Meet the Women’s Network fighting gender segregation in Israel

Ben Winsor
on January 10, 2020


J Street is proud to stand with pro-peace Israeli organizations who do amazing work to create a better future for Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and Palestinians. As part of a series of profiles focused on our progressive Israeli partners we spoke with Michal Gera Margaliot, Executive Director of the Israel Women’s Network, a group which has spent decades fighting for equality in Israel.

Staff of the Israeli Women's Network

Staff of the Israeli Women’s Network

 

Last August, a high-profile case of gender segregation made it to Israel’s High Court.

An ultra-Orthodox concert at a public park in Afula was planning to split the public amphitheater into screened off sections for men and women — a decision which was challenged in court for contravening the principles of equality and human dignity under Israel’s Basic Law.

Ultimately, the High Court ruled that the segregation was a violation of human dignity, though the judgment was only handed down as the concert itself was ending. But for the group which initiated the litigation — the Israeli Women’s Network — the case was only the latest front in an ongoing battle.

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In public events, business settings, academia, politics, sports, police and the military, the Israel Women’s Network has been fighting the increasing exclusion and segregation of women. Several libraries and public spaces have instituted separate times and spaces for men and women, political billboards featuring female candidates have been blocked from religious towns and women have been barred from educational courses at several institutions.

“At the moment, we see that phenomenon of women’s exclusion is spreading, and our battle is to stop the expanding and then to try and narrow down as possible,” says Michal Gera Margaliot, Executive Director of the Israel Women’s Network in an interview with J Street. “In our opinion, it’s one of the meanest threats regarding our presence in the public sphere — men are in the center and women are marginalized.”

The non-partisan women’s network, which has been fighting for equality since 1984, views it as one of their core missions to ensure that Israelis connect the dots on segregation — seeing each instance not as an isolated concession, but as part of a larger phenomenon that poses real danger to women’s participation in Israeli society. 

“The hotline set up by Israel Women’s Network has received dozens of calls from both women and men, reporting gender segregation in public domains as well as complete exclusion of women from courses and cultural events funded by taxpayers’ money,” reported Elinor Davidov, who runs the network’s segregation project. “They call after a sign, a security guard or just a man walking down the road has prevented them from entering a certain street, sitting at the front of a bus or visiting the public library simply because they are females.”

Fighting for equality

For decades, the Israel Women’s Network has been fighting in the courts, working with political allies and marching on the streets to combat discrimination, pass workplace equality legislation, reduce domestic violence and promote women’s equality and participation in all areas of public life.

Senior staff in the organization have backgrounds in law, politics and media — with a strong focus on legal advocacy. “We work with the decision makers, the Knesset, the government and within the courts to promote gender equality and make Israel a better place,” says Gera Margaliot. “We have partners in every single party.”

The group has worked to combat gender segregation and restrictions in the IDF, partnered with progressive allies including Standing Together to rally for increased resources to address domestic violence, set up a harassment and discrimination hotline for Arab and Haredi women and won landmark legal cases in support of equal pay. 

The Israel Women’s Network has been fighting since 1984, when it was formed by a group of women from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

It’s a fight that many see as core to their vision of Israeli identity, with the Israeli Declaration of Independence standing out as one of the world’s few founding documents to explicitly reference gender equality in calling for “the complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

The network has an approach which, similar to J Street, matches grassroots momentum and sentiment with political savvy and behind-the-scenes work to solidify real policy changes. “When there is a wave, we want to take it and to make it bigger and to make sure that we’ll have actual influence on reality, on policies,” Gera Margaliot says.

“That’s what we did with the ‘Me Too’ movement,” she says, pointing to the outpouring of anger and revelations across Israeli society which rose in parallel with a renewed focus on harassment and discrimination around the world. “We are making sure that what is coming up from the grass-roots — what’s growing bottom up — will also make a change in policies and budget priorities.”

A political challenge

In Israel, where politics is not only split between left and right, but between religious and secular, the issue of women’s participation is becoming an increasingly hot button issue.

“We’re not in Iran, this is the state of Israel,” said deputy Blue and White leader Yair Lapid, denouncing the Afula concert’s gender segregation. “You’re right, this is not Iran: This is is a Jewish state,” retorted Aryeh Deri, co-founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, accusing Lapid of “incitement” against the ultra-Orthodox.

But although Orthodox communities are often the source of current attempts to marginalize and segregate women, Gera Margaliot rejects the framing of the current situation as a battle between religious and secular Israelis.

“Every few months I receive a phone call from an ultra-Orthodox woman who wants to thank us,” – Elinor Davidov, Director of the Women’s Exclusion Project

“There are certain political powers that they’re saying it’s out of religious reasons, but it’s not,” she says. “It’s political reasons that they want to maintain the traditional setting of men and women and where they belong, and they want that in order to get more political power — it’s a political issue from start to finish. It’s about political power. It’s about control.”

The Israel Women’s Network has sought to promote voting turnout and a focus on women’s issues in recent elections, but they face a political landscape in which women’s voices are increasingly marginalized. Women’s representation in the Knesset is down from previous years and the country’s largest secular parties are dominated by all-male leadership teams.

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A better Israel, not just for women

As the most high-profile women’s group in Israel, Gera Margaliot says the Israel Women’s Network’s key to success is working with allies and coalition partners toward a shared vision of a better Israel — and against the forces pushing to take Israel backward.

Weeks before women were forced into separate areas of the concert in Afula, the municipal government had attempted to ban Arabs from entry to the park — an attempt which was overturned after a legal challenge from the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights.

“They fight against feminism and they fight against equality and they fight against worker’s rights and they fight against LGBTQ rights and they fight against the two state solution,” Gera Margaliot says of the shared struggle of Israel’s progressive groups. “It’s the same exact forces that fight all of the spectrum of these subjects.”

It’s a vision of solidarity that aims to include groups across society — from Haredi women to Arab women to men themselves. “This is something that we all need to fight, men and women,” Gera Margaliot says. “Feminism is not a movement of women against men. It’s a movement to make the world a better place.”

“What I believe is that a feminist attitude and feminist policies will better the life of everybody, because woman’s rights are human rights,” Gera Margaliot says. “Feminism is all about equality and dignity and welfare. So in my opinion, of course, this changes the lives of all people and groups for the better.”

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