Critical Currents: Women, gender and politics

Does more women in politics translate into a change in gender relations?

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
International Women's Day in Israel is marked this year by a major anomaly. More women serve in the newly elected Knesset than ever before; fewer are explicitly committed to gender reform. The increase in the quantity of women in public office does not signal a qualitative change either in the content or the culture of Israeli politics. The connection between the rise in the number of incoming female legislators and substantive change in gender relations will only take place if there is a concerted effort to make it happen. Ostensibly, these elections had a strong gendered flavor - not only because Tzipi Livni headed a major political party, but also because all involved sought to capitalize on this factor. The Likud's slogan - "It's Too Big for Her" - set the tone. By implying, through its crafted double message, that women are unfit for the highest office, it almost begged for a response in kind. This was not late in coming, especially when it became clear during the last two weeks of the campaign that 65% of the unusually high number of undecided voters were female. The sub-text of the "Different Kind of Leadership" campaign, reinforced by the "Either Tzipi or Bibi" barrage in the last few days, was clear to anyone who cared to listen: women should vote Livni also, if not primarily, because she's a woman. Special events were organized to popularize this call, gender-specific appeals were issued, and a true buzz was created. Major women's organizations joined in the effort, to the distress of competing parties (especially Labor and Meretz), who were unable to challenge the logic of Kadima's female outreach without undercutting their own proclaimed feminism. THE 2009 ELECTIONS are the first in Israel's history in which the gender factor played a significant role. Kadima outstripped the Likud precisely because the personalization of the campaign allowed for its utilitarian feminization. And while this game occupied center court, an equally telling story was unfolding within the parties, as more women were selected to realistic slots on their lists. The 21 women sworn in to the 18th Knesset last week constitute a record number of female parliamentarians. They make up 17% of the members of the house - an increase of four over the 17th Knesset, of three over the 16th Knesset, and of 10 over the first Knesset elected 60 years ago. These figures, however, hide more than they reveal. Seven parties in the recently installed Knesset have no female representation at all (primarily Arab and religious parties, but also for the first time since its inception, Meretz). The largest percentage of women (33%) can be found in Yisrael Beiteinu (5 of 15) and Balad (1 of 3). Having a woman at the apex does make a difference: 25% of Kadima Knesset members are women (7), as opposed to 19% in the Likud (5) and 17% in Labor (3). For the third time running, there are more women members on the center-right of the political spectrum than on the center-left. Put together, women can claim some numerical progress. While still hugely underrepresented, they have at least somewhat improved their public standing. The question remains, however, whether more women in politics also translates into a change in gender relations. The first signs are far from encouraging. With several notable exceptions, most of the women in the new Knesset pointedly shun feminist appellations, and are themselves devoid of any history of gender activism. Their parties (including Livni-led Kadima) failed to highlight women's concerns during the campaign or to offer any systematic policy agenda on these issues. The discourse of almost all contestants - women included - focused exclusively on one topic: security. The women-speak of the electoral season was woefully bereft of any gender content. This post-feminist climate is hardly surprising. During the bulk of this century, as female representation was gradually climbing, legislation on fundamental gender matters was muted at best. The laws passed in the outgoing Knesset were patently liberal and incremental in nature, focusing on mild improvements in areas where critical breakthroughs had been secured by a much smaller group of openly feminist legislators in the 1990s. Extended maternity leave, fertility subsidies or punitive measures for sex offenders are cases in point. THIS HISTORY makes it painfully evident that much more than numbers are needed. Innovation in gender relations at this point can be achieved in two major ways. The first is through the expansion of the scope of gender concerns to include questions of religion and state, the economy and social justice and, especially, peace and security. The way these areas are structured is the main cause of gender inequality here, as in many other countries. Reorganizing these power relations is a daunting task. Indeed, the most significant legislation of the outgoing Knesset was a pioneering bill proposed by two male Knesset members which enabled the division of property prior to the procurement of a divorce. But clearly much work still has to be done to unravel the religious stranglehold over personal law. The same can be said for the built-in gender inequality in the economy, particularly given that women are the first victims of unemployment in times of recession and an absolute majority of those below the poverty line. The male-centric domination of the social and political order is especially pronounced in the military sphere. The perpetuation of the conflict and the prevalence of security concerns - a subject central in voting considerations - has left women on the sidelines for quite some time while entrenching existing hegemonic patterns. A second way to significantly alter social relations is by injecting gender perspectives into all policy questions. This shift to a strategy of gender mainstreaming, long overdue in Israel, has had a transformative effect in most of the industrialized world. It presumes that addressing key issues from a variety of viewpoints can help enhance policy effectiveness and ensure greater social justice. The move from liberal, rights-oriented women's action to a critically-based gender politics depends on the activities of agents - males as well as females - committed to establishing a more egalitarian society based on the recognition of differences. Such movers and shakers are in scarce supply indeed in the present Knesset. Those who expect progress must therefore either hope for a conceptual metamorphosis among the new legislators or work even harder to create a critical mass of women in public office in the future. This bloc of at least 30% of decision-makers - armed with the power of real numbers - can induce more meaningful gender change here, as it already has elsewhere, in the future.