Women in the IDF - Debunking the Myth of Equality

By Miri - 

"The army is the supreme symbol of duty and as long as women are not equal to men in performing this duty, they have not yet obtained true equality. If the daughters of Israel are absent from the army, then the character of the Yishuv will be distorted." 

David Ben Gurion
The above quote by Israel's first Prime Minister affirms the early leadership's commitment to sexual equality and attests to Israel's self-portrayal as "an example of a new and model society, founded on principles of justice and equality".
Jewish women had already played a role in the military before the foundation of the state, both in the British military's Auxiliary Territorial Service and in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation during the British mandate, which would later become the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Female members of the Haganah practice shooting, Israel, August 1948

After the foundation of the state, the Defense Service Law of 1949 established and institutionalised mandatory conscription for both men and women of a certain age, a notion that to many reaffirmed the egalitarian ethos of the new Jewish society in Israel.
Yet, the experiences of women in the Israeli army has shown that mandatory conscription by itself does not ensure full or equal participation and although the IDF has undergone significant changes in the past decades, it is still a male-dominated territory where heterosexual masculinity is the norm.


Unequal Division of Labour
"The best men to pilot school and the best women to pilots"
President Ezer Weizman 
 
Until today women compose only 32 per cent of the regular military, they serve a shorter term than men (2 years compared to 3 years) and for the most part are excluded from the most valued role in the military, i.e. combat service. As a consequence men gain significantly more social, political and economic capital through their service than women, who for the most part perform roles that involve the nurturing and support of the male soldiers, such as clerks, social workers, teachers etc.

The fact that married women and mothers are being exempted from the military service further shows that a woman's reproductive ability, specifically the birthing and raising of sons, is considered to be their most important duty and their primary mode of contribution to national survival. Ben Gurion's statement that "there is no destiny that is more important than motherhood" suggests that the military service is seen as potentially preventing women from fulfilling their most important duty, which in turn would lead to a decrease in the Jewish birthrate which would then constitute a threat to the "demographic balance" between Jews and Palestinians in Israel. 
Corporal S of the mixed Caracal Unit, who had shot a terrorist in 2012
The roles that women commonly fulfil in the military emphasise certain qualities that are usually regarded as specifically feminine. At the same time those feminine qualities are seen as incompatible with what is regarded as true soldiering, i.e. with combat.

In 1993 Alice Miller, a trained pilot, was not allowed to take the pilot's aptitude test on the grounds that women are not eligible for combat duty. Miller successfully petitioned the High Court of Justice and thereby opened the way for women to serve in combat roles. In the aftermath of the court success, President Ezer Weizman was quoted as directly saying to Miller: "Listen, missy, have you ever seen a young man darn socks?" Notwithstanding Miller's success, women obviously still struggle to get into and prove themselves in combat units.

As in many other male dominated areas, those few women who do succeed are commonly perceived as denying their femininity, a notion which commonly makes them less desirable for men. Men on the other hand affirm their masculinity and heighten their attractiveness to the other sex by performing the same roles. This is also reflected in media accounts, which usually emphasise the female gender of a combat soldier and which further often describe a woman soldier's professional ability as if it were achieved despite her femininity and sexuality.


Sexual Objectification of Female Soldiers

The inclusion of women into the military was also at least partly motivated by a belief that the presence of women would improve moral standards among their male counterparts. Edna Levy states that both "through formal lectures and informal social practices" women inductees learn "that one of their primary roles in the IDF is to 'soften' the brutal face of the military machine".Curiously the "softening" of the military is mainly achieved through the presence of the female body. The testimonies of women soldiers have shown that many saw themselves mainly as playing the role of "ornaments" of male soldiers. Army personnel, both male and female affirm that it is common practice to assign the prettiest clerks to the most prestigious units, thereby turning a woman soldier's outward appearance into a status symbol of the men in the unit. 

The sexual objectification of women soldiers is also reflected in media and increasingly in social media depictions of female soldiers. Images of pretty Israeli women soldiers, often scantily dressed, holding a rifle, and frequently in sexually suggestive poses successfully circulate on the internet and are even used for public relations purposes. In 2007 a collaboration between US men's magazine Maxim and the Israeli consulate used the images of semi-clad former women soldiers to improve Israel's image in the US. The fact that the Israeli state, Israeli society and the IDF largely tolerate if not support such depictions reaffirms the prioritisation of a female soldier's outward appearance, rather than her qualifications. In those cases where the IDF does step in and censor sexualised depictions of female soldiers, the army's main concern seems to be the dishonoring of the military, rather than the objectification of the female body of the soldier.


Sexual Harassment in the Army

Sadly, women who work in male dominated professions are still much more likely to become victims of sexual assault and/or harassment by their male colleagues, with military and police forces holding the record worldwide. Research on women soldiers in the US has highlighted that "the single main problem these female soldiers are reporting is their fear of harassment, rape and violence from the men who serve with them, with little, if any, protection provided by the army itself". Similarly, studies on Israel also suggest that 80 per cent of Israeli women soldiers have experienced some form of sexual harassment, with little public or official concern.


Conclusion

Despite its declining social status, military service in Israel is still seen as an essential rite of citizenship, a civic rite as well as a public obligation. The mandatory conscription for women thus establishes women as citizens, yet, as we have seen, not as equal citizens. Due to the high importance of the military within Israeli society the male bias within the military is reflected by the male bias of Israeli society at large. As such, the military nature of Israeli society works to preserve both racism and sexism in a society that has been mostly run by ex-army men.



For more information on the topic, check out New Profile, a movement for the demilitarisation of Israeli society.




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