The New Yorker has a piece by Ruth Margalit on the gradual disappearance of women in Israel – not disappearance as in being murdered and buried in an obscure place, but disappearance as in not being allowed to appear.
In 2008, a thirty-year-old religious woman named Rachel Azaria headed a slate of candidates for city council. Her team had arranged to mount an ad campaign on the back of buses in the city that would feature her picture. In order to finalize the details of the campaign, Azaria called Cnaan Media, the company in charge of Jerusalem bus advertisements. “We’ve already had a schedule, we picked out the bus lines, everything,” Azaria told me on the phone this week. She was about to close the deal when the company’s salesperson casually told her: “I just want to make sure you know that we don’t show women on buses in the city.”
“I was stunned,” Azaria recounted. She hung up the phone, walked out to the street, and looked around her at passing buses. One featured an ad for a wedding venue. “It showed a groom, and a bouquet, and a set table—but no bride,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening. It was a gradual process in which women literally disappeared from Jerusalem.”
Azaria petitioned the High Court of Justice to force Cnaan Media to run the ads and, before the local elections, the judge ruled in her favor. Her face was plastered on the back of five buses, and she ended up winning a seat on the council, but the old restrictions soon resurfaced. Azaria also discovered that women were no longer appearing on Jerusalem billboards. During the months before the 2009 general elections, images of Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and leader of the Kadima party, were blacked out on posters across Jerusalem. In 2012, a credit-card company replaced the face of Gila Almagor, a renowned theatre actress, with that of a man in its Jerusalem ads. Honigman, a fashion brand, “adjusted” its campaign featuring the model Sendi Bar to show, in Jerusalem, only her torso. That year, posters for the Jerusalem Marathon portrayed only male runners—until public outcry caused the city to add images of women.
We have a similar thing in the US, except that it’s not (as far as I know) orchestrated or planned. We wouldn’t notice a woman being replaced by a man in a movie, for instance, because we’re so used to movies starring five men, with a woman or two in supporting parts. That’s normal. It’s normal on most tv shows. It’s normal on talk shows. It’s normal normal normal, so if some religious zealots got enough power to start deleting women systematically as opposed to just absent-mindedly not casting them and not inviting them – no one would notice.
Azaria, who is now the city’s deputy mayor and holds the women’s issues portfolio, says that the fact that showing images of women has become a public issue means that she has made some progress. She partly credits this growing awareness to the broader social-protest movement in Israel, started in 2011, which championed values of equal rights and personal freedom. But much of her support, she says, comes from Haredi women, who are tired of not being seen. Haredi women traditionally do not take part in politics, but now a group of Haredi women, The Mothers’ List, is seeking representation in the Jerusalem council. In fact, Azaria often has to argue with the city’s secular population, she says. “In the so-called name of multiculturalism, they tell me, ‘What do you care? That’s how the Haredim want to live.’ But I tell them that as a religious woman it affects me, that it’s a mixed city. There’s no separation here.”
Do they call her a racist?
A new book by Elana Maryles Sztokman called “The War on Women in Israel” also takes to task the secular population—which includes Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat—for not putting an end to the exclusion and suppression of women. “What is perhaps most surprising about the rising oppression of women in Israel is the ease with which non-ultra-Orthodox people and groups capitulate to ultra-Orthodox demands to erase women from the public,” Sztokman writes.
Ugh – it doesn’t surprise me. It’s all too familiar from other disputes between religious zealots and everyone else – most people are abashed about challenging the grip of religion.