Gender is like the slippery fish of news and politics. It doesn’t stay in the hand for too long, always slithering away as other issues that are considered “bigger” or “more important” take its place. At least that’s the impression I’m getting over the past few months’ of public activity around the exclusion of women in public spaces in Israel. Certainly the issue of gender segregation has arrived. But it is quickly swimming away as the public moves on. Indeed, even some advocates are bent on shifting the discussion elsewhere.
Take, for example, the subject of women singing in the army, and controversy over whether religious soldiers should be penalized for walking out of official events where women sing. Although this particular topic is not exactly highest on my agenda – it bothers me much more that *The Knesset* has not had a woman singer in years in deference to religious politicians; I care much less about a few confused young men than I do about governmental policy that excludes talented artists to appease religious men with power – nevertheless, the legislative activity on this issue has been disturbing.
MK Tzipi Hotoveli, the Knesset member who heads the Committee on the Status of Women, recently submitted a bill, along with MK Yakov Katz that would give the IDF rabbinate power to decide on what soldiers should be allowed to do, and ensuring that soldiers will not be penalized for “religious” issues. The bill would effectively authorize the exclusion of women in the IDF. Despite intense pleas by women’s groups, Hotovely came down on the wrong side of this issue. Thankfully, the bill failed to pass today in its initial reading. But this apparently had nothing to do with gender: Defense Minister Ehud Barak said blatantly that his objection had nothing to do with gender but is about his concern about the “damage to army hierarchies”.
In shifting the discussion away from gender onto other things, Barak has company. The former chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, Rabbi Moshe Ravad, who was connected to the Shahar program to recruit haredi Orthodox men to the army, said in his recent resignation over women’s singing that he “always relied on the fact that I could allow haredi men who enlist to maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and observe their faith.” The army’s decision to allow women to sing, he wrote, fails to “protect the beliefs of God-fearing soldiers”. Ravad, like many others, is trying to turn the exclusion of women into an issue of religious versus secular issues in the army and society. It is almost a veiled ultimatum, as if he is saying that the army has to choose between haredi soldiers and women singers. It’s easy to see where this is going. Women are going to be asked to move aside for the “larger” issue of haredi integration in the army. Thus far, the army has been on the women’s side, but it’s not clear how long the pressure will hold.
It is not only politicians, soldiers and haredim who have a gender problem; it’s also the media. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a story about women’s exclusion – and quoted almost exclusively male sources. (One woman, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, was the only female sources, brought at the very end of the article, after seven men.) Indeed, the Huffington Post published an article on the topic that did not have any women quoted at all. It’s easy for the media to point fingers at haredim, but they are at times clueless about what the exclusion of women really means.
Even among some activists leading the fight, there have been issues about staying focused on the issue of gender. In the Beit Shemesh rally in December, men completely dominated; ten men in a row got up to speak, leaving important women till the end. There was a clear sense that many speakers were climbing on an anti-haredi bandwagon that had nothing to do with gender issues. Some leading (male) activists have said explicitly that they are not really interested in gender at all (e.g., women’s exclusion in politics, economics or the media) but only the extent to which it connects to the “larger issue” of haredi power in Israeli society. For some of us, the “larger issue” actually is gender.
I don’t know why some people find it so difficult to get fully behind the issue of gender discrimination, why women sitting on the back of the bus is urgent but women earning 65 agurot on the shekel is not, why the status of women is only “interesting” if it is connected to something else deemed more worthy. When members of the government and the media stay on gender without slipping away into religion versus state or IDF power, when our leaders are willing to look at their own sexist practices and not just those in the haredi world, then I will know that change is truly in the air.