women did not participate, just as in ancient Greece.

We tend to use such examples to show the great process in the status of women in society and in the world. Israeli women pilots, CEOs of American multinationals, African Nobel laureates and so on and so forth. And yet the world over the most blatant discrimination is still against women.

Women constitute about 50.5 percent of human beings, yet in most parts of the world they are far from enjoying equal rights with the other half – men. This is true in almost all societies, especially those with strong religious tendencies, and is definitely true for the Middle East and unfortunately also today’s Israel.

Equality between women and men, given their proportions in the population, should be the most basic of human rights. This is not about feminism, it is about basic human values.

The 20th century saw progress, yet insufficient for true gender equality, in relation to voting rights (in the United States women got the right to vote for president only in 1920), employment, social stature and conditions. But to varying degrees in different parts of the world, the gap remains blatant.

After a century of progress and change, it can be said unequivocally that the more a society enjoys equality between the genders, the more advanced of a democracy, the more developed of an economy and the more peace-seeking it is.

I have spent some years in Norway. In the country of beautiful fjords and 60,000 lakes, there is also a harmonious balance between women and men. In Oslo, close to 50% of members of parliament and the Norwegian government are women; the same goes for CEOs of the wealthy Norwegian private sector.

Some 99% of Norwegian girls and boys graduate from secondary school and the percentage of women and men participating in the labor market is almost equal – around 70%.

During the same years, I also spent some time in Egypt, where women are still being discriminated against and there is only slow progress in the improvement of their status. In Egypt there is a tremendous gap in labor market participation – 75% of men are employed, but only a quarter of women.

The gap in education is smaller. And yet last year in the Tahrir uprising, young Egyptian women played a prominent role in the demonstrations, the outcry for democracy and human rights and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

In the Middle East, the situation regarding gender equality is highly problematic, as women are discriminated against by patriarchal and religious societies despite a recent awakening to the issue thanks to the role of young women in the Arab Spring.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia practice shameful violation of women’s rights – women there don’t vote, don’t drive, must dress according to strict codes and only 20% are employed.

On the other hand, there are countries such as Tunisia, where young women in civil society actively helped to bring about democratic change in the country and the new president, Moncef Marzouki, pledged to uphold gender equality. Women in Tunisia are represented in politics, business and institutions of higher education. The same is true of Palestinian women in the West Bank, the Palestinian parliament, business, civil society and universities.

Even Mohamed Morsy, upon taking office as the first Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, felt compelled to guarantee the rights of Egyptian women and announced he would appoint a woman vice president. The Arab world is a world in transition, navigating its ways between secular modernism, democracy and respect for human rights on one side and deeply rooted religious ways of life and beliefs leading to xenophobic doctrines on the other side. In this process, the role of women – and equality between genders – will serve as a compass of where the Arab world is headed.

One hopes it will be change by women, for women.

Israel, while a much more egalitarian society, also finds itself today in a dichotomy between liberal secularism within a globalized world and Orthodox beliefs in religious laws within a closed ghetto where outsiders are cursed and expelled, and women serve men. Since the creation of Israel, the liberation of women and their role in society – be it in the army or on kibbutzim – was of great importance in our nation-building process.

We were one of the first countries to have a woman prime minister. Women have also headed important corporations such as Strauss and Bank Leumi. And yet we remain, by and large, a male chauvinistic society in terms of attitudes, values and concrete indicators.

Wages of women are 15% lower than those of men in similar positions, there is a gross underrepresentation of women in the job market and on boards of governors of corporations and academic institutions, not to speak of the Knesset and the government with its mere two female ministers.

This inequality is exacerbated by two factors: Israeli machismo emanating from a rather patriarchal society and military service, and the nationalreligious and ultra-Orthodox Israel. The first results in usurping the independent rights and roles of women, also exemplified by a great number of sexual harassment cases, the latter leads to a medieval view of women, as exemplified by women being ousted from the public space. And yet in our 2011 protest movement, which may be reignited soon given the government’s recent draconian economic measures, young women took the leading role for social change, justice and equality.

Given this background, we can say that in Israel the rights and status of women in society are of critical importance to our very identity. As we witnessed in the political wrestling around the Tal legislation, the haredi parties have the upper hand on the issue of equality of the burden in serving army and society, an issue that touches the very core of our social ethos.

These parties and their constituencies see in women subordinates to men and second-class citizens. One is not allowed to see them, walk with them on the same side of the street, have them appear in the public sphere. And all this is not in Tehran but in Jerusalem.

It is, therefore, paramount that government and civil society in Israel make gender equality – in attitude, values and practice – a high priority. The equal rights of women needs to be put into a Basic Law and the same is true for equal wages. Political parties should feel compelled to have an equal number of women candidates. Private-sector companies, nongovernmental institutions and academic institutions should have a fair, if not equal, share of women on their boards and in their membership, even through affirmative action measures. The same should be true for ambassadors and peace negotiators.

In this way, we will serve not just the interests of women but mainly Israel’s national interest and democratic character. Only then will we have the right to broach the issue with others in the region.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

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