Excluded from politics, Orthodox women fight back

The next Knesset is expected to have a record number of women, but even that number — 31 out of 120 — isn’t all that impressive. ‘Either we do something now and fight for representation, or we will be silenced for generations to come,’ founder of ultra-Orthodox women’s party says.

By Angela Gruber

Jewish ultra-Orthodox women pray on a balcony in Jerusalem. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)
Jewish ultra-Orthodox women pray on a balcony in Jerusalem during an anti-draft protest. (photo: Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

If recent polls are to be believed, the next Knesset is set to achieve a historical record: the representation of women could be the highest in its history.

When you look at the actual numbers, however, the record is less impressive. Women make up half of the population but will likely control only 31 out of 120 seats — 26 percent. This number, however, is enough to outdistance the previous Knesset, which only had 27 female members, or 23 percent. Compared to parliaments in other countries, neither number is very impressive.

Haredi women speak out

Why is representation so low? The first answer is also a rather obvious one: as a rule, the three religious parties don’t let women run for public office on their slates: ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have never had any female candidates on their ballots. Ra’am, an Islamist dominated party now part of the Joint List, didn’t send any women to the Knesset either. Although these three parties together only held 22 seats in the last Knesset, their policy is not helping overall female representation.

There are, however, people who are trying to change that reality. Haredi woman Ruth Colian founded the first political party specifically for Haredi women this past year. U’Bezchutan (“By their own merit,” using the feminine form of the word in Hebrew) is supposed to represent all women who are struggling against Israel’s religious establishment, she explained.

“Right now, we Haredi women don’t have anyone in the Knesset to represent us. And I reached the point where I said to myself that either we do something now and fight for representation, or we will be silenced for generations to come,” Colian said.

The male-only Haredi parties do not take into account issues that are important for women, Colian said. “When the Knesset held a hearing about breast cancer, no male Haredi MK showed up,” Colian lamented, adding that ultra-Orthodox men consider the topic to be indecent and refuse to talk about it — even though Haredi women have a much higher breast cancer mortality rate than the rest of the female population.

With the formation of her own party, Colian goes even one step farther than other female Haredi activists who founded the protest group “Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot“ (“If we can’t be elected, we won’t vote for you”). Such female activism has resulted in severe backlash within the male-dominated Haredi establishment.

Rabbi Mordechai Blau, a senior member of the United Torah Judaism party, threatened to excommunicate Haredi women who didn’t support the current (male-only) political leadership.

In his statement, he even threatened that these women’s children would be excluded from educational institutions.

Still, Colian is determined to fight for political representation. “These men believe we don’t have any rights and treat us like we are children. But women have so many talents and contribute to society so much, it’s just not right to exclude us.“

But the problem of unequal representation of women is not just a peripheral phenomenon of the religious parties. It affects almost all parties, the makeup of the last Knesset shows.

The fours seats of Hadash and the two seats of Kadima were all occupied by men. Meretz had a 50 percent share of women (three out of six seats), followed by Yesh Atid (eight out of 19 seats), Balad (one out of 3 seats), Labor (four out of 15 seats), Jewish Home (three out of 12 seats), Likud-Beitenu (23 percent of 31 seats) and Hatuna (one of six seats).

‘Male domination is a thing of the past’

Altogether, there are five parties holding 28 Knesset seats that didn’t send any women to the last Knesset. Theoretically, if the parliament was only comprised of those parties that did include women, female representation would rise to 25 percent — constituting 30 seats — from the aforementioned 23 percent, or 27 seats. Not a considerable leap.

“We think about male-dominated spheres like this is a thing of the past, that happened 200 years ago. But we still have them today — and the Knesset is one such male stronghold,” says Tamar Zandberg, a Knesset member from Meretz.

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, MK Stav Shafir (Labor), MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) (left to right) at the Western Wall, March 12, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, MK Stav Shafir (Labor), MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) (left to right) at the Western Wall, March 12, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

To ensure equal female representation, Zandberg’s party has a quota on its election slate, which she said she supports. Otherwise, she explained, things will not change. “This is about power and men don’t give it up voluntarily. Every women that is elected means one less man.”

Zandberg reached her spot on the list without being bumped up to spots reserved for females. But still, she says, the quota is necessary: “I didn’t need the quota this time, but last time it helped me get elected.“

“If there were more women in the Knesset, the decision making would be totally different. Men have a whole set of issues they don’t take into consideration,” Zandberg explained.

“When the government cancels school due to a military operation, for instance, most men wouldn’t think about ensuring that parents can take a day off work to look after the kids,” she continued.

To drive the point home, Zandberg recalled an incident in the Knesset when a male minister ridiculed a draft law for gender-neutral signs and governmental forms, making jokes by talking in broken Hebrew. “Most men simply can’t understand how it feels to be part of a minority somewhere.”

It’s not just niche issues that women could positively affect, Zandberg believes. “The peace process, administrated mostly by men, has come to a dead end. Diversity, not just gender-wise, is important now for another way of thinking and outside-the-box ideas that change the paradigm.“

Haneen Zoabi disagrees. More women wouldn’t necessarily mean change, she says. Zoabi is a Knesset member for Balad and, in the upcoming elections, is running on the Arab Joint List.

“The main question is what kind of values you hold as a human being. A woman will not oppress me in a different way than a man“, Zoabi said.

MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Unlike other parties on the Joint List, Balad has established a quota of 33-percent women on the list. But Zoabi agrees her community still has some work to do. “It’s a gradual process and I believe the younger generation will not accept a lack of women on our lists anymore.“

A media bias?

In the media, some stereotypes prevail, says Lahav Harkov, Knesset correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Harkov said she does not believe female MKs are generally covered in a sexist way by the media, nor does she feel that she is treated differently from her male journalist colleagues who cover the Knesset.

Nevertheless, female candidates or MKs were still more likely to be interviewed at home and to be asked about how they juggle their kids and career, Harkov adds. “Men just don’t get these kinds of questions.”

Some female candidates even try to turn the prevailing sexist tropes into an advantage for them, Harkov recalled. One the other hand, she said, there are female Knesset members like Yisrael Beiteinu’s Orly Levy, who managed to completely shift public attention from her former career as a model toward the issues she is committed to as a parliamentarian.

Nevertheless, Harkov believes that women are more reluctant than men to enter politics in Israel because even today there’s a danger of being pigeonholed and put in a catch-22 situation. “If you’re tough, they say you’re too tough, and if you’re soft, they say you’re not a leader.”

Angela Gruber, 26, is a German journalist, blogger and intern at +972 Magazine. She’s a scholar for the “trialog of cultures” scholarship of the German Quandt foundation and reports from Israel. Follow her on Twitter: @netzkolumnistin.

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