I feel this document is one of the great statements of our time, deriving its force from a moral absolutism that is admirable and brave. It was written by a 19 year old Israeli woman, and it has inspired the Schministim in Israel.
I salute Idan Halili for her contribution to pacifism, anti-militarism, feminism and morality. If you are really for peace in the Middle East, refusal to do military service is a good place to start, given the brutality of the 43 year old Occupation. All that befalls you if you do refuse is ostracism by friends and family, at least two weeks in prison, and blacklisting for years by employers.
It’s nothing, really, is it? You simply become a complete outsider in your own society. For doing the RIGHT THING!
Request to be discharged from military service on grounds of conscience, on the basis of section 39 of the Law of Military Service (meshulav version) – 1986
I would like to apply for an exemption from military service on the basis of section 39(c) of the Law of Military Service (meshulav version), 1986. I oppose military service – in any army, in any country –for reasons of conscience based on a feminist ideology. I would like this request to be conveyed to the official exemption committee.
Army service would force me to participate in an organization whose principles clash with the feminist values in which I believe, and which are reflected in a commitment to human dignity, equality, consideration for the specific needs of various groups and individuals within the population, and a rejection of oppression.
I have not always been a feminist. Even though I witnessed various forms of injury to women from an early age, and always responded with shock and anger, it took me a long time to understand the profound connection between these events. Below are some examples.
When I was a girl I became aware of the existence of rape through reading personal accounts in magazines for children and adolescents. The victims were almost always women or children. At elementary school I learned, during Arabic lessons, about “the position of women in Islam”. This is how I heard that in Iran, for instance, women, just because they are women, are living under huge constraints. From reading the book “Girls for sale” I found out that in some places in the world, women are forcibly sold as brides, thereby losing whatever freedom they previously had. When I reached junior high school I realized that none of my girl friends liked her body. They all wanted to be slim and sexually “attractive”. During that period I also read about how the media often represent women through an unrealistic, impossible ideal of beauty, and that this is a formative influence on younger and older women’s attitude to themselves and their bodies.
I realized another thing, during that time. I was not aware yet that this could be called “sexual harassment” – though I was fully familiar with the feeling of a girl who just wants to walk in the street and finds herself routinely observed and judged, from top to toe, by men who are virtually “undressing” her with their looks and bothering her with sexual comments.
Also, in the meantime, I found out that women in our society live with constant violence from the men to whom they are married. I found out that in our country, men are the majority in most public institutions, even though at least 50% of the population are women. I found out that women from various places in the world get bought, are traded between countries and forced to work in prostitution.
There is an obvious link between all these phenomena. Women have always been on the side of the victim, men on that of the victimizer, or at least, they have profited from the situation. This deep connection amongst these various phenomena might be obvious, once observed, but it is by no means easy to grasp initially. Even though I came across many scores of instances of women’s oppression over the years, it took serious immersion in feminist theories and active work against these injustices to really understand how these various aspects of women’s oppression are interconnected.
In 11th grade I joined the “Hotline for Migrant Workers” where I learned a lot about trafficking in women and prostitution. I also started giving talks about these issues. This intensive activity around the trafficking in women and prostitution, amongst the most extreme outcomes of women’s oppression in society, made me think a great deal about feminism and to take more of an interest in it. This is when I started to see the way that all these types of exploitation of women are tied together. I saw that women’s representations in advertising, sexual harassment and trafficking in women all are expressions of the basic inequality of women in our society.
During this time, when people would ask me whether I identified myself as a feminist, I would answer in the negative, but not without, for instance, mentioning my opposition to the oppression of women. Feminism struck me as an extreme position, excessive. Later, once I got to know more about feminism, I would call myself a feminist, but always taking care to add that feminism is simply a form of equality, and nothing else. Only when I reached 12th grade did I call myself a feminist without qualifications or apologies.
This is also when my contact with the army began. I had been educated to regard the army as a beneficent type of organization, and I believed that the best and most obvious way to be of use to society and my country was through serving in the army. I intended to enlist and so I started the selection process to get drafted for military intelligence, with strong motivation. I thought that women’s participation in the army – and in any other institutions – just like men, was the feminist solution and would bring equality.
I decided to postpone my enlistment in order to do one year’s community service at a therapeutic residential school. While working there, my feminist awareness of women’s social hardships led me to run a girls’ group. This provided a very powerful encounter with how women and girls internalize social messages that are destructive to themselves. I became more active, took part in demonstrations, and started to do regular voluntary work at the Bet Nashim Feministi [the feminist women’s house]. I also joined the “Coalition for the Struggle Against the Trafficking in Women” and other organizations; I went to talks, read books and articles. During the year I spent in community service, my feminist consciousness developed significantly.
Half-way through that year I decided that my way of contributing to society would be in the form of feminist work within the army. So I passed up on the functions for which I had already been selected and turned to the Chief of Staff’s Advisor on Women’s Affairs asking to do my military service there. This was a phase of strong personal consciousness raising for me, and the more I became aware of feminist dilemmas, the more often, too, did I have to seriously face the issue of the army. Here I had to cope with 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.
I went through a long process of doubt and consciousness building until I understood that the army, in essence, does not square with feminist principles. It is because of this long period of deliberation that I applied for various job selection processes in the army and only make my request for exemption at this point and not a few years ago.
Because the military takes such a central place in Israeli society, it offers certain women equal access, according to the generally accepted norms and terms. For some women, moreover, military service can offer an experience of relative autonomy.
I was born in Israel and grew up in an affluent and well-established kibbutz. But when a woman belongs, for instance, to a socially marginalized or an economically weak population, it will be difficult for her to avoid or resist military service, given the social status of the army today. I am therefore aware that not every woman has equal access to the option of giving up on military service.
As a feminist, I feel committed to enable myself and other women to experience our autonomy and to be part of society without being forced to enter an organization that exposes us to oppression. One way of doing this is to make it more possible for women to do voluntary community work through national service and not through the military. It is my wish to do voluntary work and make my contribution to society and I hope I will be allowed to do so within a framework that does not clash with my conscience and with the social values in which I believe.
The army is an organization whose most fundamental values cannot be brought into harmony with feminist values. It is a patriarchal organization: patriarchy consists of a hierarchic social structure which is underwritten by “masculine” values such as control, a power orientation, and the repression of emotion. The army is hierarchical, and this, by definition, does not allow for equality. Indeed, the army’s demand for uniformity and conformity, makes it impossible for individuals to express various different identities and needs. Such a type of organization usually undermines the weaker groups within as well as outside it.
The army affects a society’s state of mind, especially when the army takes a central role in the society. Thus, through its hierarchical nature, the army puts men in positions of power in the society. The army entrenches a distorted approach to the value of equality according to which gender equality is measured in terms of the degree to which women have become included in male-identified areas of activity. An army culture of sexual harassment also spills over into civil society. Since it is a violent organization, the army also is responsible for the increase of violence in society – and as a result, of the violence against women.
I shall look at these things in more detail below.
- Women’s exclusion from influential positions in society
Women in the army – in any army in the world –are relegated to the margins of power. Where the military takes a more central place, there society displays a more sexist division of roles. Women, in militarist societies, are consistently excluded from the centers of power and decision-making. Men, therefore, have an easier time than women gaining access to influential positions in a militarist society. In order to reach positions of social and political power, women have to cover a more difficult path by having to subvert the accepted division of roles and prove themselves as against the men.
When power and influence in a society and a state are mainly under control of men, it is not only those women who want such power for themselves who suffer, but also the entire female population: decisions that affect the whole society are made by men, according to their point of view. That is to say, usually those who make the decisions are unfamiliar with the hardships and needs of women in their society, and as a result they fail to be responsive to them while instead focusing on the problems they know from their own experience.
Men, in fact, are the main beneficiaries in a militarist society, while women, as a group, find themselves in a weakened position.
Enlistment, as far as I am concerned, means agreeing to be part of a system that is based on relations of power and control. Military service means contributing to a framework that systematically perpetuates the exclusion of women from the public sphere and construes their place in society as one that is secondary to that of men.
As a feminist it is my obligation to build civic alternatives to the army through which we can make our contribution to society and the state, while striving, at the same time, to reduce the influence of the army on society. I cannot work, on the one hand, to support equality and recognition of the needs of various groups, while on the other hand serving a system that perpetuates the inequalities between men and women and in society at large.
- The entrenchment of patriarchal values and gender stereotypes
There is a tendency to think of women’s participation in the army as a form of equality – for instance when women get to perform jobs that are considered “masculine”, when they are placed in combat units, or when they serve in a predominantly masculine environment. People who take this view argue that in these cases, women are not excluded from male-identified functions and/or places (this extends to the entire army as such, since it is so obviously a male institution). Women’s success, here, however, is actually in terms of their ability to adjust themselves to the norm of the combat soldier, the “fighting man” – a major military symbol, together with the “hero”. Women, then, are expected to conform to an image which, in our culture, is powerfully identified with masculinity.
It is a structural component of patriarchy that women are secondary, while men are expected to display stereotypical traits like competitiveness, aggressiveness, and control. A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality, on the one hand, and the superiority of male-identified values on the other. And so, men and women who serve in the military for long periods of time undergo a process of stereotypical “gendering”.
Research has shown that women who have served in male-identified functions in the military become disconnected from female-identified patterns of behavior while at the same time internalizing male-identified patterns and developing a contemptuous and avoidant attitude toward other women.
This proves that the army is based on “masculine” values, which are considered normative, desirable and superior in that context. And if they want to be part of such an organization, both men and women have to accept and internalize these values: power orientedness, violence, and a superior and excluding attitude to others.
If I would have to try to be part of the army this would contradict my feminist values and would require that I submit to its patriarchal values and male-identified norms. I would, thereby, support a social order which rests on power and hierarchy.
I do not want to prove that I am able to serve just like a man, I am not looking for a kind of equality that will give me rights which are the apriori privilege of men. It is absurd, in fact, to look for equality within an organization which is fundamentally and by definition not equal, and which stands in sharp contradiction with my ideological principles and conscience.
My wish is to be a valuable member of society without subscribing to hierarchical and control oriented principles and without being part of an organization which is especially oppressive in its approach to women and to populations who are not included in the hegemonic group.
- The success of the sexual harassment culture
Typical organizational and structural attributes of the army, like for instance a hierarchical organizational structure; large male majority; clear identification of newcomers; a non-professional work atmosphere – all these have been associated in the literature as factors encouraging sexual harassment.
Women in the army often make light of harassment, even if the sexual innuendo they have to put up with actually disturbs them. The seriousness of sexual harassment is generally played down. A patriarchal and male-dominated organization like the army creates conditions that encourage women’s sexual harassment. When women are strongly motivated to become integrated in the army they may have a hard time admitting that they are exposed to harassment and that they disapprove of it. Such women are expected, to some extent, to swallow, ignore, and accept these behaviors, and even to treat them as “only natural” – as flattery, as a kind of amusing bad behavior. This is especially the case when there is no repeated approach by one particular man towards one particular woman, but rather just a certain kind of “atmosphere”, something you could call “ambient sexual harassment”. This consists of for instance certain types of remarks made by various people; songs including more or less explicit sexual hints; sexual jokes; looks; whistles, etc.
Research done in the US army has shown a strong correlation between this type of ambient sexual harassment and specific instances of personal sexual harassment.
And so, women in the military, especially in lower ranking functions, find themselves almost constantly oppressed and marginalized – not just because they are excluded from roles that are reserved for males only, but also because their surroundings are hostile and undermining to them as women.
In fact, it might be said that a mood of sexual harassment is endemic to a patriarchal and hierarchical organization like the army.
And so the demand that a woman enlist is tantamount to demanding that she cope with sexual harassment within an environment that encourages such harassment.
Moreover, since the army is such a central institution in society, a culture of sexual harassment also is exported to and further entrenched in civic society.
This is why I, as a feminist, feel I must avoid military service and act to limit and reduce the influence of the army on civic society.
- The increase of violence against women in society
Studies have shown that where there is violence in the public sphere the dominant culture considers women as inferior to men. In these contexts, violence against women within the family is legitimized. One explanation is that in societies that are coping with violent conflict, uses of violence within the civic society become legitimized, and this, again mobilizes civic society for engagement with the violent military conflict. Here, the levels of violence and of indifference toward violent behaviors in all walks of life, including the family, spiral up. This is how violence against women end up being tolerable and acceptable.
UN resolution 1325 states that in areas characterized by armed violent conflict, women and children are the main victims of the violence.
Usually when women are the victims of male violence it comes from the men they are most closely associated with, like relatives or spouses. Usually the violence is used to assert control, ownership, superiority and power. When men spend a formative period of their lives in the military they are likely to receive positive reinforcements for the use of brute power and violence, and to develop an indifferent attitude to the use of “mild” forms of violence, ” in certain circumstances”. In an organization whose main values include superiority and control, these behaviors are likely to be encouraged in the specific professional (military) activities, but also in interpersonal relations, with regard to women and to others who are branded inferior – at home and outside, in the street.
I feel committed, as a feminist woman, to ensure women’s rights in society. I cannot join an organization which, either directly or indirectly, encourages violence – of any form and kind – against women. There is, hence, a contradiction between my being a feminist and my ability to enlist.
I resist being a part of the army not only on theoretical grounds. Once I understood that there is a tight connection between all the forms of women’s oppression in society, I also saw that the only way for me to live as a feminist would be to watch out, wherever I would be, for the social factors that make the abuse of women possible, to oppose these and to work for their replacement with alternative values. Army service would impose a way of life on me that is deeply contrary to my values and moral beliefs. I would have to consistently deny and suppress my most fundamental persuasions. I cannot live in such flagrant denial of my conscience and I cannot serve an organization that tramples the values on which my whole moral outlook is built.
And so, as I wrote at the beginning of this letter, I am asking you to discharge me from military service on grounds of conscience, and to allow me to appear before the military committee that is authorized to issue such an exemption.