By Avital Stahl, Israel.
Feminism, and specifically its latest waves is often strongly connected to progressivism and radical social change. religion, is strongly connected to traditionalism and stagnation. When looking at today's burning social issues- LGBT rights, equality between the sexes, gender norms or abortions, it seems pretty obvious that feminism and religion can't really go hand in hand. To a certain extent this is a true statement, but if growing up in Israel- which is both a liberal democracy and a country with deep rooted religious connection- has taught me one thing, it’s that seemingly incompatible ideologies can go together, and surprisingly well.
From the very beginning, Israel was a state that saw equality as an important societal value. starting out as a somewhat socialist state, made up mostly of kibbutzim (collectivist communities that were traditionally based on agriculture), women and men worked the fields equally. Children were placed in communal children's home where they spent most of their time away from their parents, so as not to disturb the woman's work. From the official foundation of Israel in 1948, women had voting rights. Equal pay laws were put in place in the early 1960’s. abortion was largely legalized in the 1970’s and anti harassment laws were put in place in the 1990’s, before many European countries. Both men and women in Israel have to serve in the military, and by the early 2000’s 85% percent of army jobs were open to both men and women, making the IDF the most equal military of any country in the world.
This is not, however, to say that Israel has no problems. As the country became more institutionalised, and more people started immigrating in, the bigger religious communities became and the more push there was for religious legislation. Because of this, LGBTQ marriage is forbidden in Israel, and marriage is only done by religious courts, depending on your religion. For Jewish women, a divorce cannot happen without the man's agreement, leaving some women unable to remarry as their husband refuses to give them the divorce unless his conditions are met. This is the complexity of Israel, the variety of opinions and needs means always having to compromise, creating a state which simultaneously puts forward women as equal participants in the workforce and mandates oppressive religious law on women regardless of their wishes. Israel is an unusually diverse country, whose citizens range between super secular to ultra religious. As a society, we've been able to look at the interesting effects that the feminist movement has had on different parts of society.
Secular groups in society have taken on feminism similarly to the general Western world, creating strong feminist groups online, organizing large scale women's marches, advocating for women's issues in parliament and normalizing feminism in Israeli culture. Very religious societies in Arab, Muslim, or ultra orthodox communities have unsurprisingly rejected feminism (though funnily enough, in ultra orthodox communities, women work while the men study the scriptures).
Although both of these more extreme communities have reacted to feminist issues in fascinating ways, in my opinion, the really interesting effects of feminism can be seen when looking at moderately religious societies. Over the past two decades, more and more religious individuals have been pushing for women’s inclusion in religious life- having women give classes to the congregation, educating more young girls on a variety of religious texts, and even allowing women to read out Torah portions, all things that were seen as strictly male territory not even 20 years ago. Groups and NGOs supporting religious feminists have become popular, and identifying as ‘feminist’ less taboo. Observant women are finding new ways to feel empowered while still staying true to their religion, for example the practice of hafrashat challah (blessing over dough used to make traditional bread), now seen as a group activity that celebrates feminine religious power.
The everyday practices of Jews today are based mostly on commentary on the Bible rather than the Bible itself, and different people may follow different commentary. Nowadays, groups of women are studying religious texts and writing new commentary that provides a female perspective and mandates more religious freedoms to women. Some of these commentaries are very widely accepted (like commentary on that allows free use of contraceptives and commentary that allows fertility treatments) and some are still largely pushed away for being too progressive.
To me, this is completely revolutionary. Women are actually changing sexist religious practices by educating themselves and providing compelling reasoning for change, based on the very texts that used to oppress them. The ability of women to create such change is largely unheard of in Abrahamic religions. I believe that this unique power that religious Israeli women have stems directly from the diversity in opinions of Israelis. The range of religions, beliefs, values and cultures have made Israel the opposite of an echo chamber- a place where different ideas are constantly being shared and discussed. Being inspired by representation of both religion and feminism in parliament, in media and all around them, religious individuals have taken it upon themselves to create feminist solutions for their communities where it once seemed impossible.
There is still a lot of sexism and inequality in Israeli, and specifically in religious communities, but the variety of Israelis has allowed for a trickle down effect of the feminist agenda, creating unlikely mixes between traditional and progressive ideas.
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