by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
“No Joke,” tweeted Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, “the UN just condemned Israel as the world’s only violator of women’s rights, backed by votes of council members Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen.”
Of the 40 countries that condemned Israel in a July 2019 United Nations (UN) resolution, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen ranked as the worst offenders of gender equality in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report. Neuer later wrote, “When you have Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen accusing Israel of violating women’s rights, you are in the theater of the absurd.”
Far from being a violator of women’s rights, Israel stands alone as a beacon of light in a region where women are often treated as second-class citizens and forced to the sidelines of public life.
The reality for women in the Arab world is that their rights are abysmal, often nonexistent. Under Sharia (Islamic) law, a woman’s testimony is equal to only half that of a man. She must remain veiled and is under the control of the male members of her family, unable to work, travel or study without their permission. A nine-year-old girl is considered eligible for marriage, and genital mutilation and domestic abuse are rampant. Often, women are imprisoned for removing their headscarves in public or voicing their desire for equal rights.
Rather than deal with the real roots of oppression in Palestinian society, the Palestinians (and the UN) prefer to blame Israeli “occupation” and turn a blind eye to the impact on women’s rights by the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria and Hamas in Gaza. The challenges that Palestinian women face are deeply rooted in a patriarchal society where gender-based violence is systemic, women are governed by male members of their families and honor killings continue. Recently, a young Palestinian woman was murdered by her family for appearing in public alone with her fiancé.
In marked contrast, the Jewish state is the only place in the Middle East where women enjoy full rights. Though still a work in progress, gender parity in Israel far outranks all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa listed in the 2019 SDG Gender Index. Israeli women—both Jews and Arabs—are making a difference in their various spheres of influence, holding high-level positions in politics, science, healthcare, business, high tech and the military.
From its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel enshrined women’s rights into the Israeli Declaration of Independence, ensuring the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
It was a lofty order, but for the most part, Israel has adhered to that principle, continuing to work toward complete equality in every aspect of society.
Israel was the first Western nation to have a female head of state, electing Golda Meir as the fourth prime minister of Israel in 1969. Meir paved the way for more women to step into political roles, and dozens have served in the Knesset (Parliament) during modern Israel’s relatively brief 71 years. According to a report by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Dafna Fund released in March 2018, 29% of the previous Knesset representatives were women, including a number of Arab women, more than were elected to the US Congress in the same time period.
Forty-four percent of all registered lawyers in Israel are women, as are 51% of Israel’s judges and 30% of Supreme Court justices.
From the moment of statehood, Israeli women have served shoulder-to-shoulder alongside their male counterparts defending the Jewish state. That unique situation continues today. Mandatory military service applies to Israeli women as well as men, with women eligible to serve in over 90% of military positions. Women serve in some of the finest and most formidable units in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As one female combat soldier framed it: “We serve on the frontlines; we don’t serve coffee.” During Operation Protective Edge, it was a female officer who foiled the infiltration of 13 Hamas terrorists into Israeli territory.
In 1951, Yael Rom became the first female pilot in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the first of five women to become pilots in the IAF’s early years. Rom continued to advocate on behalf of women in the military, engineering and technological spheres. The first female jet fighter pilot graduated in 2001, and the first female major-general in the IDF was appointed in 2011.
The World Jewish Congress reported in 2019 that Israel has the world’s highest level of female entrepreneurship. Fifty-nine percent of women are in the workforce with more than 100,000 women in Israel’s high tech sector. Women also occupy over 30% of administrative positions in top Israeli companies.
The high percentage of women holding top-level positions is largely because of Israel’s excellent education system. Almost 60% of graduate and post-graduate students are women. A majority of women also make up the Arab student population. Though wage parity between men and women is still a challenge, things are changing for the better with dozens of Israeli NGOs advocating for women’s rights within Israel. Israel is also assisting Yazidi women who endured terrible suffering under the Islamic State by training Christian and Yazidi female leaders in mental health and posttraumatic stress disorder counseling.
Since pre-state Israel, women have played key roles in the development of the Jewish state, building homes, plowing fields, defending the ramparts during war and doing double duty as mothers and nation builders. Israelis continue to defend women’s rights in the Middle East, often drawing upon their own history of trauma as they help to alleviate the injustice suffered by women in the nations around them.
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