Friday, December 09, 2011

Women's rights in Israel under assault 

The subject of a women's place in public dominated Israel's headlines this week after a series of incidents highlighted what some say is the growing repression of Israeli women.

The Israeli army, in which women have served since the establishment of the state, has been the focal point of the concern, as it came to light that religiously observant male recruits have walked out of ceremonies in which female singers have performed, claiming it offended their understanding of modesty.

There is a universal draft of 18-year-old men and women in Israel, though a strongly guarded practice allows religious men studying in seminaries an exemption. The current clash is between the army's tradition of gender equality and new, religious recruits who are asserting their values.

In addition, an incident involving Chany Ma'ayan, a professor of pediatric medicine at Hadassah University Hospital, made headlines when it was revealed that last September she was awarded a prize by the Ministry of Health but, following the directives of Deputy Minister of Health Ya'akov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and unlike the male winners of the same prize, was not invited to the stage to receive the award.

The episode caused Orthodox women, in particular, to express indignation at the growing extremism of religious men in public life.

"This was a public event involving a deputy minister of state," said Dr. Hanna Kehat, the director of Kolekh, an organization of professional religious women, in an interview with Israel Radio. "This is an incidence of gross discrimination, which is prohibited by law and it is difficult to believe actually took place. We are advancing at a rapid pace toward Iran."

In part, these events reflect a growing boldness on the part of religious figures in Israel. On the other hand, said Molly Malekar, the director of the Counseling Center for Women, in an interview with GlobalPost, "This is a backlash against the growing role of women in Israeli public life and recognition for women's causes."

"Two women now head major political parties [Tsipi Livni, head of center-right party Kadima, and Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich], and a third woman is poised to lead Meretz [a small left-wing party.] A woman is president of the Supreme Court and is specifically targeted by these elements. Women's issues have advanced significantly in society, even to the point where a former president is going to jail for sexual assault. So part of what we are seeing is an inevitable backlash to women's advancement. The backlash is not coincidental."


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