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Breaking the glass ceiling with an M16

Avani Dias speaks to a woman who served in the Israeli Defence Force

“You turn on the television and I can’t really explain to you the feeling that you get… Well… You become numb.”

An ongoing struggle that has lasted nearly 70 years, the Israeli-Palestine conflict has become quite tedious. But for locals, it’s another level of desensitisation entirely. “Everyday there’s a terrorism attack and 30 or 40 or 50 people are killed or injured badly… you just become numb.”

It’s midnight on a Friday and I’m Skyping Shahar Kichler – a 23-year-old woman living in Israel. Her English is average and she is finding it hard to articulate to me just how strongly she feels towards the monotony that is this age-old battle. In Hebrew, her name means ‘Dawn’ and to reduce the cultural barrier she asks me to call her that.

To their audience, Israel attempts to project an image of progressive views and modern European life. In 2011 Tel Aviv held its first fashion week in 20 years. The controversial Twitter and Facebook accounts of the government are used as a tool of self-defence against Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movements around the world. The rationale behind these cultural and technological developments may be questionable, but there is no doubt that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is the most progressive in the world, at least statistically speaking.

The IDF boasts a strong female presence among its ranks with one third of its forces and 51% of its officers as women. In stark contrast 13.9% of the Australian Defence Force is made up of women, and the UK and America are only slightly behind that. Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel is the only country in the world with a mandatory service period for all women.

Shahar said that it was something she always knew she’d have to do, but that didn’t stop her parents trying to protect her from it. “There’s a sentence that parents say to their children in Israel when they are young… ‘don’t worry, when you grow up you won’t have to go to the army’… but that never happens. This is the dream – it’s a fantasy.” A parent’s over-protectiveness of their child has a different meaning in a war torn country.

Shahar grew up in Ramat Gan, a city ten minutes from Tel Aviv. She was born into a war and because of the frequent terrorist attacks, wasn’t allowed much as a child.

Terrorists killing people with knives, bomb blasts, and a fear of public transport – Shahar paints a grim picture of Israel that isn’t too far from ordinary assumptions of the place. After finishing high school, students have to take tests and put in their preferences for which military unit they’d like to serve in. They have many options to serve in the IDF from ordinary occupations like marines, builders, and nurses, to more complex ones like working for rescue missions, or in intelligence. But one striking development in the IDF is that as of 2000 the Military Service law states explicitly that women have equal rights as men to serve in any role in the defence force.

Shahar was put in the education unit and was posted as a social worker in her mandatory two years. She helped disadvantaged kids and young criminals start fresh and helped them develop a new way of thinking.

“Think about when you were 18… how many responsibilities did you have in your life? You had nothing. I got to be a social worker when I was 18 without any education or anything.” Sometimes she was brutally candid with her responses. Shahar started speaking about some of her experiences serving in the army – other soldiers throwing chairs at her, men swearing at her because they disagreed with what she said, but these were all justifiable for her: “It’s educating in the end. It makes you grow stronger”.

Shahar had a number of passionate opinions, but it wasn’t until her views on the actual Israeli-Palestine conflict came up that she became incredibly emotional. Her solution was to build a big wall that would separate “us from them”. She argued that the West Bank wasn’t Israel’s to take. “We took it from them in a war… okay, point taken. But now we can give it back and we need to move on.” But the worst part for her was the fact that she did not have a choice. She didn’t want a connection to Palestine but she was forced to have one. “Why does an 18 year old girl need to know how to shoot a fucking gun? I don’t want to shoot a gun.”

The military is central to Israel and Shahar argues that people in the defence force have much better opportunities than those who aren’t. It’s almost as though it’s the only platform that gives women the equal opportunity they have been fighting for. A number of Shahar’s friends are still in the military, serving longer than their mandatory period requests, but she decided to leave and study to become a copywriter or a writer for an advertising agency. When I asked her if she thought that the gender equality in the military transferred to other walks of life in Israel she simply said, “you just need to be ambitious or aggressive enough when you need to.” It’s obvious the IDF has given her enough training in that.

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