Israeli women enjoy more freedom, gender equality than other countries - opinion

While there is definitely still room for improvement, women in Israel can be reassured that we are thankfully in a relatively strong position compared with many of our sisters abroad.

 PROTESTING THE US decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, in Tel Aviv, July 4. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
PROTESTING THE US decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, in Tel Aviv, July 4.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

My family is quite strongly feminist – my son and husband have learned to be feminist too, with two feisty daughters and sisters in the house. In fact, a well-known jingle can often be heard at the Cohen’s from the movie Mary Poppins (the original): “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, as they sing in grateful chorus… well done… well done… well done… sister suffragettes!” So it seemed only natural that following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, my next column would be on the subject of women’s rights.

Roe v. Wade, abortion and Israel

I’ve always had complicated thoughts when it comes to abortion – I guess the majority of people do. I don’t think that most people would be blasé about something as significant as ending the potential for life. It can’t be an easy decision. But sometimes it’s absolutely vital. And for this reason, I’m incredibly grateful that women in Israel have that option when it is necessary. 

The UN World Population Fund and human rights groups have warned that the end of Roe v. Wade in the US could endanger abortion access worldwide. And since the Supreme Court ruling, there has certainly been a global response, with many countries examining their own laws and regulations to see if any changes should be made.

Israeli law from 1977 outlines four circumstances when abortion must be allowed: if the woman is over 40 or under 18; if the pregnancy is the result of incest, rape or an “illicit union” (for example, an affair); if the pregnancy places the woman’s health (physical or mental) in danger; and if the fetus is at risk. In practice, this means that approximately 98% of all abortion applications are approved. 

Now, rather than following the US’s example, which Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz suggested has reversed women’s rights by a hundred years, Israel has announced that it will ease abortion rules

 Women protest at Habima Square in Tel Aviv against the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, June 28, 2022.  (credit: Shira Silkoff) Women protest at Habima Square in Tel Aviv against the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, June 28, 2022. (credit: Shira Silkoff)

How can you get an abortion in Israel?

Women will be able to apply for an abortion electronically, so they will no longer need to deliver their application in person. According to the Health Ministry, some reportedly “degrading” questions about the use of contraception will also be removed from the application form. 

The special committee that examines abortion requests (comprising two doctors and a social worker) will be able to review applications digitally. They will only meet in person in very rare cases when they reject an application. This means that the vast majority of women applying for an abortion will no longer have to appear in person before the committee. They can, however, request access for further support. 

The changes will also mean that women will be able to have an abortion at their local health center rather than at hospitals. And women will be able to access abortion pills through the country’s healthcare system. 

In a statement, Horowitz said, “The move by the US Supreme Court to deny a woman the right to her body is a dark move… We are somewhere else, and we are making great strides in the right direction today.”

However, will a new coalition government – perhaps one made up of right-wing and religious parties – place these changes, or even Israel’s abortion law, in jeopardy? I spoke with Orthodox women’s activist Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll to hear her views.

“You can’t outlaw abortion if you understand Judaism. Even the most fundamental, ultra-Orthodox person understands that there are times when a pregnancy needs to be terminated. Abortion is accessible and covered, and it’s not something I’m worried about here.”

“You can’t outlaw abortion if you understand Judaism. Even the most fundamental, ultra-Orthodox person understands that there are times when a pregnancy needs to be terminated. Abortion is accessible and covered, and it’s not something I’m worried about here.”

Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll

Women's rights in Israel

THE UN has outlined 17 major global challenges, and Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.” While detractors of Israel accuse the country of infringing on women’s rights, the reality – while not perfect – is starkly different.

In 1919, before the reestablishment of the Jewish state, a large group of women got together and founded the world’s first women’s political party. Together, they fought for women’s rights, which meant that the modern State of Israel was founded with votes for women and the right of women to be elected to office. In fact, gender equality is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and has been further strengthened through legislation and policy over the years. 

Today, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has had a woman prime minister; Supreme Court chief justice; foreign, justice, interior, environment and energy minister (and I may well have missed some); speaker of the Knesset, Bank of Israel governor and interim president. And Israel’s most recent cabinet held a record number of women.

Discrimination against women is outlawed, and the state encourages girls as well as boys to achieve a full education, including digital literacy programs to empower women. It goes without saying that Israeli law forbids honor killing. And Israel is the only country in the region that has never required women to seek a male guardian’s permission to travel. Israel also has a national program aimed at preventing domestic violence, as well as programs to help women trapped in the cycle of prostitution, and girls at risk. 

As Keats-Jaskoll explained, “Women are allowed in most places in the army, we have relatively positive child care, the culture of the country is very family-friendly, which is by definition women-friendly. But things, of course, aren’t perfect. 

One example of where we must improve is in the area of religion and state. As a woman in Israel, you can be a Supreme Court justice but can’t get a divorce if your husband refuses. I think there is a real fear of feminism, which is unfortunate as I think it’s not a threat

“But there have been some big, positive steps, like the passing of a resolution that the Security Council, which has always been male-dominated, should have at least one-third women. And women should make up 30-40% of religious councils. So we’re doing well in recognizing where we have low representation. And where that needs to be boosted, Israel is putting that into policy. The fact that there is an understanding that women should have these positions is fantastic.”

GOLDA MEIR was Israel’s fourth prime minister (1969 to 1974) and so far, the country’s first and only female PM. Her “gift to Israeli women,” according to her biographer, Prof. Pnina Lahav, was to legislate maternity leave in the 1950s. Today, over half (53%) of women are in the workforce, a similar level to that of the US. While Israel reportedly has the third-highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world, it has the highest rate among women (as well as people over 55). 

There has been progress on many fronts, but men still dominate in many senior positions according to Israel’s Sustainable Development Goal’s National Voluntary Review. Women, however, hold roughly 40% of senior positions in the public sector, 56% in education, and 68% in human health and social work activities. Furthermore, many Israeli entrepreneurs are turning their focus toward technology to help women. 

Start-Up Nation Central carried out a FemTech landscape mapping project in conjunction with FemTech Israel, which promotes technological and innovation solutions for women’s needs. It concluded that Israel has 130 companies aimed at serving women. Investors are getting on board too, investing approximately $160 million in 2021 into Israeli FemTech solutions for issues such as diagnostics, pelvic health, pregnancy, breastfeeding, wellness and safety.

And these innovations, of course, are not just helping women in Israel. Illumigyn, for example, has created a remote cervical examination and diagnostic system, which has been used in Moldova, Gulf countries and Africa. And the Israeli app SafeUP is being used by 126,000 women across Israel, the US and several countries in Europe. The app has created a community of trained volunteers who watch out for women’s safety when the need arises.

Israel regularly hosts events to encourage more women into tech, such as the recent Women’s Hackathon at the Jerusalem College of Technology, which was aimed at encouraging Orthodox girls to enter science and technology. On an international level, too, Israel hosts and participates in events and projects to promote the empowerment of women. 

For example, MASHAV (the Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Foreign Ministry) works with UN Women on projects aimed at strengthening gender equality, and Israel has co-sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions with the same goal. As an International Gender Champion (a global network of decision-makers) and a member of the Equal Pay International Coalition led by the International Labour Organization, UN Women, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Israel has been shining a light on gender equality. 

So, while there is definitely still room for improvement, women in Israel can be reassured that we are thankfully in a relatively strong position compared with many of our sisters abroad. Well done, sister (and brother) suffragettes!  

The writer is Middle East Correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One News) TV news channel. The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On Twitter: JodieCohen613. The views expressed are those of the author.