(photo credit: REUTERS)
International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate a unique model for female advancement that is taking place in Israel’s haredi community: Increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox women are entering the workforce and in the process are radically transforming traditional roles both inside and outside the household.
The proportion of haredi women who have joined the labor force has gradually approached the national average for female Jews. According to outdated Bank of Israel data from 2011, for instance, 65 percent of haredi women were in the labor force compared to 73% among Jewish Israeli women. In recent years since the Bank of Israel survey was taken the gap has undoubtedly narrowed.
In contrast, among haredi men employment rates – which are around 50% – still lag far behind the average for Jewish Israeli men of 81%.
Though a disproportionately high percentage of haredi women continue to work in education, more are finding jobs in diverse areas, becoming in the process catalysts for change.
On one hand, the haredi woman who goes out and works is a gatekeeper of the ultra-Orthodox community’s values. She continues to maintain a high fertility rate of about six children on average (though rates are down slightly in recent years). She adheres to the dress codes of the community. And she often enters the labor force in order to enable her husband to continue to study Torah. This option is often more practical than sending the haredi man out to work, since haredi women receive a high school education that prepares them for the modern labor force while haredi men do not.
The working haredi woman is the one who brings modernity into the household. They are more familiar with secular subjects such as science, math and English than their male counterparts. Also, when these women go out to work, their husbands often take on roles normally considered “motherly.” They cook, clean and are more involved in the upbringing of the children. This phenomenon has been written about by Bar-Ilan University researcher Dvorah Wagner.
In addition, a working mother can have a strong influence on the attitudes of her children regarding gender roles. When mom earns more than dad; when she is more worldly; when dad’s Torah study depends on mom’s income, this has an impact on the children.
Rabbis understand this dynamic and rightly fear it will transform haredi society. Attempts have been made by rabbis to prohibit women from obtaining university degrees or to regulate the hour they return home from work. Rabbis have been placed inside companies that employ haredi women to regulate codes of conduct and dress. The idea that a woman can pursue a career is looked down upon in haredi society. Though haredi women pursue careers, they portray their professional lives as attempts not at self-realization but as a way of supporting their husbands’ Torah study.
Haredi women often suffer from discrimination in the workplace. The average haredi woman earns less than her non-haredi female counterpart. In hi-tech the gap is particularly wide.
When socialists first began organizing a special day to champion women’s rights at the beginning of the 20th century, the goals were clear. Even in supposedly enlightened countries, women were denied the right to vote, they did not receive an education comparable to men’s, and their roles – both inside the home and outside it – were carefully restricted.
Today in Western countries many would question the need for a special day for a group of people that makes up half of the population. The struggles of haredi women in Israel remind us that more than a century after the first International Women’s Day was celebrated, there remains a need to work for gender equality, even in Western countries. Indeed, the challenge faced today by many Western countries is how to defend the rights of women who belong to a religious or cultural subgroup that rejects Western values.