Critical Currents: Feminism at a crossroads

A generalized complacency seems to have enveloped the vast majority of Israeli women.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
International Women's Day is being marked this week, as in the past few years, in a carefully packaged, painfully predictable manner. The standard publication of updated (and still far from satisfactory) figures on the status of women in Israel, along with the usual quotient of significant yet mostly overlooked academic conferences, meticulously prepared if sparsely attended cultural events, tedious debates in the Knesset, drearily repetitive media discussions and a handful of notable demonstrations, combine to underscore the heavily ritualistic nature of what was once a day which invited both passion and controversy. This annual reminder of the most systematic and pervasive form of inequality has begun to lose its edge. Despite the sincere and persistent efforts of a few dedicated women, the fact is that little progress has been recorded recently on matters of gender equality. The women's movement in Israel, with a few striking exceptions, is barely treading water. Time and again, experience has shown that when women are stalled, so is society at large. The revival of a vibrant Israeli feminism is essential not only for gender parity, but also for a healthy and equitable society. The zest that marked women's action in the latter part of the 20th century is fading with time. This process, some claim, is partly a byproduct of success. Impressive gains in public awareness wrought a spurt of progressive legislation in the 1990s, placing Israel - at least on paper - at the forefront of the democratic world. Many younger women take for granted today what the previous generation had to struggle hard to obtain. It is not that discrimination has been erased; it is that it now appears in more subtle and nuanced presentations so different from the virulent strains of yesteryear. Women now entering the workforce, fortified as they are with an enviable self-confidence, often fail to identify the prejudicial obstacles strewn in their way. When they are compelled to confront these hazards, they tend to tackle them on a personal rather than a societal level. These trends are buttressed by the generalized impatience with attempts to bring about social change, heavily ensconced in individualistic and militaristic garb. IN THIS setting, progressive women's organizations - once considered the home of militant radicals - have undergone a process of professionalization. This metamorphosis may, perhaps, have increased their respectability; it has also extinguished some of the fire that substantially raised consciousness and propelled significant transformation in the past. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this numbing regularization of feminism in recent years. While gender study programs at the universities still produce cutting edge research, the most intriguing assertions of feminism are occurring precisely where women have been most systematically suppressed. Orthodox women are now leading a quiet revolution which promises to bring them into the heretofore male bastion of textual learning and interpretation. They are devising creative ways to secure their personal status, even at the risk of confronting rabbinic authorities. Some momentum is also apparent in immigrant quarters, as newcomers from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union are beginning to deal with the peculiar gender-based problems of their absorption. The most vigorous organizational development is taking place among Arab women in Israel. A complex network of groups concentrating on a variety of issues - ranging from economic betterment, professional training and leadership enhancement to previously taboo topics such as violence against women, honor killings and gay rights - has been established during the last decade. The most consistent path breakers remain the women peace activists, whose work at the checkpoints (Mahsom Watch) and with Palestinians (Yesh Din) is attracting widespread attention. They have been buttressed by others who continue - in a variety of established and new frameworks - to promote a culture and an agenda for a just Israeli-Palestinian peace. THESE ISLANDS of activism cannot, however, erase the generalized complacency that seems to have enveloped the vast majority of Israeli women. High-profile cases of sexual harassment have not generated concerted action. The feminization of poverty has not brought about greater demands for social justice. Violence against women is a social scourge that is not abating; female trafficking is rampant. Women are still mostly absent from the critical decision-making nexus (Dorit Beinisch, Dalia Itzik and Tzipi Livni are exceptions that prove the rule). The appalling status of female representation in the Knesset or the paltry output of some of these recent additions has not induced a broader outcry. These and other burning questions cannot be addressed without an updated and energizing vision of gender relations that can serve as a compass for a revised feminist agenda. What has been lacking for some time is that kind of strategic thinking that enables ongoing action over the long haul. Too much attention is still being paid to incremental improvements in the position of women and to debates over affirmative action measures, while elsewhere forward-looking mainstreaming strategies are in place and are already being supplemented by empowerment mechanisms. Israeli women have gone a long way in their quest for dignity and equity. But they cannot progress much further without taking a hard look at their methods and linking their work more directly to the struggle for social justice. By recognizing their centrality not only as objects, but also as agents, of change, they can revitalize their own activities and simultaneously contribute to societal betterment. This is the key challenge of Israeli women today.