What began with Naama Margolese, an eight-year-old Orthodox girl in Israel, and a handful of overzealous, ultra-Orthodox men who began harassing her has grown into an ongoing international discussion about women’s rights. Though I’m saddened that it took this event to start the conversation, I’m glad it is taking place. The issue of women’s rights, especially throughout the Middle East, is in dire need of our attention.
In most of the Middle East, being a woman means being a second-class citizen. For example, in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to vote, drive a car, or go outdoors without everything – including their hair, wrists, and ankles – covered. In Iraq, women cannot own property and inherit less than half of what their brothers do simply because of their gender.
“Honor crimes,” or the killing or injuring of a wife or female family member for alleged sexual misconduct, happen with alarming frequency throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Many women also battle domestic violence, which is not considered illegal in much of the region, and are denied access to education.
As the father of three daughters, these facts deeply disturb me. As an Israeli, I am proud to say – the disgusting incident with Naama Margolese notwithstanding that the Jewish state’s record on women’s rights is unparalleled. Women serve at the highest levels of Israeli government, including 24 who serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. (Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, was the third woman in recorded history to serve in such an office). Fifty-one percent of Israeli judges are women. Women serve in the Israel Defense Forces, including in combat and leadership positions.
Gender equality has existed from Israel’s inception. In 1951, three years after declaring statehood, Israel passed legislation guaranteeing women equality in work, education, health, and social welfare. In fact, Israel’s Declaration of Independence grants “all Israel’s inhabitants equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race, or gender.”
I am proud of Israel’s history of valuing women and that my daughters live in countries – Israel and the U.S. – where equality is written into law and respected in practice. And I know too that they take pride in the fact that Israel is the one country in the Middle East that respects them as individuals. In this area, as in so many others, Israel stands tall.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Chairman, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Australia