Critical Currents: The gender test

The formal mechanism for the assurance of gender equality is currently paralyzed

1007-chazan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Gender equality is widely perceived as one of the surest measures of the robustness of democracies worldwide. It is not surprising that US President Barack Obama highlighted women's rights as the key to societal freedom and prosperity in his Cairo address last month. Nor is it coincidental that the symbol of the reform movement in Iran is a young women, Neda Agha Soltan, slain in the recent riots. It is therefore particularly disconcerting to note the stealthy, creeping assault on the status of women here in recent months. Symptoms of this syndrome abound. These include the legitimation of gender segregation on buses, the intensification of religious hegemony over personal law, the blocking of tax breaks for child care and the renewed campaign against the service of women in the military. They also involve proposed governmental legislation to expand the authority of religious courts - a move which would compound the distress of those already engaged in protracted divorce proceedings. But none is more indicative of the ease with which women's rights are jettisoned than the undermining of the standing of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women in the Prime Minister's Office. Established by law in 1998 during Binyamin Netanyahu's first tenure as prime minister and touted as a major step toward the institutionalization of women's rights in the country, the authority is charged with designing and implementing strategies for the achievement of gender equality. As the official national machinery whose head is accountable directly to the prime minister, it coordinates governmental activities affecting women, is responsible for promoting educational programs on gender equality, and plays a key role in overseeing every aspect of gender policy. And, despite a paltry operating budget (barely NIS 2 million per annum), this is precisely what the authority has tried to do - especially since the appointment of Marit Danon as its director in the summer of 2006. Danon, the legendary personal secretary of five prime ministers (Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon), was an unlikely choice for the position. Her name has become synonymous with the qualities associated with the ultimate civil servant: efficient, discrete, affable, competent, loyal, dependable and totally devoted to the job. She succeeded in serving a series of very different political masters for close to 20 years due to her commitment and good sense (with a brief hiatus from 1996-1999 when Netanyahu preferred his own personal secretary at the time, Ruhama Avraham). But these credentials were not necessarily those required of the head of a national agency dealing with women's affairs. When Ehud Olmert announced the appointment of Danon (to facilitate the entry of his long-time office manager, Shula Zaken), feminist activists and the heads of women's organizations feared that, once again, leadership of the authority would be given to a personal appointee with limited interest in forwarding the cause of gender equality. Today, they are the first to admit that they were wrong. DANON TACKLED the challenges of her new office with the professionalism and thoroughness that stood her in such good stead in her previous position. She embarked on a series of consultations with gender studies experts, grassroots organizers, women from a variety of sectors, female legislators and specialists in a broad array of fields touching on women's representation, rights and prospects. Her inquisitiveness, humility and inclusiveness have combined to bring new content and energy into what had heretofore been a rather minor dormant sinecure. During Danon's first full year in office, she succeeded in vastly expanding programs for the treatment of victims of sexual violence, and substantially raising awareness of the horrors of trafficking in women. She also supported a series of audacious campaigns on sexual harassment. But her most important achievements centered, justifiably, on grounding the role of women in the public domain. She created an entire network of municipal advisers on the status of women, augmented their powers through legislation and insisted on fulfilling the letter of the law on the inclusion and promotion of women in the civil service. Most significantly, she was the first person to formally introduce gender mainstreaming into official discourse in Israel. In 2008, these initiatives were further developed through the establishment of full-fledged interministerial projects for women seeking to escape from prostitution and the elaboration of centers to care for the needs of those subjected to sexual abuse. The authority also launched special programs for Arab and haredi women, while concentrating more systematically on gender-based income discrepancies. It underwrote a series of surveys on women in the IDF and succeeded in securing a policy of gender-sensitive analysis of all official statistics. These activities were capped by a major achievement: the introduction of a government decision on gender screening of all new legislation. All this entailed not only the participation of civil society organizations and the willing cooperation of an array of experts, it also demanded rallying reluctant government agencies and gaining the support of key policymakers. Danon's passion and connections enabled her to go farther than any of her predecessors. The special program budget of the authority was increased tenfold in two years, gender mainstreaming became the norm and plans were made to branch out into other spheres (including the incorporation of women into negotiating teams, tackling the distress of women during the current recession and the expansion of training programs for gender advisers). And then narrow political interests intervened. Gila Gamliel was appointed a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, assigned to deal with issues of women and youth - another invention designed to mollify politicians bereft of substantive portfolios. The relationship between this (probably temporary) post and the statutory Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women is ambiguous at best. Instead of serving as the key advocate of the authority and assisting in the bolstering of its powers, the new deputy minister launched a strategic review which questioned not only its utility but also its viability. Under the circumstances, Danon resigned in frustration. Inevitably, the autonomy of the authority has been undercut and its future is unclear. The formal mechanism for the assurance of gender equality is currently paralyzed. Given the overwhelming nature of economic, diplomatic and security concerns, it is easy to discount the whittling away of the gender protection infrastructure in the country, to neglect the adverse signs of increased gender disparities and to sacrifice women's rights to immediate political concerns. But not only women suffer from this nonchalance. The seemingly casual disregard for institutions designed to safeguard women's rights is a precursor to the enfeeblement of guarantees for other groups as well. It also contributes directly to institutional manipulation, which aggravates problems of governance. More than anything else, tampering with the status of women is the best way to deeply assail our already fragile democracy.