Singing to be seen

Women have the right to be both seen and heard in public space.

Katsav in court 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Katsav in court 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
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.
In 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.
A poster 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 in.
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 sing.
The military is reportedly considering reassigning female combat soldiers, because some religious men don’t want to serve alongside women.
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 out).
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 ranked 36th.
Whining about our woe s 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.
Katsav 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 secretaries.
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 convicted rapist.
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.
The Katsav 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?
Katsav and 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.
The day 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.
The location is symbolic: five years ago, a dance troupe of preteen girls was invited to perform at the dedication ceremony for the bridge, but the girls were forced to cover their bodies with long-sleeved sack-like dresses and their hair 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 heard.
Maybe, once women’s voices are heard, all the other voices can be heard, too.
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.