Feminism. Women’s rights. Gender equality. These are not new terms or values, but recent events have thrust them into the limelight again. Women’s status in society has been hotly debated after the social justice protests were begun by two women last summer; since the gender discrimination incidents in Beit Shemesh; and following clashes of values between female soldiers and ultra-Orthodox men in the IDF.
In late March, Israel held its first “Slutwalk” in Tel Aviv — a tradition that began in Toronto after a police officer casually stated that girls who dress provocatively were “asking” to be victimized. “Slutwalk” is similar to the “Take back the night” movement that is popular on US college campuses, in which women and men hold rallies protesting rape, and by doing so reclaim control over their bodies and sexuality.
In the US, women’s freedoms have also recently garnered fresh attention. In March, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” for appearing before Congress to argue that health plans should include birth control. The incident, informally referred to as “Slutgate,” raised questions about women’s control over their reproductive rights. People from around the country called into radio shows and wrote opinion pieces in an effort to describe what women’s liberation means to them.
Yet while women have made significant strides in some parts of the world, in other areas they are routinely subjected to honor killings, denied food if they don’t pleasure their husbands, and attacked for trying to educate themselves. In the face of obdurate repression, contemporary feminists do not necessarily have the same motives, or appearance, as the feminists of the Western sexual revolution. Take Tawakkul Karman, one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Noted for her brave, nonviolent advancement of women in peace-building efforts, she is a modern feminist — traditional, devout, and veiled.
In honor of the women who have sacrificed for peace and progress — and in honor of Passover, the Jewish holiday of freedom and liberation — here are five programs in Israel that, each in its own way, add to the advancement of women from all walks of life.
1. Comme Il Faut (French for “like it should be”) is an Israeli fashion house owned and run by women. Some 80 percent of the employees are women and it was voted the Ethisphere Institute as one of the 150 most ethical companies in the world in 2012 — one of three fashion stories selected. Why? Because of the “ethos of the company,” which works to promote women, endorse sustainable manufacturing and support the local workforce, said Revital Madar, a company spokesperson. Comme Il Faut donates 10 percent of its profits to community groups and also buys back clothing from customers each year (around April 1) and either resells them and donates the profits or gives the items to the needy.
More of an experience than a store, Comme Il Faut’s flagship boutique at the port in north Tel Aviv features a spa for women; a secondhand book shop — with texts that deal with four topics: fashion, sex, art, and thoughts; a clothing, accessories and textiles store; a cafe; and a sex accessories shop. The warehouse-like venue also provides local female designers and artists with a space to sell their work. You can splurge on a bag or enjoy a latte amid the backdrop of the glittering Mediterranean Sea, knowing your money is well spent.
For more information on Comme Il Faut, click here.
2. BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, located across from Tel Aviv’s central bus station, is a secular yeshiva that promotes a pluralistic Israeli society and allows women to get in touch with their spiritual roots in an inclusive environment. Earlier this week it held a women’s Passover seder to coincide with the 10th day of the Jewish-calendar month of Nissan — the day that is associated with the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses.
Next September, BINA will start an English-language “Beit Midrash yeshiva,” a seminary that is text-based for secular and religious English and Hebrew speakers. The program will be socially aware and educationally intensive, said spokesperson Noga Brenner Samia, and as always, will emphasize integrating women.
“The secular population in Israel needs to be active in making sure women’s voices are heard as well,” said Brenner Samia.
For more information on BINA, click here.
3. Shatil, an initiative of the New Israel Fund, has various programs that promote women and minorities. A recent project, “Women Should be Seen and Heard,” focuses on equal representation for women in the public sphere. Shatil also runs Sidre, an empowerment and leadership program for Bedouin women in the Negev. As part of an umbrella of organizations, Shatil helps women set up businesses, providing them with the tools and self-confidence to become more independent. One small company, based in the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the Negev, runs a traditional Bedouin weaving project that receives consultation from Shatil and was started with initial grants from the New Israel Fund.
Hundreds of Bedouin women from more than 20 villages have participated in Shatil’s empowerment courses. They then pass that information on to women in their communities, becoming “agents of change.”
For more information on Shatil, click here.
4. The Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development (CJAED) has a women’s unit that aims to integrate Arab Israeli women into the workforce. The program has helped created 1,800 small female-owned businesses that employ more than 4,000 women.
Another one of CJAED’s programs, Jasmine, empowers businesswomen from all of Israel’s ethnic communities, enabling access to credit, national representation and advocacy. One inspiring figure involved with Jasmine is Druze businesswoman Gamila Khair, who runs Gamila’s Secret, a successful natural soap company. She uses 15 natural herbs (with a base of shea butter) that grow near her village in the Galilee in northern Israel, and six plant oils, including local cold-pressed olive oil, to produce handmade soaps that are exported worldwide.
For more information on CJAED and Jasmine, click here.
5. WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, works to advance the status of women and alleviate hardships for new immigrants and the underprivileged. To that end, WIZO runs several secondhand shops around the country. The shelves and racks are filled with vintage clothing and unique, recycled accessories — often donated by people who want to clean out their closets — that are sold at affordable prices. The proceeds go toward projects which include battered women’s shelters and a domestic abuse hotline.
“I go to them [WIZO second-hand shops] for their unique fashion pieces,” said Katie Menachem, a Tel Aviv resident originally from Los Angeles. “Whenever I’m in Jerusalem, I pop in. They have the best deal on vintage hats and dresses. And it’s for a good cause, which makes me feel a little less guilty about the shopping.” Indeed, the WIZO shops have gained a sizable following among hipster crowds seeking that one-of-a-kind bauble or boot — and the idea of paying it forward isn’t lost on the savvy shoppers either.
For more information in WIZO, click here.