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Welcome, nine women ministers in the government and 34 women Members of Knesset (MKs) in the new Knesset. These are welcome signs for the future of women’s rights in Israel. Or are they? Research I conducted on the Knesset of 1992, and with my research assistant Lavi Melman on the 18th Knesset (2003 when 21 women were elected), reveals that ideology, namely feminist ideology, matters possibly more even than the numbers when it comes to women’s rights or issues linked to presumed women’s interests.

We wanted to see if the unusually large number of women elected to the Knesset in recent years made or might make a difference. Our findings were mixed. With more women in the Knesset, mainly from the centre party Kadima, there were indeed more proposed bills concerned with women’s rights or women’s issues. Barring the fact that all issues should also be examined from the point of view of gender differences and implications for women, we sought to analyse bills clearly and directly linked to what we termed women’s interests. Research abroad had found that parties with liberal or leftist ideologies performed well on issues of women’s rights. A centre party, professing liberal values, and leftist parties that clearly championed human rights, did well on the scale of women’s rights, no matter how many members of parliament they had.

In the past, this turned out to be the case for Israel, as well. In the 13th Knesset (1992), only 11 women were elected but combined with MKs from Meretz and Hadash, the number of legislative proposals regarding women actually tripled. Feminist ideology, notably on the part of Meretz MK Dedi Zucker, led to more proposals than those from various women MKs. This phenomenon was clearly repeated in the 18th Knesset, with its 21 women MKs, and also a relatively large number from the centre party, there was an overall increase in the number of bills regarding gender.

However, a closer examination revealed that many such bills came from ideologically motivated MKs, whether from the right or, more naturally, the left. Most women MKs, despite their relatively large number, proposed almost no gender-related bills, with the expected exception of the Likud woman chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women Tzipi Hotovely (who neither before nor since exhibited any tendency toward feminism), or feminist Meretz leader, Zehava Gal-on. More to the point, however, was the fact that feminist males, Dov Hanin of Hadash, and Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, from leftist-human rights parties, scored quite high on what we called gender legislation (along with Shlomo Molho of Kadima).

While this does not necessarily indicate a hard and fast rule, the comparison of large and relatively small numbers of women MKs in past Knessets and the legislations proposed does suggest a strong role for ideology, regardless of gender and possibly even regardless of the number of women MKs. The ideology of the party appears critical, as it did in studies abroad. Right-wing women could be feminist, as many were in the 1992 Knesset; indeed, Likud members like Limor Livnat had come through activism in the Israel Women’s Network and could positively compare their feminist credentials with those of Meretz MK Dedi Zucker, for example.

We might hope that the large number of women MKs today will contain more than the declared and active feminists like Merav Michaeli, Michal Rosen, Tamar Zandberg and Gaby Lasky, all members of parties that champion human rights and advocate a feminist ideology. Along with women feminists like Aida Tuma Suliman and some of her male colleagues from Hadash (though not necessarily the other parties in the Joint List), they can certainly make a difference for the status and well-being of Israeli women and gender equality. Given that women constitute over one-third of the new Knesset, it is cause for optimism, but it is no guarantee in itself. Male and female MKs of the feminist persuasion are what is needed if we hope to see gender equality in the country. So we, the electorate, must demand and expect all the women, if not all the MKs, men and women alike, of the new Knesset bills promoting gender equality.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy