Glass ceilings and hard floors

Female MKs rally against the enduring problems of sexual harassment and cultural bias.

mk tartman 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mk tartman 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
She was a nervous young Romanian immigrant in the Israeli Defense Forces when her officer approached her for sexual favors. When she refused, he promised to "make her eat dirt," and relegated her to washing floors. It took months for her to get up the courage to launch a complaint against him, and the trial against him took another six months. It was a long, difficult period in her life, but she still feels that she did the right thing standing up for herself. It was the first of many personal battles for the advancement of women for the young girl who was to become Knesset Member Colette Avital. "If you have gotten to the Knesset as a woman you have likely faced many, many, people telling you that you could not make it," said Avital, who has served as a Labor MK since 1999. "Over the years, things have certainly improved, but problems remain. It isn't just sexual harassment, it is cultural bias." They arguably rank among Israel's most powerful women, but the 17 female members of the current Knesset have had their share of hardships getting to the top. They have little in common when it comes to political, economic or military outlooks, and their paths to the Knesset were as varied as the political parties they now represent. All, however, can recall obstacles along the way that had more to do with their gender than political capabilities, and amid increased accusations of sexual misconduct among several of Israel's top officials, the women of the Knesset have emerged as the most outspoken critics of the challenges still facing women in the workplace. "The current incidents of sexual harassment have raised questions for all of us about how this kind of behavior can persist," said Avital. "As lawmakers we have to be held accountable, the laws we create must protect women." Over the past month, the high profile cases of Justice Minister Haim Ramon and President Moshe Katsav, both of whom are accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace, have raised questions over the treatment of women in the office. "We don't yet know about the case of these two men, but the questions it raises are undeniable," said MK Orit Noked (Labor). "The women in the Knesset have a responsibility to pose the vital questions." For many of the MKs, posing questions is just the beginning. When Katsav was first accused of sexually harassing a female employee, it was Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham and Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On who led the call for his resignation. And as the chairwoman of the Knesset House Committee, it is ultimately Avraham who will be tasked with leading the parliamentary process to impeach the president, if MKs collect the 20 signatures necessary to initiate that procedure. Meanwhile, MK Shelly Yachimovich has become an adversary of the president by meeting with his former employee and calling Katsav's actions "tantamount to rape" and "deeply disturbing." "This is a personal attack and is completely unprofessional," Katsav said of Yachimovich's statement to the press. "She thinks she can take up this issue by only hearing one side." Yachimovich, however, has argued that the woman's case against Katsav has become symbolic of how difficult it is for a woman to file a complaint against her boss. Supporting the woman, argued Yachimovich, gives support to women all over the country to come forward with their own complaints and take advantage of the laws protecting them. "WE HAVE passed excellent laws protecting women in the office, but these laws need to be enforced and general perceptions must change before we eradicate sexual harassment," said Gal-On, who was instrumental in passing several bills for the protection of women in the workplace, most important of which was the Sexual Harassment law of 1998. That law, which at the time was called the world's most "far-reaching" sexual harassment law, forbids sexual harassment in schools, the army and in public places. A conviction for sexual harassment can be punished by two to four years in prison depending on the nature of the incident. Victims of sexual harassment can also sue for emotional distress caused by the harasser. The 1998 bill, which was drafted by former MK Yael Dayan (Meretz) during her tenure in the Committee on the Status of Women, gives woman a better chance of winning a sexual harassment lawsuit by creating a broad definition of what constitutes harassment. Representatives of the Women's Network, an organization that lobbies for women's issues, said that since the creation of the law there has been a huge jump in women who have come forth with complaints and successfully processed them in court. "There will always be someone who mistreats women in the workplace, who thinks that there are tasks that a woman can't fill," said Avital. "We are making great strides, but it is still a battle we are fighting. There is a whole generation of people, mainly who come from the army, who figure that part of the requirement of female employees is that they service their bosses." For MK Esterina Tartman (Israel Beitenu), who came from a career in the IDF, taking on male-dominated professions has become a life-long challenge. As a major in a paratroop unit, Tartman often found herself battling stigmas of what women can and can't do. "I often found myself sitting in the chair where only men sat before me," said Tartman. "I never demanded special treatment as a woman, I demanded equal treatment." In her first speech in the 17th Knesset, Tartman charged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with neglecting women's issues and demanded that one of the ministers without portfolio be appointed as special minister in charge of women's issues. "The allegations against Katsav have yet to be proved, but if the reports can be believed, it says something blatant about the society we are in that the president can do this in the presidential house under his wife's nose. It says something about what people think they can get away with," said Tartman. Much more could "be gotten away with," argues Gal-On, were it not for the laws pushed by female MKs to protect women in the workforce. WHILE THE number of women in the Knesset has fluctuated over the years, their numbers have never amounted to a quarter of the representation in the parliament. They have served in top positions, yet their highest showing has remained in the committees focused on social issues, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Status of Women. "In a way it is a form of sexism that the women in the Knesset always find themselves dominating those committees. Those are 'women's issues' and we expect the women of the Knesset to care while the men serve on the committees for defense and economics," acknowledged one male Likud MK. He chose to remain anonymous because "commenting on women's issues can spark a fire." At times, the female MKs have been labeled the "femme fatales" for their influential activism on certain issues. "This sort of coalition of female MKs that work together has survived many governments and many events," said Gal-On. "We have a shared interest in promoting the women's agenda because if we don't do it no one will." She recalled that the women's coalition gained ground in 2000 with the case of former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who was ultimately convicted of indecent acts, which were carried out in office. "This history of behavior soils the offices of our elected officials," said Tartman. "As a mother, especially as a mother to a young girl, it is a fight I cannot let go of."