Palestinian-American “feminist” activist Linda Sarsour was widely criticised recently after risibly suggesting in an interview that Zionists can’t be feminists. Though Sarsour’s credibility on this issue was fatally undermined by (among other decidedly illiberal positions she’s taken) tweets in which she actually defended Saudi Arabia’s feminist credentials, she’s hardly alone in leveling such smears.
A tendentious and one-sided article published today at the Observer (sister site of the Guardian) doesn’t go as far as Sarsour, but does hyperbolically suggest the rights of women in Israel are being eroded to the point where democracy itself under threat. The article (Banned and barred, Israel’s women stand up to religious hardliners, March 19th) is particularly biased in that the author, Emma Graham-Harrison, doesn’t even attempt to give the other side of the story, failing to acknowledge the country’s overall success in protecting the rights of women.
Here are Graham-Harrison’s examples of rampant oppression.
Over the last decade in different parts of Israel, women have been barred from sections of buses, banned from speaking at cemeteries, blocked from pavements, physically attacked for their clothing choices, airbrushed from newspapers and magazines and removed from the airwaves and news photos.
Though the Guardian journalist later grudgingly concedes that courts have often struck down discriminatory measures, she fails to provide details.
Here they are:
- A 2011 court ruling abolished mandatory gender segregation on public buses operated by a small number of bus lines.
- In 2012, the Israeli Religious Services Ministry instructed burial societies across Israel to allow women to eulogize after some women complained that staff had prevented them from eulogizing at loved ones’ funerals.
- In the case women being barred from an utlra-orthodox radio station, not only was that practice ended years ago, but an Orthodox feminist group successfully sued the station in what was characterised as the biggest class-action lawsuits in Israeli history.
- The women “blocked from pavements” comment likely refers to modesty signs in the town of Beit Shemesh which were removed after a ruling by a Jerusalem district court.
- The physical attacks on ‘immodestly” dressed women – alluded to in the article – are widely condemned, including by ultra-orthodox politicians.
- The few marginal Haredi newspapers which airbrush women from photos are of course widely ridiculed in Israel for doing so.
In other words, both Israeli law and popular sentiment stand in opposition to the misogynist acts of a section of the ultra-orthodox community. Moreover, what Emma Graham-Harrison didn’t present is the big picture, failing to explain that Israeli women are represented in every sphere of public life – in government, the legal system, media, military and civil society. According to Freedom House, women “have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society”. A study by the World Economic Forum concluded that Israel is the best country in the Middle East and N. Africa for women’s rights.
Though, as in most Western nations, problems do exist in gender equality, women in Israel represent half of the country’s judges, hold just under 50% of all academic posts and make up nearly a third of all business executives.
In terms of the Israeli political system, the current Knesset has the highest number of female parliamentarians ever – a higher percentage than in the US Congress. (Interestingly, the number of Orthodox MKs actually decreased by nine seats from the previous Knesset.)
In the social realm, Israeli abortion laws are among the most liberal, and women in same-sex relationships enjoy the freedoms afforded to them as citizens of a country with an undeniably impressive record on LGBT rights.
Whilst nobody would deny that there are tensions in the state between the socially liberal sentiment about gender held by most and the regressive views held by some religious leaders, the Guardian fails to provide relevant context and hysterically frames these challenges as nothing less than a threat to democracy itself. This journalistic failure is especially egregious since Graham-Harrison previously served as the paper’s Pakistan editor, and so should be well aware of the difference between the status of women in liberal democracies like Israel and countries in which disturbingly violent manifestations of misogyny are common and in fact ingrained within the culture.
Though the Guardian article, we should note, also erroneously claims that the Western Wall is Judaism’s holiest site (The Temple Mount of course holds this designation), this one factual error pales in comparison to the larger obfuscation of Israel’s overwhelmingly positive record in the area of women’s rights.
(Note that Guardian editors did not allow comments below the line of Emma-Harrison’s article.)