‘Liberal’ without gender equality

Published February 7, 2024
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy

EVER SINCE Israel began its offensive in Gaza, Israeli propaganda has produced social media content that shows the female soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces as models of liberated womanhood. Photos of Israeli women parading with their weapons often on tanks and other military vehicles are proliferating as Israel wants to show how they fight side by side with the men.

What is absent from this picture is the crackdown on women’s rights that has characterised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party-led government.

In the year preceding the Oct 7 attack, Israeli women’s groups were demanding attention towards how the government was determined to take away the rights of the women of Israel. Interviews given by leaders of women’s groups and even a former minister for social equality in the government preceding the current dispensation provided some insight into what life is like within a country, which is raining death and devastation on the people of Gaza.

In the months immediately following the Likud win and the coming to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli women so feared attacks on women’s rights that a large number of women’s groups came together to form a coalition to fight back. Among the factors that they found troubling was that out of 32 ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet only six were women and that two of the parties that had been included in the coalition were so orthodox and regressive that they did not want women to contest elections at all.

A part of the discrimination the women’s groups expected to face was mandatory gender segregation in public spaces. This is because members of the very far right that do not field women to compete in elections also refuse to use public transportation if women are present; they have long sought all public transportation to be completely segregated so that men and women are not in the same bus at all.

The women are also worried that laws would be passed allowing private businesses to ban women altogether, meaning that businesses that cater to the ultra-orthodox could prevent women from even entering stores they frequent.

Another tremendous concern is that the Likud party promises to provide more rights to the rabbinic courts that oversee the laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. The issue here is that some ultra-conservative interpretations of Jewish law say that women have no right of divorce at all. These interpretations say that a woman just does not have the right to divorce unless a ‘no-objection’ document is provided by the husband.

Naturally, in situations in which a woman wants a divorce, this document is not easily obtained. This means that women who have been separated from husbands for decades cannot remarry and are caught in a legal limbo if they want a religiously valid divorce. Naturally, changes made to divorce laws have the potential to have a huge impact on women.

A part of the discrimination Israeli women’s groups expect to face is mandatory gender segregation in public spaces.

The relatively low numbers of women in government has made many lifelong activists anxious about how decades of their hard work had just been erased with ultra-right parties finding room to discriminate against women so openly. Although Israel does not have a written constitution, the principles of gender equality are embedded in the law.

However, this is hardly enforced as can be seen in political parties that do not allow women to contest in elections. Many would argue that allowing such anti-women practices would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the government itself.

In September 2023, The Jerusalem Post indicated that a lot of the women’s fears had come true and Israel’s record on gender equality had become worse in the space of a year. The country fell from 60th to 83rd place on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index.

For all the boastful statements Netanyahu makes about Israel being a “start-up nation” there are actually very few women in senior positions in the tech sector. This is apparently true of the private sector at large where heads of companies in even middle to senior management are largely men. With the Likud government uninterested in following the principles of gender equality, it follows this discrimination is seeping into many spheres of governance and work.

All of this is important because so much of the pleas being made by the US in order to maintain support for Israel is that it is a liberal democracy, just like Norway or Sweden. However, judging from the positions taken by the people that make up the cabinet, it appears that the policies that the Likud-led government stands for even within Israel are hardly those that follow liberal principles. If anything, these policies should underscore the reality of Israel which was turning ultra-conservative even before the Hamas attack.

It is entirely possible that this coalition of ultra-orthodox retrogressive politicians that care little or nothing about equality have declared Palestinians more or less sub-human. If these discriminatory policies show that Israel is far from a liberal nation and has no inclination to champion equality of any sort, their assault on their own supreme court further establishes that they have at best a minimalist concept of democracy rather than any notion of separation of powers. The generative principle of Israel seems to be to wage a war which is what it is doing in the most bloodthirsty and illegal manner.

The trappings of democracy, courts, parliament, elections, etc, do not deliver democracy if they become simply a gift wrap for other uglier and more destructive notions. All they do is present a puppet show where all the audience is imagined as small children who do not grasp that there are strings attached to the puppets with invisible people controlling them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2024

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