Progressive Move: Israel Appoints Their 1st Ever Equality Minister, Gila Gamliel

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When you think about countries which place an emphasis on gender equality, there are a number which immediately spring to mind over others: Iceland and Sweden would be on the top of our list. However there is an undercurrent of gender equality happening in different ways in countries you wouldn’t normally expect. Tunisia became the first country in the Arab world to include a clause about women’s rights in its new constitution after the Arab Spring.

Now Israel is defying critics by appointing its first ever Minister for Equality AND she’s a woman! Gila Gamliel, former deputy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has been promoted to Minister of Senior Citizens, gender equality, young people and minority affairs after the recent election which saw “Bibi” re-elected.

It is seen as a very bold and progressive move on PM Netanyahu’s part considering he also brought back two ultra-Orthodox parties which don’t allow any female members to make up his cabinet in the Knesset. Perhaps he should’ve included the newly formed Bezchutan party, Israel’s first all-female ultra-orthodox party which was created out of a need for Orthodox women wanting their issues and needs represented in Parliament.

Anyhow, promoting Gila Gamliel to this position is already being heralded as a very progressive move considering she has a very liberal view on gender segregation in public spaces, something that is unique to Israel given their religious laws, and advocates for gay rights.

One of her key efforts was to raise the minimum age of marriage in Israel to 18, which she did so successfully. She has also been one of the first people to speak publicly about creating more opportunities for women in the job market as well as one of the first to discuss gender segregation.

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Gila, 41, is a mother of two daughters, and is the daughter of a Libyan mother and Yemenite father, according to Haaretz.com. She has two bachelor’s degrees, one in law the other in Middle East History, as well as a Masters in philosophy. Her political career started in 2003 after serving as the first female head of the national student union.

Gila doesn’t necessary call herself a feminist, but her barrier-breaking achievements speak for themselves in a landscape where women don’t always have the same opportunities as women in other countries due to cultural and religious barriers.

Her position is necessary and was borne out of many years advocating for these specific rights. It seems there is no one more suited to this job than her. For some people, the issue isn’t whether she will act in a way to advocate women and the LGBT community, is is whether she will receive the support necessary.

“The issue isn’t whether such a mechanism exists, but rather, whether it is in fact operational, and what resources and powers it has. In many places, such offices serve as mere fig leafs,” said Halperin-Kaddari, a former vice president of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“When it comes to women’s rights, our legislative framework in Israel is pretty good. The problem is a lack of resources, which makes implementation and enforcement difficult.”

One major issue that certain Israeli feminist groups have with Gila is her stance on child custody in divorce cases. The marriage and divorce courts in the country are run by Orthodox Rabbis which highly favor men. It is a big sticking point for many women and advocate groups.

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Gila has sided with men’s rights groups when it comes to child custody because the law automatically favors women when it comes to young children. But some of the groups are hopeful now that Gila is in a position to focus on matters of gender equality, she will be willing to hear their concerns.

“I am confident that Gila Gamliel will be willing to listen to us on this matter, and hopefully, we can convince her that it is far more complex than it seems,” said one anonymous feminist leader to Haaretz.com.

But Gila’s explanation on her stance isn’t without reason.

“In my opinion, the law on custody for young children is archaic. The law states that in cases of divorce, the mother has the implicit right to custody of the children until they reach age six. I will act to repeal the law and give equal rights to mothers and father. This law is also harmful to the implicit rights of the fathers, and to the rights of parents for equal parenting. The determination that women need to serve in the role of mother, including raising the children, is not egalitarian and not feminist,” she said.

That’s what is interesting to note about her appointment, that it is being seen as a way forward and an opportunity to negotiate with transparency. Just before the last election, Gila was only one of 4 Knesset members (which has a total of 180 members) to take part in a a survey conducted before the last election by Jewish Pluralism Watch, a new watchdog organization set up by the Conservative-Masorti Movement to determine where Israelis lawmakers stand on matters of religion and state.

This is where her stance on affirmative action for women in the workforce and the ban on exclusion of women in public spaces was made apparent.

Back in March in the lead up to the general election, Gila and a number of Knesset hopefuls from a range of political parties answered questions about their stance on certain gender-related issues. When asked how she will reduce the wage gap and use legislation to do so, she said she will continue to support a bill which states the workplace must be supportive of families.

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“I am also waiting for answers from the Civil Service Commission to my demand to recognize, in part, working from home. In addition, we must change the salary conditions and base some part of wages on the productivity of the worker. These two initiatives will reduce the salary gaps between men and women,” she said.

She also stated her position on whether she would support legislation demanding gender equality for senior positions in the public.

“In the past two years we have seen the integration of women in senior positions in public service, but the situation is still a far cry from what is required. We must demand that all government ministries present on International Women’s Day the percentage of women in senior positions, and promote five-year plans that will lead to equality between men and women in senior positions,” she said.

But part of advocating gender equality in the home and in public life seems hypocritical if there aren’t enough women represented in politics, gunning for legislation to advance and protect women. PM Netanyahu only had 3 women on his cabinet in his term from 2009-2013, and that number hasn’t increased in 2015 (along with Gila, Ayelet Shaked is the Justice Minister from the Jewish Home party, and Tzipi Hotovely is the Deputy Foreign Minister from Likud).

“The problem is that there are parties such as those of the Haredim in which there are no women at all on the list. Therefore, we must provide incentives for the parties that do have appropriate representation of women,” said Gila about women in politics.

Her willingness to be transparent is a good sign and we, as well as many of the feminist groups throughout the country working toward gender equality for the marginalized and oppressed, hope that this is the start of a new era for the women of Israel, whether orthodox, ultra-orthodox or secular.

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