Can a feminist serve in a male-dominated military? Rachel Shabi meets the Israeli conscript who argued that she could not - and won an exemption
Monday April 17, 2006
Idan Halili, just 19 years old, has written a feminist critique that has astounded established feminist voices around the world. Her analysis takes the form of a letter sent to the Israeli army asking for exemption from compulsory service, based on a feminist rejection of militarism. Last December, having spent two weeks in military prison because of her refusal to serve, Halili was exempted from conscription; her views, she was told, deemed her "unsuitable".
"The army is an organisation whose most fundamental values cannot be brought in harmony with feminist values," she wrote in her request for exemption. Halili argues that military service is incompatible with feminist ideology on several levels: because of a hierarchal, male-favouring army structure; because the army distorts gender roles; because of sexual harassment within the army; and because of an equation between military and domestic violence. Her arguments galvanised media attention in Israel, with Halili on prime-time TV news and bringing sidelined feminist arguments against militarism into the public arena for the first time.
Refusing to serve in the Israeli army is a cloudy, unpredictable process. Women's rights to conscientiously object were once set out by law. But in 2003, during the hearing that imprisoned five young men for refusing to serve on the "political" grounds of opposing the Israeli occupation, the court reinterpreted the exemption law for women, who now go through the same channels available to men. "Exemption from service is at the discretion of the minister of defence," says Yossi Wolfson, a lawyer with the feminist, anti-military group New Profile. "But there is nothing mandatory and no specific procedure dictated by law." In practice, decisions are made by so-called "conscience committees", set up by the army drafting office, which allow conscientious objection only on the basis of religion or pacifism. "It's highly selective and tends to accept only a very radical, universal pacifism that holds all and any use of violence to be immoral," says Wolfson.
In Halili's case - as tends to happen - she was originally refused a hearing before a conscience committee and was sent to military prison when she refused to enlist. That decision was later reversed. "We argued that, although Halili's case against serving was 100% feminism, her ideology of feminism also meant she was a pacifist, objecting to any military system," says her solicitor, Smadar Ben-Natan.
The committee did not grant Halili exemption on the basis of conscientious objection. But the outcome was none the less some form of an indirect admission. "The committee said that her feminism, not pacifism, seemed more dominant and that, on the basis of holding such views, she would be unfit to serve," explains Ben-Natan.
Halili's success has overturned several assumptions - not least that a woman her age might have a coherent feminist ideology at all. A self-composed and swiftly eloquent woman from a kibbutz in north Israel, Halili describes a long process of deliberation until "I understood that the army, in essence, does not square with feminist principles." Her feminist evolution, she says, involved a gradual linking of experiences, compounded by voluntary work with feminist organisations. It all led to "a difficult conflict between the notions on which I had been raised from an early age - according to which the military is a positive institution and serving in it is a particularly respectable way of making your social contribution - and, on the other hand, feminist values of dignity and equality."
Halili's argument challenges the notion that Israeli women enjoy gender equality precisely because both sexes are conscripted. This goes beyond the assertion that a military social culture reveres the male "fighter" soldier while belittling the lesser, female role in the army (only 2% of women serve in combat units). Orna Sasson-Levy, professor in sociology and gender studies at Israel's Bar Ilan University, says that the widely held assumption that female achievement in the Israeli army would translate to achievement in civil society has proved unfounded. Positions of high office in Israel are typically awarded to military achievers, which necessarily favours men who are able to attain a better status than women within the army. "Time and again, what I find in my research is that, even when the army is trying to create an equal-opportunity environment, the culture is so gendered, so masculine that women cannot achieve an equal place without completely cooperating with its chauvinistic structure and reproducing those in their behaviour towards other women."
This culture, among other things, is one of endemic sexual harassment. In 2003, research from the Israel Defence Force showed that a fifth of female soldiers experienced sexual harassment within the army. When the survey asked women about specific examples of harassment, such as humiliating innuendo or unwanted sexual proposals, that figure rose to 81% and 69% respectively. In other words, says Rela Mazali, one of the founders of New Profile, "Young women soldiers don't even know that what they are experiencing is called sexual harassment and they can do something about it." So female soldiers not only experience harassment, but are also conditioned not to view it as such.
Cynthia Enloe, professor of international development and women's studies at Clark University, has written extensively on gender and militarisation. She says, "UN and humanitarian workers in war zones now talk about the causal relationship between military and domestic violence - that is not a trivial understanding." Last year, researchers for the Haifa feminist centre, Isha le'Isha (woman to woman), found that, between 2000 and 2005, 47% of Israeli women murdered by their partners or relatives were killed by security guards, soldiers or police officers who carried licensed weapons. Sarai Aharoni, one of the researchers, reports that, during the same period, marked by numerous suicide attacks within Israel, "Female victims of domestic violence called helplines less - it seemed they felt it less legitimate when suicide bombings were taking place."
Testimonies from Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former soldiers describing injustices witnessed during military service, often relate feeling an apathy towards human life, an increased aggression and a loss of moral sensitivity as a result of serving in an occupying army. "All these patterns and behaviours are what we carry into civilian life," says Avichay Sharon, the organisation's spokesperson. Enloe reiterates this link: "The military doesn't like to admit that being trained as a special-forces trooper might endanger women when those same men come into a domestic setting."
Halili is now a volunteer with Israel's Hotline for Migrant Workers, in the area of sex trafficking. She is pleased just to have brought this issue of feminist anti-militarism into the public arena, but campaigners don't think that her case will necessarily provoke a flood of feminist appeals for exemption just yet. "I don't see women like Idan very often," says her solicitor, Ben Natan. "She is exceptional".
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