by Hanna Herzog
Gender inequality in Israeli society is manifested at all levels of life: scant representation of women in politics; a lower measure of participation in the labor market than that of men; a minority of women in positions of eco¬nomic and executive leadership; legislation which in many cases does not impart equal rights and/or confirms the state of inequality, and a gendered distribution of domestic functions (Azmon and Izraeli, 1993).
Gender inequality is even more salient in everyday reality; even in those areas where there is no discriminating legislation, and women have entrance into the public space, inequality nonetheless prevails. For instance, in spite of the reality of equal political rights for men and women, women's representation at the various centers of power is, at most, marginal.
Furthermore, even though discrimination against women in the job market is prohibited by law, inequality prevails, and income disparity between men and women in Israel has increased in recent years. In addi¬tion there is an over-representation of women in that section of the popu¬lation living below the poverty line. These facts, and others, point to the existence of a social-cultural reality of inequality, which proves even stronger than legislation.
Public and Private
Gender inequality is supported in Western society by the conceived sepa¬ration between private and public. An existence of two life spheres, the pri¬vate and the public, which are greatly distinguished from one another, is taken for granted. This distinction is accompanied by cultural assump¬tions, whereby each of the two spheres exists according to separate social¬ization principles, and is intended to fulfill different social functions. The accepted cultural assumptions are that the public sphere meets economic and political needs; it is structured on rational, matter-of-fact, and utilitar¬ian principles and is controlled by formal contractual social interactions. By contrast, the private sphere is the intimate area of life, regulated by princi¬ples of mutuality, compromise, concern and feeling. This distinction between the spheres is paralleled by the dichotomy between the sexes, within whose framework the home is conceived as the woman's "special¬ized" zone, while the public sphere is conceived as the male zone.
Such cultural assumptions continue to exist in Israeli society in spite of women's entrance into the public sphere. When these cultural assumptions are not neutralized, but women enter the public sphere, the result is that they are placed at a clearly disadvantaged position: they are conceived of as entering an alien sphere, and as unequipped with the requisite resources. In addition, they are still expected to be responsible for house¬hold management and for care of children. These ideas shape society's images of gender roles, and also, to a large extent, the gender's sexual iden¬tities. These concepts not only determine the two sexes' preferences, but are also turned into a factor impeding women's chances for promotion at work or in politics, as well as in their bargaining ability in the labor mar¬ket. In addition, such a role division produces woman's dependency on man, which is, among other kinds, economic.
The concepts of the separation between private and public — presented here in a high degree of generalization and simplicity — are concepts which characterize modern Western society; yet in Israel, they are juxtaposed with traditional ways of life and are encouraged and reinforced as a consequence of the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict. This affects the importance of the fam¬ily, and thus has a direct influence on women's status in Israeli society.
The Importance of the Family
On the surface, public and private spheres are equally valuable since they meet different needs and various functions. Yet in actuality there is a hier¬archy wherein the public sphere enjoys an advantage, and the family is subordinated to and dependent on actions taken in that sphere. The separation between private and public also corresponds to the traditional con¬ceptions of Jewish society, on the one hand, and Palestinian society, on the other (of course, given the variety and singularity of each of these societies and the sub-groups within them).
Yet unlike Western society, where the family's importance is in decline, the family in Israeli society (Jewish and Palestinian) still occupies a highly central place. Israel is a family-oriented society (Katz and Peres, 1986). Although changes occur in the structure of the family, the ethos of familism is still very strong. The importance of the family in Israel stems from the cultures of which it is comprised (Jewish and Arab), on the one hand, and from the Israeli-Arab conflict, on the other. 1
The Israeli-Arab conflict strengthens the Jewish family in that it is used as a connecting link between the collective and the individual recruited to military service, and at times of crisis, also to war. The women identified with the family (in the private sphere) are expected to furnish maximum support to "their men" and sometimes even sacrifice their dearest (spouse or children), in time of war. The shadow of war makes the family a partic¬ularly important factor. In Western society, the mother's main role ends when the children leave home, usually upon graduation from high school and going to college. In peacetime, the Israeli woman prolongs her role as a mother by two years, if she is the mother of daughters — and by three years (and more) if she is the mother of sons.
During these years, the woman's traditional roles are strengthened: con¬cern for the (soldier) daughter or son is expressed by washing and ironing the uniform, by preparing wholesome meals when the children are on vacation "in order to give them the taste of home," by baking cakes for the soldier to take with him/her on his/her return to the army, and by driving (all over the country) to visit the children at the military base. The family is conceived of as the most important support for soldier-children.
The army's need for legitimation, which the family grants, has increased in Israel since the Lebanon War, and has been reinforced much further since the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987. As a result, the cooperation between army and parents has been extended (parents' days, an increased number of ceremonies in which they participate, commanders' open-line to their appeals, and so on). Such cooperation - coupled by parallel negotiation for the limits of family interference - prolongs the duration of the family's func¬tion vis-a-vis the mature children, introduces new meaning into the life of the family (which otherwise might face a crisis following the children's leaving and the weakening of "ties" between the aging couple), and strengthens its importance for, and power over, its members, as well as over the society. The glorification of the family entails in turn a glorification of women's tradition¬al roles — and with them, the preservation of concepts of inequality.
Life in the shadow of war, apart from the impact of tradition, encourages the creation of families with a larger number of children than the average in Western countries, thus further increasing woman's dependency on man.
Palestinian Society in Israel
In Palestinian society in Israel, too, the family has gained additional rein¬forcement — beyond the traditional cultural origins — from the conflict, and this has sustained the dominant ideas about the inferior status of women. Due to its position on the margins of Israeli society, and in light of the barriers of cultural integration, the family turns to be the focus of both national and social solidarity.
The changes in women's status in Palestinian society originate in processes the society went through as a result of the conflict (Mar'i, Miriam, 1989; Mar'i and Mar'i, 1991). With the establishment of the State of Israel, the continuity in Palestinian society was broken. Nearly all political and organizational institutions collapsed, changes occurred in the eco¬nomic structure, and the social structure was shaken. The vulnerability of Palestinian men increased as a result of the loss of sources of income; of prolonged absences from home (for outside work); of exposure to a foreign culture and encounters with Israeli-Jewish women (whose behavior was strange to them); and mainly because of their dependency on Israeli rule and the threat it constitutes to national identity. In this traumatic state, Palestinians stuck to their cultural heritage. The central idea of "family honor" was given an additional dimension. Insecurity led to the tightening of social control over women. Control of women became the measure by which Palestinian society was able to preserve itself and maintain its special charac¬teristics. Its uniqueness vis-a-vis the Jewish society is expressed by its preser¬vation of traditional values, further emphasizing its significant identification with the Arab world surrounding Israel. The women were entrusted with the role of preserving Palestinian culture and passing it on, whereas the protec¬tion of their honor was used as a means of strengthening ethnic identity.
The high rate of unemployment among Palestinian citizens of Israel and the parallel pressure to raise the standard of living have caused increas¬ing numbers of Palestinian women to enter the job market. Due to mea¬ger employment opportunities in the village and low education stan¬dards, a considerable number of them pursue non-professional work. As a result, women work for low wages, in an economic market subject to vacillations, and/ or periodic jobs (such as agriculture), and are subject to the control of men (Ibrahim, 1993).
Parallel to that, a rise in women's education standards opened up new employment opportunities. However, it is worthwhile noting that tradi¬tional social mores still greatly restrict Palestinian women from going to The paucity of employment options in the Palestinian sector force women to com¬pete with men, who are obviously the preferred employees. The teaching profession, for example, which is "a feminine" pro¬fession in the Jewish section, is a "masculine" profession in Palestinian villages.
Integration in the labor market has opened up for these women a connection to women's organizations. The women, who were per¬ceived as keepers and passers-on of tradition to the coming generations, have turned into potential agents of social change. Adoption of modem lifestyles undermines the family's traditional struc¬ture. Until 1967, these processes were identified as processes of assimila¬tion in the Jewish society, and subsequently were confronted by strong opposition. After the Six-Day War, awareness of women's equality ceased to be "a Jewish" problem imposed on the Palestinians in Israel, and turned into a general problem shared by members of the Palestinian nation. At this turning point, a change was generated also in the Israeli Arabs' identity structure as Palestinians.
These facts, which eased the situation for women among some members of their own society on the one hand, forced them, on the other hand, into a con¬frontation with the Israeli government, which did not approve of the growth of the Palestinian identity. Indeed, the Israeli authorities were comfortable with the idea that women would remain at home and would not enter the public sphere, politics in particular. Paradoxically, the central government's interests corresponded with those of the conservative forces in the Palestinian community, who demanded that women know their place — home.
Hope from the Peace Process
The Israeli-Arab conflict is not the origin of gender inequality in Israel. It nevertheless constitutes a factor perpetrating this inequality, and even serves to a large extent to legitimize its continuation.
In the Jewish society, the conflict's centrality strengthens family rela¬tions and with them women's traditional roles; the emphasis on the conflict and on national duty serves as an efficient device to prevent engagement in the question of equality and defers women's demands for equality of rights. In the Palestinian society in Israel, the centrality of the conflict has turned the family into a symbol for the preservation of the national frame¬work and the consolidation of the inequalities between the sexes.
The peace process provides hope for a shifting of the elements which make the conflict the central issue. Consequently, it opens up certain per¬spectives for the society, forcing it to engage in issues related to women's status in the family and in the society at large.
1. The discussion is restricted to citizens of Israel alone. The impact of the conflict on the Palestinian family in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, particularly after the outbreak of the Intifada, requires a separate exploration (d. Hilterman, 1991; Peteet, 1991).
Azmon, Yael and Izraeli, Dafna N. Women in Israel. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
Hilterman, Joost R. Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women's Movements in the Occupied Territories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Ibrahim, Ibtisam. "The Cucumber Pickers" (Hebrew), Nogah 26, 1933, pp. 34-37. Katz, Ruth and Peres Yohanan. "The Sociology of the Family in Israel: An Outline of Its Development from the 1950s to the 1980s." European Sociological Review 2, 1986, pp. 148-159.
Mar'i, Miriam. "Palestinian and Israeli Arab Women in Light of the Intifada." Israeli Democracy 17,1989.
Mar'i, Miriam M. and Mar'i Sami Kh. "The Role of Women as Change Agent in Arab Society in Israel." Calling the Equality Bluff - -Women in Israel, eds. Swirski, Barbara and Sa fir, Marilyn. New York: Pergamon Press, 1991.
Peteet, Julie M. Gender in Crisis - Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.