By Jane Derishu
Last (Jewish) year I found myself in a bar in South Tel Aviv, listening to a panel where four women from three different peace organisations presented their work and talked about their experiences as women involved in this sector. Two interesting things occurred to me while I was there that still find their way into my thoughts once in a while, and I think it’s time I write about them.
For some reason, although it was a panel about women in peace organisations, most of the women did not use the ‘F-word’ or even make a connection to feminism. The only exception was the Coalition of Women for Peace (disclosure alert — I volunteer for this organisation) which defines itself primarily as a feminist organisation. After the panel ended, I heard a man behind me say that he didn’t understand what feminism had to do with this discussion, since feminism is a movement which tried to help women obtain the right to vote. Whilst originally I was very angry with him, I subsequently felt saddened when I realised that this man honestly didn’t understand the connection between the two concepts.
We feminists (I apologise to all post-modern supporters — I know there is no ‘we’, as such) sometimes tend to forget that many people (if you think about it, sadly, it’s most people) do not speak ‘feminish’, and often where we see clear patterns of oppression and stereotypes others see… well, I’m not sure. But many people manage to suppress the recognition of any oppression they witness on a daily basis. The problem is that after adopting a critical perspective and noticing certain issues, there is no going back and it is very hard to remember how we used to look at the world before that. But enough about this point for now, since I think it deserves a post of its own.
The other point that has remained in my mind since the panel event is the widespread confusion between women’s organisations and organisations for women. Let’s take, for example, one of the organisations on the panel — Women Wage Peace. This is a women’s peace organisation that does not address gender issues at all and does not make a connection between peace, conflict and security issues and the lives of women — or the gender stereotypes these issues help to develop. Even though it emphasises the fact that it is an organisation that is built by women, it does not do any work that is related to gender inequality and it does not promote feminist ideas.
We all know how the game works. This organisation got most of the attention because it doesn’t demand that individuals take responsibility, but instead accuses the government — something everyone everywhere can relate to.
It is easy to get massive support when you don’t have an agenda that forces individuals to reflect upon themselves, but rather asks you to support a vague idea. And so it happens that a women’s organisation that has nothing to do with women’s lives (besides the fact that it consists of women), is wrongly perceived as an organisation for women. Worse yet, the basic assumption of this movement strengthens the essentialist approach that women are naturally peaceful whilst men are naturally violent — an approach that does not counter the idea of ‘natural’ sex roles and actually fixes restrictive gender stereotypes. There is nothing natural about violence or peace; instead we make choices relating to this all the time.
A counter-example for Women Wage Peace is Asli, the Israeli branch of the White Ribbon organisation — a movement which is organised by men and works to end violence against women and girls. I have to admit that I am not completely familiar with their work and I do find the issue of men who fight a ‘women’s war’ to be a bit problematic, but — and it is a big but — it is an organisation nevertheless that works for women, even though it is not operated by women.
To continue this train of thought, I also want to point out and clarify the difference between women’s achievements and achievements for women. I have often been accused of being a hypocrite when a ‘feminist like me’ does not support the number of women in right-wing parties. In other words, I’ve been accused that in the struggle between my left and feminist identities, I let my ‘left’ identity win over my feminist one. In response to this, I say that women can sometimes be some of the worst perpetrators of harm towards other women and many women who are famous for their achievements cause a great deal of damage to other women in this respect.
Let’s take, for example, the former Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich. Shamalov-Berkovich can take credit for many impressive achievements as the former head of the biggest Russian newspaper in Israel and other achievements both within and outside of the media. Nevertheless, as the first Bukhari woman in the Knesset, she chose to speak out against single mums, victims of sexual assault and of course feminism, which according to her goes too far and so actually harms women.
Shamalov-Berkovich is not, of course, the first or the last woman to achieve great things, gain power and then choose to use it against other women. With each similar story I hear and read, I realise how careful I should be and not automatically bow down before every woman who has achieved something. I feel safe to argue that although I often find myself impressed by women’s achievements, I am much more inspired by achievements for women.