International Women’s Day: What’s the point?

The day is used as a platform for what is known in Jewish tradition as cheshbon hanefesh – a combination of account-taking and reflection.

The first time International Women’s Day was observed – exactly a century ago in Germany – it was known as International Working Women’s Day, protesting working conditions during industrialization. Since then, the day has carried various meanings, depending on the society in which it was marked. Decades after the day’s inception, the UN General Assembly invited member states in 1977 to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. Today it is known simply as International Women’s Day.
Although the phenomenon of international days was born in modern society, it has a distinctly Jewish flavor. The day is used as a platform for what is known in Jewish tradition as cheshbon hanefesh – a combination of account-taking and reflection.

International Women’s Day in particular provides just that sort of basis for an accounting of women’s status in fields ranging from economic discrimination and the glass ceiling, through the role of women in the family unit, to trafficking in women.
The list of inequities goes on. However, upon reflection – which is the second aspect of cheshbon hanefesh – the achievement of many women’s aspirations comes to light.
This duality is demonstrated through viewing an edition of The Jerusalem Post on a typical news day – let’s take Wednesday, February 23. The description of the gender-specific problems and challenges begins with the news report of a policeman from Rosh Ha’ayin convicted of “romance-driven crimes” against his girlfriend. Following that, the day’s editorial details the tortuous path to conversion – keep in mind that the vast majority of applicants for conversion in Israel are women.
Then Seth Frantzman describes the “communal state of denial” regarding “honor killings” in Israeli Arab communities. According to his report, the female victims are buried in unmarked graves. This is the ultimate erasure of a woman’s identity – as if she never existed.
In the same section of the paper, a Globes correspondent reported that the Knesset Finance Committee, in a prime example of insult following injury, has raised the office budget of former president Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of rape and sexual assault.
Following that preposterous piece of news were two op-ed articles, both authored by women, which dealt with CBS’s Lara Logan’s beating and sexual assault by a mob of Egyptian men in Tahrir Square last month. Maureen Dowd brought to light the attitude of some who posted vile Twitter comments relating to Logan’s assault, as if the assault itself were not despicable enough. Kim Barker disclosed the compound state of danger in which female correspondents function: physical danger resulting from being perceived as sexual objects, at the same time they must cover up that very danger for fear of job discrimination.
On the other hand, that day’s paper includes several rays of hope for women, while illuminating the specific burdens that women carry. The first instance is the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women decrying the increase in illegal dismissals of pregnant women. If the first step in erasing a societal blight is consciousness-raising, then the Knesset made a positive move.
This was followed by two examples of women empowered enough to help other women. A Tel Aviv lawyer, Sharon Taitz, was chosen to serve as president of Ladies Circle International, which according to reporter Ruth Eglash, is a volunteer organization spanning 36 countries and more than 10,000 members. But the accolade for womenhelping- women goes to Dr. Michal Sagi of Hadassah University Medical Center. Science and health reporter Judy Siegel described how Sagi and her colleagues identified two “founder” gene mutations for breast and ovarian cancer in Sephardi women, whom doctors had thought were not at risk for these diseases. All the articles mentioned above are connected to deeply life-changing and even lifeand- death issues.
SO JUST by skimming the headlines of the daily paper, one discerns two opposing factors at play – ingrained prejudice regarding the accomplishments of women (remember “you’ve come a long way baby” of Virginia Slims in the late 1960s, which ironically hallowed the male-dominated vice of smoking, thus aggrandizing it for women)? In a sort of cheshbon hanefesh taken by the UN, but not quite in keeping with today’s complex reality, the gist of International Women’s Day is clarified in a rather upbeat manner ( “International Women’s Day... is a day when women are recognized for their achievements... It is an occasion for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.”
As with any real-life situation, a tension exists between the great strides and accomplishments of women worldwide and the inequity and injustices which still prevail. It is in the hands of all individuals in society to assure that future International Women’s Days will reflect the positive elements alone, leaving the concept of inequity for an era gone by.
The writer has a PhD from Bar-Ilan University, is a rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Get- Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and the Jewish Agency, and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get refusal.