The myth of sexual equality

The publication of a new book is the hook for an evening of discussion at Tmol Shilshom about the status of women in this country.

Dr. Esther Eilam 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Esther Eilam 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Tuesday at 7 p.m. the Tmol Shilshom café and literary hangout will host an event that will examine one of the more contentious issues in Israeli society. The “pretext” for the panel discussion, debate and Q&A session (in Hebrew) is the publication of a new book (also in Hebrew) by the highly evocative title A-Mythical: Social Justice and Gender in Jewish Sources. The “A-Mythical” part of the name is a play on words in Hebrew, alluding to the word “amitiyot” – “genuine women” or “real women” – and the official translation of the word, whereby the “A- ” corresponds to the negating “alef” in “amitiyot” or “amitiyut” (authenticity) The book is published by Yediot Aharonot and the Memizrach Shemesh Center for Jewish Social Activism and Leadership.
The session will feature three well-known figures with a strong social and/or feminist agenda, including 72- year-old Dr. Esther Eilam, who has been one of the driving forces behind the feminist movement in this country for the past 40 years, award-winning Jerusalemite poet and educator Almog Bahar, and journalist and social activist Tami Molad-Hayo. Eilam’s chapter in the book refers to the heart-wrenching story of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah who refused to bury her five sons after they were sacrificed as part of King David’s attempt to pacify the Gibeonite people of Canaan. She talks about how the traditional areas of responsibility of women were confined to the beginning and the end of life – having and caring for babies, treating the ailing and dying and burying their relatives.
The Tmol Shilshom event is called “A-Mythical: Women Making Change” and unsurprisingly, Molad- Hayo views the fight for sexual equality as an ongoing uphill struggle. She also views the discussion panel as a somewhat incongruous arrangement, in the best sense of the word. “I was asked to take part as someone who is active in the field, but Almog Bahar and certainly Esther Eilam are also highly active, they don’t just write,” notes Molad-Hayo.
The new publication affords a convenient and timely platform for taking an in-depth look at the status of women in modern Israeli society.
“The book is a sort of contemplative work about the place and status of women within Jewish society,” The latter, Molad-Hayo muses, is not too clear cut. “On the one hand there is, at least officially, equality between men and women, but you get all sorts of other [undesirable] phenomena, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son saying that women should not be allowed to drive. That’s ludicrous. I think that there is more room today for discussion about feminism, but there are those who are trying to turn the clock back. It will be interesting to see how the speakers at the Tmol Shilshom event address this.”
Her fellow panelists have certainly chalked up some mileage in the relevant fields. Despite his relative youth, 33-year-old Bahar is an award-winning poet/writer and a highly respected educator. His master’s degree thesis in the field of philosophy was based on the topic of identity and gender in the writings of Amira Hess.
For her part, Eilam is delighted to share the session with a man. “I think it says something that the book also includes chapters written by men.”
Molad-Hayo is also happy to take her place at the top table on Tuesday, but says she is not very optimistic about the current state of affairs. “I am very concerned,” she says. “If, in 2011, we find that female public-sector employees only earn around 70 percent of their male counterparts, things are not good.”
And while talking about things is a welcome development, as far as she is concerned, words are not enough. “We need action, although we can’t change reality without discussion. The big question for me is how we can fuse the talking and the doing.”
Religion, it seems, can be a stumbling block. “The thing is that a lot of the discussion derives from biblical and other traditional sources,” she says. “These are not very feminist sources. You can talk about equality all you want but, if you look at a woman who asks to be given ownership of her [late] father’s possessions and that is regarded as something revolutionary or exceptional – like the story of Zelophehad’s daughters in the Torah [in which a precedent was eventually set, allowing daughters to inherit their father’s estate if there are no male heirs] – then we have a problem.”
Despite her long years of activity in the field, Eilam says it is hard to compare the situation today with that of yesteryear. “Things change, circumstances change, but the way things are addressed and talked about also change,” she notes. “For example, after World War II, in America a lot of people moved to the suburbs. The men went off to work and the women stayed at home and no one knew, or talked about, what happened in the home back then, in the isolation of the suburbs.”
The situation was similar here, Eilam claims. “In the early days of the state we were very much an agricultural society and people didn’t really know what went on on kibbutzim and moshavim. So there may be statistics but they don’t really tell the story of things like rape and other forms of abuse against women. Back then such things were simply not talked about.”
That, for Eilam, is a salient point. “I want to do away with this artificial differentiation between what goes on in public and what happens in private, as if we don’t have the right to interfere if some wrongdoing is committed within the family, away from the public eye. Feminism believes that the division between public and private is a means to maintain male dominance over our lives. That has to stop.”
Even so, it is easier to raise certain subjects today. “Forty years ago, when I helped to set up the Tel Aviv branch of the women’s liberation movement, some people looked at me with amazement and asked me what it is exactly that women want to be liberated from. The word ‘feminism’ didn’t even exist for them.”
Back then, says Eilam, the media weren’t particularly progressive either. “There were morning shows for women on the radio, which were all about what women should cook and what to do with the children. Somewhere along the line people heard about [women’s libbers] women burning bras in the United States, but that seemed like it was happening on another planet.”
Eilam, like Molad-Hayo, is not entirely happy with the way our society, in general, relates to women and their status, and also cites religious sectors as a source of difficulty in this area. “You have the haredim demanding segregation on buses between men and women, and women are not allowed to sing in public. That’s not just a limited sector of the public, that impacts on everyone. and also on the government and its policies. In 1977 Menachem Begin assembled a coalition with the haredim, at the expense of women.”
Even so, Eilam believes that women have the means to change the situation. “Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, for example, used her limited area of responsibility as a way of gaining power and control over her circumstances. Women should not have to resort to such extreme measures to change things.”