Political Pin-Ups

Brains—And Beauty—Lead Israeli Politics

Sigal Samuel on the Saudi and Israeli reception of Israel's women politicians.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya news network published a feature yesterday, “Beauties Lead Israeli Politics,” celebrating the recent influx of women into Israel’s political scene. The piece spotlights female politicians like Tzipi Hotovely, Merav Michaeli, and Nadia Hilo, who were elected in the recent primaries in Labor and the Likud. It also mentions feminist Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Hatnua chairwoman Tzipi Livni, and social justice activist Stav Shaffir.

But before anyone gets the mistaken impression that this feature represents anything so progressive as a celebration of increasing gender parity, let me be clear: it doesn’t so much embrace feminist values as it does undermine them. And in that way, it bears a disturbing resemblance to the media reception these women have garnered from Israel itself.

The piece’s focus on the “surge of beautiful women in Israeli politics” makes it clear that, as far as Al-Arabiya is concerned, these women’s beauty is their most salient feature. But what does it matter what these politicians look like? Wouldn’t their rise to prominence be equally newsworthy if they didn’t conform to traditional norms about what counts as beautiful? Depressingly, one suspects, the answer is no.

What’s interesting is that, even as the piece delves into the feminist agenda of politicians like Michaeli, it insists on tying them to normative notions of femininity by associating them, for example, with cosmetics. “The lists of the parties running for Knesset elections in 2013 are enveloped in perfume,” the feature quips, as if it’s obvious that Michaeli and her ilk regularly douse themselves in Chanel No. 5. Way to reduce a bunch of brilliant, powerful, driven women—not to mention some of Israel’s most successful feminists—to political pin-ups.

But lest we rest on our laurels and imagine that the Israeli public has received these women with any more grace or wit than their neighbors in Saudi Arabia—where women don’t drive, much less play a significant role in politics—we’d do well to note that, mere hours after Michaeli gained the fifth slot in Labor’s election ticket, she was roundly attacked for her track record of “unfeminine” behavior. As Tsafi Saar noted in yesterday’s Haaretz:

In several media outlets, including Haaretz, incidents from Michaeli's past were brought up, including that she had been seen eating with her hands during a television broadcast (how unfeminine!), and that she had exposed her bra (in connection with former President Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of sexual offenses—aimed at illustrating that no matter how a woman dresses, she should not expect to be raped—but what difference does the context make?).

Michaeli’s reception perfectly encapsulates the problematic double standard so often foisted on women in politics, both in Israel and around the world. On the one hand, they are hyper-feminized—publications like Al-Arabiya describe them in terms of beauty and perfume, to the point where Tzipi Hotovely is renamed “Tzipi Hot-and-lovely”—and on the other hand, they are criticized for not being feminine enough. Worse, the media strikes a double blow by presenting “unfeminine” acts of defiance, like Michaeli’s decision to expose her bra, in the absence of their original political motivations, with the result that women are simultaneously defeminized and depoliticized.

Al-Arabiya is right about one thing: this election cycle, many of Israel’s political parties include a robust number of women—a fact that strikes plenty of Israelis as nothing less than radical. So, as the January election draws near, allow me to present an equally radical suggestion: How about if this time around, instead of paying so much attention to these women’s looks, to their simultaneously too-feminine and too-unfeminine behavior, we actually pay attention to…you know…the issues?