Women have the right to be both seen and heard in public space. There should be
no need to make that declaration. It should be self-evident; we should be able
to take it for granted. But it isn’t, and we can’t.
No longer satisfied
with merely forcing women to dress according to their dictates and to mute
women’s voices so that men do not succumb to their own sexuality, some men are
demanding that women be neither seen nor heard on our streets.
ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, women have been shunted off to separate sidewalks
and medical clinics. There are separate hours for men and women at some
supermarkets. Women are relegated to the back of the bus.
campaign to encourage organ donations has removed women’s images from their ads.
(Apparently it’s OK to benefit from a woman’s liver or heart; it’s just not OK
to see her face or her body.) Even the advertisements on the sleek, super-modern
light rail, touted as Jerusalem’s long-awaited transportation into the 21st
century, don’t have any women on them. Ultra-Orthodox thugs have threatened to
deface the posters and destroy the billboards, and the ad companies have caved
Gender segregation has spread far beyond the boundaries of the
ultra-Orthodox communities. In some religious-Zionist schools, once outposts of
moderation, girls and boys as young as five or six are separated from each
other. At some national and military ceremonies, women are no longer invited to
The military is reportedly considering reassigning female combat
soldiers, because some religious men don’t want to serve alongside
Gender discrimination allows men to impose and protect their
male-dominated world. In the Knesset, although two of the major parties are
headed by women, only 29 percent of MKs are women. Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu’s inflated cabinet includes 30 ministers – but only two of them are
females (and the ultra-Orthodox newspapers regularly air-brush their images
We are slipping in every way. In early November, the World Economic
Forum published its Global Gender Gap Index 2011, ranking Israel 55th of a list
of 135 states surveyed. We’re behind such well-known bastions of democracy and
equality as Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Namibia. Only four years ago, Israel was
Whining about our woes is useless and demeaning, and
Israelis can be proud of our active, assertive feminist movement. But while the
struggle for equality can be inspiring and empowering, more often it’s
exhausting and debilitating. After fighting for the right to be seen, many of us
have little energy to appear. After expending our efforts on the right to be
heard, we are too often left with little energy to speak.
Which is why
the saga of convicted rapist Moshe Katsav is so important.
Nearly a year
ago, a panel of three judges in the District Court convicted Israel’s eighth
president, Katsav, of rape, sexual harassment, commission of an indecent act
while using force, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice. The judges
accepted the complainants’ testimonies fully, referred to Katsav as a liar and
serial sexual predator, and sentenced him to seven years in jail.
appealed. A judge, apparently still taken by Katsav’s former status, allowed him
to remain free until the court ruled on his appeal.
He won’t be free for
much longer. On November 10, a panel of three Supreme Court judges utterly
rejected the appeal, upholding the District Court’s decisions and sentence. Four
and a half years after feminists began a campaign to ensure that he be brought
to justice, Katsav will go to jail in December.
Even as accustomed as we
are to mediocre leaders, knowing that two panels of judges view our former
president as a predatory liar is a new low. I am still ashamed that this man
progressed through the corridors of power, from mayor of a dusty development
town, to Member of Knesset, to cabinet minister, to president, propelled along
by the petty politics of powerful men. They (and many in the press) knew about
his sexual aggression but didn’t seem to think it mattered. After all, they may
have thought, the victims were just women, most of them merely
Now thanks to the courage of those women who dared to speak
truth to power, the persistence of women’s organizations, and the integrity of
the judicial system, we no longer have to think about Katsav as our former
president. In fact, if we have to think of him at all, we will think of him as a
As Katsav walked out of the Supreme Court, he wore the
expression of a man who still doesn’t understand that the rules of the game have
changed. They have. The campaign to bring Katsav to justice has once again put
violence against women prominently on the public agenda and changed forever the
way the public thinks about sexual harassment. Brave women have reframed the
concept of consent and redefined the meaning of rape, making it clear that rape
is not an affront to our chastity or modesty, but an attack, not only on our
bodies, but also on our dignity and our human rights.
Yet feminism isn’t
about changing the rules of the game for women alone. The real feminist struggle
is a struggle to change the rules of the game for everyone. The true goals of
feminism are to dismantle all of the distorted power structures based on gender,
rank, ethnicity or wealth and to create a more just society.
rulings have ensconced in law the principles of respect for women’s bodies,
dignity and rights. Can Israeli society learn from this that each person’s body,
dignity and rights matter? Can we begin to create a society in which each of us
– women and men, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious, rich and poor,
able-minded and mentally challenged, able-bodied and physically limited – has
the right to move freely through all public spaces?
Katsav abused his power and
authority. Can we use the courts’ decisions to make it clear that abuse of any
power, by any authority, is morally, and often legally, wrong? He used force to
assert his will; will we all allow ourselves to be inspired by the complainants’
courage and learn to reject the threat of force? Will society learn that they
must not give in to the ultra-Orthodox, or the settlers, or anyone else who
threatens to use force to get their way? And will the police really finally
understand that it is their responsibility to protect us from these threats, to
put an end to the rule of the bully and to enforce the rule of law?
his high-power, high-profile defense team resorted to the lowest form of defense
– they blamed the victims. But the courts – and, no less importantly, the public
– listened to the victims’ stories, validated them and revealed Katsav as the
aggressor that he is. When will we learn to listen to the stories of all victims
of all distorted power relationships? Throughout his trial, Katsav seemed
supremely, arrogantly confident that thanks to his power and position, his
misleading version of the truth would hold out against the truth presented by
lowly female secretaries. But the court validated the women’s narratives. Now we
must struggle to validate the narratives of all the “lowly” – the abused
contract workers, the migrant workers, the poor, the elderly.
after the Supreme Court’s decision , at precisely 11 o’clock on November 11,
hundreds of women and dozens of men joined together in public spaces throughout
the country and began to sing.
Passersby joined in. In Jerusalem, a few
ultra-Orthodox hecklers tried to drown out the singing. But by 11:30, so many
men and women had gathered on the “Bridge of Strings” – the futuristic bridge
designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava at the entrance to the city –
that the event had to move to the open spaces underneath the bridge.
location is symbolic: five years ago, a dance troupe of preteen girls
invited to perform at the dedication ceremony for the bridge, but the
forced to cover their bodies with long-sleeved sack-like dresses and
with ski caps in order not to offend the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox
political hacks from city hall.
This time, there were no speeches, no
signs. In this demonstration, people sang for their right to be seen and
Maybe, once women’s voices are heard, all the other voices can be
I know that laws and trials cannot change social realities
overnight and that songs won’t take down power structures.
But it’s a
really good start.