Why Women?

Noga Shavit

My career as a feminist began at a fairly young age, when I sent the Israeli Minister of Education a furious (and quite impolite) letter protesting against my then elementary school’s decision to assign boys to carpentry class and girls to sewing lessons.  I was 11 years old then and I couldn’t understand why it was taken for granted that I would prefer knitting to woodwork, without even asking my opinion. Surprisingly enough, the Minister himself took the time to respond to my letter. To my great disappointment, however, I discovered that my actions did not trigger a nationwide revolution, merely gave me the option to approach my principal and ask to switch classes.  Still, I learned two valuable lessons:  a. you can’t expect anyone to fight your own battles; b. it takes more than one person to make a real change.

When my then husband-to- be and I decided to get married we ended up choosing my family name over his, simply because mine was nicer and more Hebrew. Very few couples in Israel take this path; yet, we didn’t expect reactions to be so shocked and even mortified, as if we single-handedly challenged the order of the world. And who said it was the wife who always had to take on (or hyphenate) her spouse’s name? It made me realize that certain traditional norms are deeply rooted, even in so called liberal societies.

I never had a doubt that women can be as successful as men – and more.   Growing up, my mother, the most accomplished person I know, served as my role model. I developed a habit of “looking for the women” – organizations I worked for, institutions I visited, businesses I read about – I was always looking to see where women were involved. As I grew up I realized that to be successful, women often had to struggle more than men and sometimes they paid a heavy price for their accomplishments.

Israel is quite confusing when it comes to women’s issues: on the one hand, it can claim to being among the first countries to have had a woman serve as its leader (Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, 1969-1974); Currently, the President of the Supreme Court is a woman as is the leader of Israel’s largest political party; and women hold senior positions in many sectors; On the other hand, the average hourly wage for women is 38.3 NIS while that of men is 45.8 NIS; and out of 120 members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, only 22 (18.3%) are women (which is actually an all time record) and only two women serve as government ministers. Even in the academia, where women make the majority of university students and 52% of doctorate recipients are women,  only 25.9% of senior faculty members are women and only 12.7% are full professors.

Of the many factors influencing women’s statue in Israel today I would like to focus on the army one. While serving is compulsory for both genders (although men have to serve for 3 years and women only for 2), the army, being the center of the Israeli social experience, has far reaching influence. The IDF being the army of the people (=Tzva Ha’am) and being present in almost every household, has turned Israel into a somewhat macho society, with concepts of manly “brotherhood” becoming very strong – just ask any man who has been serving on reserve duty (=Miluim) with the same (male) friends for over 20 years. Even If today there are more positions open for female soldiers (the army prestigious pilot course was opened to women only in 1994, after a long battle), women are much less likely to pursue a military career, which in Israel, quite often serves as a door opener to high level positions in the civic and business sectors.  In addition, the continual occupation with national security issues pushes aside many important social issues, including those related to women.

When it comes to women in Israel it is therefore fair to say that a lot has been achieved and a lot more is yet to come!


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