Women activism and political impact

“Becoming political activists is extremely empowering.”

I heard this statement last night from Michal Barak, an Israeli lawyer who is among the founders of the new organization Women Wage Peace. Michal came to Cambridge with the Palastinian-Israeli social worker Samah Salaime Egbariya,  to discuss their experience of despair during the Gaza war last summer and to tell about their initiative of a women-led peace movement in Israel, which has gathered momentum towards the upcoming general elections in March.

Women wage peace is a non-partisan movement aimed at raising awareness among politicians and the general public of the need for a permanent peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. It gathers over 8,000 women who share a commitment for peace, if nothing else. WIthout offering a  specific solution to the middle east conflict, the organization invites citizens and politicians to engage in fruitful discussions and eventually negotiations for a peace agreement (rather than temporary settlement). I’ve been a member of this organization since the summer, and followed their activities, mostly online.

What is the value of women peace movement? This question has two parts: first, what is the value of women as political activists, and second, why found another non-partisan movement when decision-making is evidently centred in the parties and the parliament.

In reply to the first question, women activists said that they felt more at ease to express their view in feminine company, because the reaction of men to their ideas about politics, security and military issues was dismissive and impatient. They felt that despite the fact that there are leading women in Israeli politics, a woman is not taken as seriously as men. Often, women are not invited to debates on national security and politics (they take more active part in debates on social issues). A women-led movement would allow women to express themselves freely.

However, can we, and should we stretch this argument to say that women have a distinct voice in political debate, that is fundamentally different from men’s? Do they bring a different vision, shaped by their experience as women? I can easily think about women who were political activists for a variety of causes: first of all feminism and gender equality, but also racial equality, world federation, European peace, and much more. Would their action be more effective within a female-led group? Some women say that they feel more comfortable to express themselves among other women. While I can easily identify with this feeling, I strongly believe that the challenge remains to go out there and establish the feminine voice as a legitimate one in a mixed society, as a representative of a particular worldview and not of women as such. While there is nothing inherently wrong in a group of women calling for change, I am concerned by the argument that women feel more comfortable to act and speak out among women. This may perpetuate, rather than help overcome, their difficulties.

The answer to the second question, whether there is need for another peace movement, is, for me, more evident. Yes. In the current situation, an organization that groups people from different backgrounds, beliefs, religions and places, around a shared goal of peace, is doubtfully important. The growing despair in the Israeli public about possible solutions for the conflict calls for a grassroots movement promoting change. Yet for me the final test remains the movement’s ability to impact decision making in the parliament. Its activities should go well beyond the online sphere or the crossroads manifestations. As much as one wants to talk about change from below, the social protest of 2011 shows that effective change can only be attained within political institutions. Only when elected to parliament did the protest leaders have the power to influence socio-economic politics.

Last night was inspiring and encouraging. The women who decided to dedicate time and energies to promote peace deserve more media and public attention. But in my view, they deserve that not because they are women, but because their cause is right.

women wage peace

Reflections on feminism for the International Women’s Day

Today I listened to a special broadcast on the classical music radio channel. An orchestra of women played a concert for international women’s day. The presenter introduced the soloists and said that for the benefit of those listening to the concert on the radio, he’d like to add that the musicians tonight are “stunningly beautiful”, and the first violinist is a “charming redhead”.

In a few words, he managed to make the whole event rather pointless.

This seemingly innocuous episode symbolizes in my mind some of the greatest problems women have to tackle today in order to realize their professional aspirations. The musicians in this orchestra were evidently successful, ambitious and talented career women who managed in their own way to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and attain a respectable and possibly stable job that reflects their abilities. Nonetheless, on the very occasion when their achievements are supposed to be celebrated, they are confronted again with the same typical stereotypes. An orchestra of women becomes in the presenter’s complementing words a flock of artistic amazons, a band of beautiful sirens that gathered to bewitch the culture aficionados. When have we heard that the male first violinist is a very handsome young blond? What presenter in their good mind would compliment a male conductor on his elegant hair cut? It is of course unimaginable.

After the International Women Day, which to me was just like any other day, I am inclined to believe that our educational efforts should not be pointed primarily at convincing women that they are as talented as man. Instead, we should aim at changing the social conventions of femininity and ‘re-conceptualize’ women in men’s mind as equal human beings. Every girl knows that beauty can open doors (and get you free drinks). But for the benefit of society as a whole, and our own professional ambitions, we should all take part in this mental change and demand that women should not be immediately associated with the same old feminine attributes like beauty, motherly affection, tenderness, patience and more.

women's day

It may seem a matter of little consequence. But to my mind, the different attitudes of society to men and women remain a real obstacle even if the legal and formal limits to gender equality have been lifted. In academia, we see a tendency to consider women as better teachers, administrators, welfare officers, but less as cutting edge researchers. Women are encouraged to explore ‘soft’ topics like gender studies or social history. A successful historian told me once that as a student in the 1960s she realized that if she was to be a professional academic she must specialized in political history and not gender or cultural studies because these were too feminine. This statement reflects both on what was considered scientifically serious, and what was deemed appropriate for a women historian. Perhaps today the situation has changed, but on the road to gender equality, women still face many difficult choices rising from new options available in the private and professional dimensions of their life. Moreover, new freedoms come with new burdens. Women are required to take life-changing decisions about having and taking care of children in the most crucial years for career-building. Men are relatively free, and perhaps oblivious of these concerns. This should be changed.

The point is that while the role of women has changed and expanded, social conventions have not really changed accordingly. A better society depends not only on  women’s achievements, but on society’s in general. Gender equality regards men as well. There is still a long way to go, but the change cannot come from a celebration of women’s achievements. Change will come when the barriers of social convention will be lifted and both men and women will understand their different qualities, mutual concerns and common goals. Then we shall have an International Humanity Day, rather than 1 Women Day and 364 Men Day.