Last week a woman was harassed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus, in
order – “God forbid” – not to be seen by men. This did not happen on the
outskirts of Tehran, but rather on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Beit Shemesh, eight-year-old Na’ama Margolis was assaulted for walking
immodestly on the wrong side of the street, the side worthy of men
I have much respect for religion in general and for the Jewish
religion in particular, but these phenomena have as much to do with religion as
apartheid has with human rights. They are not only illegal, but a blatant form
of discrimination and an assault on basic human rights and values. They place
Israel in a dubious club of nations discriminating against women.
Middle East as a whole is a case in point. In most countries of the region,
women suffer as second-class citizens. It is a truism that the more women are
liberated, the more they become part of the socio-political process of their
country, the more advanced and democratic the country becomes, and vice-versa.
As an example, I’d like to examine Tunisia on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia on
Tunisia has since the days of its late president and
nation-builder, Habib Bourguiba, granted women greater equality than most Arab
Throughout the years, and continuing today, emphasis was
placed on girls’ education, including higher education; on women’s participation
in the market and the political process. As early as the ’90s, about a quarter
of the members in the Tunisian parliament were women. In most other Arab
countries women have fewer than 10 percent of parliament seats. No wonder then
that young women played a central role in the Yasmin Revolution, leading
demonstrations and writing courageous blogs, such as that of the much applauded
Lina Ben Mhenni.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, adheres to an
ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam and has institutionally turned women into
second-class citizens at best. It is a highly patriarchic society, in which
women are practically enslaved to men – without the right to vote or even drive
and with little employment and strict clothing restrictions.
situation of women in most Arab countries is probably among the least advanced
in the world, and is somewhere in between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, perhaps with
the exception of Palestine (the West Bank), where the participation of women in
the student bodies, as well as in the workforce and in the political struggle
for independence, is very high, Hanan Ashrawi being a case in point.
Arab Spring has brought in its wake greater liberation of Arab women – many of the leaders of the demonstrations throughout our region
were women, such as heads of NGOs calling for the downfall of dictators, like
Tawakul Karman, who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous
resistance to the outgoing Yemenite regime.
This is also reflected in the
growing participation of Arab women on social networks, particularly Facebook
and Twitter, where one-third of active users are women, a proportion constantly
on the rise. This is exemplified in the YaLa – Young Leaders movement I have
initiated on Facebook, where 38% of the 22,000 members from Israel and the Arab
world are women.
Women’s rights movements have recently emerged even in
Saudi Arabia, such as the Women2Drive movement.
While the situation in
the region is still bleak, and the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood
does not bode well for women, the trend is a rather positive one from a sad
starting point. The Arab world as a whole is going through an unstable
transition period with an amalgam of Islamism and liberalism; the position of
women in society can serve as a compass as to where countries are
Regarding Israel, historically we can pride ourselves on the role
women played in our nation-building process. In all walks of life, with the
exception of politics (despite Golda), women have played a leading role in
institution-building, in culture, in academia, in the workforce and even in the
armed forces. And yet, women have not reached full equality in our society. This
is true in objective terms in unequal wages, under-representation in economic and
business institutions and in gross under-representation in the Knesset and
government (a sole woman minister).
This situation is even worse if we
look at the basic male-chauvinistic attitude of Israeli men, derived from army
and religion, as sadly expressed in the many cases of sexual harassment. To a
large degree we are still a patriarchic society. This is probably the background
for the lame reaction to recent events.
The situation in Beit Shemesh is
abhorrent and committed by an extremist group of haredim, the Sikrikim, but we
have witnessed further limitation of women in the public sphere, such as in
relation to women’s singing in ceremonies in military and civilian forums. Most
alarming is the hesitant reaction of public opinion, with the exception of the
media – only a few thousand participants in the Beit Shemesh demonstration last
week, and the social protest movement of the summer was not awakened by what is
obviously a blatant social injustice. The government, in turn, has at best paid
lip service but dares not confront the haredi parties and Shas.
situation poses a real threat to our democracy, especially alongside the
legislation efforts against the Supreme Court, the Arab minority and freedom of
the press, and the price-tag phenomenon of the extremist settlers,
The women of Israel know that they cannot count on the men to remedy
this. Therefore, at the front line of the struggle we should see women, as
already exemplified by the statements of Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni, Shelly
Yachimovich and Zehava Gal-On, as well as our chief justice, Dorit Beinisch, and
organizations led by women in the model of the “Four Mothers” organization that
was instrumental in liberating us from Lebanon; the Machsom Watch women
attempting to liberate us from occupation and the social protest movement which
to a large degree was led by women. Democracy by women, for women.
same should be hoped for the Arab world. 2012 may well become the year of
women’s empowerment. Important women such as Angela Merkel and Hillary
Clinton are leading the way to a more peaceful world. It should be hoped that
the women struggling for democracy in Israel and the Arab world will also take
an instrumental part in the long awaited peace negotiations in our
Yes, the women should be in the front! The writer is president of
the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo