Women: Israel vs. the Arab World

The recent Islamist ascendency in the Middle East has drawn attention to the inferior role and status of women in the Arab and Muslim countries as compared to their counterparts in the state of Israel. Precise comparative analysis presents certain difficulties. In democratic Israel, data about women is collected accurately and is widely available. By contrast, in Arab societies, statistical analysis is less precise because of the absence of a free press, free association, and an independent judiciary. Moreover, generalization regarding the countries in the Arab and Muslim world in the Middle East is difficult because they are now at different levels of development and religious expression.

Nevertheless, enough information is available to indicate the striking contrast between the state of women in Israel and in Arab states. The Arab countries lag behind, not only Israel, but other regions in the world regarding economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment of women.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 clearly states that the State of Israel "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex." Women participate in Israeli life in every way, in national and local politics, in administrative positions, in the judiciary, in the workplace, in the military, and in education.

Women have equal rights in voting and in ability to participate in politics. In the current Knesset, the national parliament, women comprise 20 per cent of the membership (MKs). They have chaired committees and have been speaker or deputy speaker of parliament. The three major parties, Kadima, Likud, and Labor, as well as some of the smaller parties, have guidelines for increasing the number of women in leadership positions. The leader of Labor in 2012 is a woman, Shelly Yachimovich.

Women play an important role in the courts. For many years at least one member of the Israeli Supreme Court has been a woman; one has been its president. Women now account over half of all magistrate and district court judges, and over 40 per cent of all layers in Israel are women.

Women have also been appointed or elected to positions of all kinds as government ministers, heads of political parties, mayors, local council members, state attorneys, and members of religious councils. It is mandatory for women as for men to serve in the military, (IDF), except that over 18 they serve for 2 years compared to 3 years for men. They account for over a third of all the IDF, and for about a quarter of its officers. In June 2011 a woman was promoted for the first time to the rank of major-general in the IDF.

Women now constitute about half of the total work force. Though disparities have been declining, on average women earn about two thirds of what men earn, and are less likely to be in higher paying professions. More women than men enter lower paying professions, such as teaching, secretarial work, and sales. Almost 60 per cent of employees in the civil service and the public sector are women, who fill most of the low-level positions. Over 40 per cent of women are employed in these sectors.

A survey in 2012 places Israel in eleventh place out of 59 developed countries regarding the participation of women in the workplace, and 24th regarding the proportion of women serving in executive positions; the number amounted to 72,600 in 2011. In the Histadrut, the federation of labor unions, it is a rule that thirty per cent of its leadership must be women.

Israeli women are the best educated women in the Middle East. Over half have gone to institutions of higher learning. About 60 per cent of university students and graduates are women. In the life sciences, particularly the biomed industry, women are more prominent than men; but the reverse is true in the field of engineering. Women constitute about a quarter of university faculty.

The major hindrances limiting parity for Israeli women arise over personal status, especially marriage and divorce. Marital affairs are handled by the rabbinical courts as a result of the arrangement reached in 1947 between David Ben-Gurion and the religious parties. The religious authorities operate on the basis of Torah law according to which a Jewish woman can initiate divorce proceedings but her husband must give his consent to make the divorce final.

Arab Israeli women have the same rights and privileges as Jewish women. They have the right to vote and to be elected to public office. Practices in Arab countries such as polygamy, child marriage, and female sexual mutilation are forbidden in Israel. A number of Arab women have been members of the Knesset.

The United Nations Arab Human Development Report of 2002, written by a number of Arab intellectuals, painted a critical picture of Arab society. The report indicated that "The utilization of Arab women's capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms, as evidenced by the very low share of women in parliaments, cabinets, and the work force... In some countries... women are still denied the right to vote or hold office. And one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write."

The Arab world is not a monolithic bloc as far as the political and civil rights and the role of women are concerned, and their situation has changed in differing degrees. One generalization is appropriate. As opposed to Israel, women in the Arab countries, largely due to the Islamic religion but also for political, economic, and educational reasons, still occupy a subordinate place in society. They face discrimination within the family and in marriage relations.

In the Arab world differences exist about veiling, stemming from both tradition and the Muslim religion. The Sharia, Islamic law, and tribal custom define the rules of social behavior for women as well as men in most Arab countries. Those rules have traditionally meant limitations on political and social freedoms, on the right to education and access to most occupations, and legal discrimination against women.

Women are not totally free to travel. They have difficulty in obtaining a passport. In some countries they are not allowed to travel alone, or have to get permission from their guardian. In Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive a car, all women must have a male guardian who has rights over and duties to them. His permission is necessary for women to travel outside their home. Women are in practice not involved in deciding on their own marriages.

By tradition, those rules have meant that Arab women marry at a young age to a man chosen for them. A husband can get a divorce even without agreement of his wife. The reverse is not the case. It is difficult for women to get a divorce. Women are handicapped in other ways. Polygamy is legal, though now infrequently practiced. Ritual sexual mutilation of women prevails in some rural areas. Honor killings of women for adultery still occur.

Social norms make it difficult for Arab women to have full legal rights. Women have been treated unequally in court, and have been deprived of equal shares of inheritance. In no Arab country do women have equal rights or have equal opportunities with men.

In the Arab Muslim Middle East, no woman has been a political leader or head of state. Until fairly recently, they have been devoid of political rights. However, they can now vote in national elections in most Arab countries.  The ability of Arab women to work also varies in the different countries. In some of the wealthier countries with rapidly growing economies, the number of women as business owners, especially as involves family businesses, and as teachers and scholars, is increasing. Women are being trained to work in these professions, particularly to work outside the home.

Attendance of Arab girls in schools varies widely. One study suggests that more than 40 per cent of Arab women are illiterate. While in Yemen the figure is about 55 per cent, in other countries literacy has been rapidly increasing. In a number of Arab countries the enrollment rate for women in college is larger than that for men; in Saudi Arabia it is almost 60 per cent of all university students.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women was set up in 2010. It remains to be seen if it will act on behalf of women in Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East to help them become full citizens with equal rights in their countries as is the case in Israel. Such action will change the nature of Arab societies.