The success story – and ongoing struggle – of Israeli women

The success story – and ongoing struggle – of Israeli women

Israeli women face the same challenges as other women living in modern democracies – and that is something for which we should be grateful.

Today in much of the Middle East, women remain second-class citizens and positive female role models can be hard to find.

In Saudi Arabia, women remain prohibited from driving a car – although much has been made of the decree by the ‘reformist’ Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to lift this ban in 2019. Recently in Iran, young mother Vida Movahed was detained for a month for the “offence” of removing her head scarf. In Yemen, 25% of young women are illiterate, as opposed to 4% of young men. Stories of “honour killings” are all too frequent and in many countries, domestic violence laws are non-existent.

Meanwhile, young Palestinian girls – rather than looking up to positive role models – are being urged by Palestinian NGO Addameer to fawn over female terrorists. When they look for compatriots on the world stage they see Ahed Tamimi, 17 years old and currently in custody for incitement to violence against Israeli soldiers, next to Palestinian plane hijacker Leila Khaled holding court before the European Parliament.

But Israel is different. Women in Israel are prominent, active and visible. In 2009 Israeli researcher, Ada Yonath, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Like Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sri Lanka and India, Israel has had a female head of government, and Israeli women today occupy many of their country’s highest political and diplomatic offices.

Israeli women are also highly visible in the IDF as active defenders of the Jewish state. Like men, young women in Israel are called up for mandatory service and serve in a wide range of roles, including in leadership (Member of the Knesset Sharren Haskel told AIJAC last year about the importance of women serving in the IDF) . 2011 saw Israel appoint its first female major-general Orna Barbivay, while in 2014 Oshrat Bacher made history as Israel’s first female combat battalion commander. An estimated 90% of IDF roles are open to both genders and in 2017, Israel had 2500 women serving in combat roles in the military, with this number steadily increasing.

Gender equality – while still a long way off – has been a legislated aspiration in Israel since the establishment of the modern state.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence set out a lofty ambition for the the new state to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

This important clause was followed in 1951 by Israel’s Women’s Equal Rights Law, which was updated in 2011.

Then, 18 years before the #metoo campaign, Israel’s Law to Prevent Sexual Harassment was used to prosecute a high profile criminal case. Former senior Israeli minister and deputy chief of staff in the Israeli Defence Forces Yitzchak Mordechai was convicted of sexual assault against junior staff members. This conviction led other Israeli women with similar experiences to come forward.

Israel’s Law to Prevent Sexual Harassment recently marked its 20th anniversary. But rather than celebrating, Shelly Yachimovich, Israel’s chair of the State Comptroller Committee, led a discussion in the Knesset on ways to improve the law.

In Israel, as in many other modern democracies, there is still so much work to be done and the future is far from simple.

This week, to mark International Women’s Day, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released graphs highlighting areas of success and areas needing improvement.

Life expectancy for women in Israel is 84.1 years, compared to 80.1 years for men. And it is pleasing that 88% of women surveyed said they were satisfied with their lives and jobs.

In a trend that reflects other OECD countries, Israeli women are marrying and having children later. The average age of a Jewish bride in Israel is 26.1 year and the average age for a first-time mother in Israel is 27.6 years.

When it comes to women’s professional lives, there is progress to be made. In 2016, an Israeli woman expected to earn NIS 7633 (AUD$2800) on average a month, while an Israeli man earned NIS 11,664 (AUD$4300) on average a month.

While men did work longer hours – on average 44.9 hours a week for men compared to 36.9 hours a week for women – this did not fully account for the salary gap.

In Israel’s extremely successful hi-tech industries, women remain under-represented, making up only about a third of those employed.

There is a religious aspect to gender equality in Israel. Research conducted in 2016 by Pew Research Centre showed that 47% of Israelis continue to support the prohibition on women praying out loud at the Western Wall.

Debate also continues over whether there should be gender segregation on public transport; today, most Israelis (79%) oppose it.

According to Pew, a majority of Israelis support the ongoing responsibility of Orthodox authorities to preside over all Jewish marriages and divorces, but this does have an impact on gender equality when looked at through a modern lens.

In Israel, administering divorce remains the sole domain of male Orthodox rabbis. In order to obtain a divorce, an Israeli woman must have her husband’s consent. This remains an issue faced by Jewish women all over the world and continues to be interrogated to ensure women’s rights are protected.

Gender equality in Israel – as in all similar modern democracies – is a work in progress. Progress has been made though in the law, in the workplace and in the community, and that must be recognised in a region where so many women remain subjugated.


Naomi Levin