Last week a woman was harassed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus, in order – “God forbid” – not to be seen by men. This did not happen on the outskirts of Tehran, but rather on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
In nearby Beit Shemesh, eight-year-old Na'ama Margolis was assaulted for walking immodestly on the wrong side of the street, the side worthy of men only.
I have much respect for religion in general and for the Jewish religion in particular, but these phenomena have as much to do with religion as apartheid has with human rights. They are not only illegal, but a blatant form of discrimination and an assault on basic human rights and values. They place Israel in a dubious club of nations discriminating against women.
The Middle East as a whole is a case in point. In most countries of the region, women suffer as second-class citizens. It is a truism that the more women are liberated, the more they become part of the socio-political process of their country, the more advanced and democratic the country becomes, and vice-versa. As an example, I'd like to examine Tunisia on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia on the other.
Tunisia has since the days of its late president and nation-builder, Habib Bourguiba, granted women greater equality than most Arab societies.
Throughout the years, and continuing today, emphasis was placed on girls' education, including higher education; on women's participation in the market and the political process. As early as the '90s, about a quarter of the members in the Tunisian parliament were women. In most other Arab countries women have fewer than 10 percent of parliament seats. No wonder then that young women played a central role in the Yasmin Revolution, leading demonstrations and writing courageous blogs, such as that of the much applauded Lina Ben Mhenni.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, adheres to an ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam and has institutionally turned women into second-class citizens at best. It is a highly patriarchic society, in which women are practically enslaved to men – without the right to vote or even drive and with little employment and strict clothing restrictions.
The situation of women in most Arab countries is probably among the least advanced in the world, and is somewhere in between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, perhaps with the exception of Palestine (the West Bank), where the participation of women in the student bodies, as well as in the workforce and in the political struggle for independence, is very high, Hanan Ashrawi being a case in point.
The Arab Spring has brought in its wake greater liberation of Arab women – many of the leaders of the demonstrations throughout our region were women, such as heads of NGOs calling for the downfall of dictators, like Tawakul Karman, who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous resistance to the outgoing Yemenite regime.
This is also reflected in the growing participation of Arab women on social networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter, where one-third of active users are women, a proportion constantly on the rise. This is exemplified in the YaLa – Young Leaders movement I have initiated on Facebook, where 38% of the 22,000 members from Israel and the Arab world are women.
Women's rights movements have recently emerged even in Saudi Arabia, such as the Women2Drive movement.
While the situation in the region is still bleak, and the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood does not bode well for women, the trend is a rather positive one from a sad starting point. The Arab world as a whole is going through an unstable transition period with an amalgam of Islamism and liberalism; the position of women in society can serve as a compass as to where countries are headed.
Regarding Israel, historically we can pride ourselves on the role women played in our nation-building process. In all walks of life, with the exception of politics (despite Golda), women have played a leading role in institution-building, in culture, in academia, in the workforce and even in the armed forces. And yet, women have not reached full equality in our society. This is true in objective terms in unequal wages, under-representation in economic and business institutions and in gross under-representation in the Knesset and government (a sole woman minister).
This situation is even worse if we look at the basic male-chauvinistic attitude of Israeli men, derived from army and religion, as sadly expressed in the many cases of sexual harassment. To a large degree we are still a patriarchic society. This is probably the background for the lame reaction to recent events.
The situation in Beit Shemesh is abhorrent and committed by an extremist group of haredim, the Sikrikim, but we have witnessed further limitation of women in the public sphere, such as in relation to women's singing in ceremonies in military and civilian forums. Most alarming is the hesitant reaction of public opinion, with the exception of the media – only a few thousand participants in the Beit Shemesh demonstration last week, and the social protest movement of the summer was not awakened by what is obviously a blatant social injustice. The government, in turn, has at best paid lip service but dares not confront the haredi parties and Shas.
This situation poses a real threat to our democracy, especially alongside the legislation efforts against the Supreme Court, the Arab minority and freedom of the press, and the price-tag phenomenon of the extremist settlers, etc.
The women of Israel know that they cannot count on the men to remedy this. Therefore, at the front line of the struggle we should see women, as already exemplified by the statements of Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Zehava Gal-On, as well as our chief justice, Dorit Beinisch, and organizations led by women in the model of the “Four Mothers” organization that was instrumental in liberating us from Lebanon; the Machsom Watch women attempting to liberate us from occupation and the social protest movement which to a large degree was led by women. Democracy by women, for women.
The same should be hoped for the Arab world. 2012 may well become the year of women's empowerment. Important women such as Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton are leading the way to a more peaceful world. It should be hoped that the women struggling for democracy in Israel and the Arab world will also take an instrumental part in the long awaited peace negotiations in our region.
Yes, the women should be in the front!
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel's chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords