With International Women’s Day just around the corner, the IDF (Zahal)’s Women’s Affairs Advisor to the Chief of Staff sat down with IDF (Zahal) website to discuss changes being made for women in the army, and the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Woman’s Affairs Advisor unit

Date: 22/02/2011, 9:55 PM     Author: Rotem Caro Weizman

This year, the IDF (Zahal)’s Women’s Affairs Advisor unit is celebrating ten years since its inception. The Women’s Affairs Advisor unit deals with various aspects of women’s service in the IDF (Zahal), from specifics to the IDF (Zahal) structure at large. This includes research, teaching and guidance, IDF (Zahal) representation within the media and with other foreign bodies, and more. Brig. Gen. Gila Kalifi-Amir, the Women’s Affairs Advisor to the Chief of the General Staff, has been head of the unit for two years, having risen through the ranks of the IDF (Zahal), even being the first woman ever to finish the IDF (Zahal) Brigade Commander course. She is one of three women with the ranking of Brigadier General in the IDF (Zahal) and shows no signs of stopping.

“These past ten years, significant changes were made affecting central aspects of women’s service in the IDF (Zahal),” said Brig. Gen. Kalifi. “The most important change was fixing the conscription after the appeal of Alice Miller (the student who fought to open the IAF’s pilots’ course to women in 1995), which took care of a number of things.”

According to Brig. Gen. Kalifi, the first of these is women entering positions where there were previously gender barriers. “Unlike before, today women can serve for longer than two years with more positions available including such as flight supervisors, technicians and more. As such, an entire field of positions within combat has been opened,” she explains. The second change was made to amend the law regarding women’s reserve service.

“It doesn’t make sense that we would create positions for active service with no such positions in reserves. The women who served in crucial positions will serve until the end of the required period for reserve duty (following pregnancy). In addition, women serving in voluntary positions (such as combat positions) have a service longer than most and must serve in reserves like men, without exemption for pregnancy and marriage.”

This may sound like an ideal situation, but in reality, enforcement of reserve service for women is not monitored enough. “It’s a result of a cultural barrier, not just in the army but in society. It’s hard for us to process the fact that women serve in reserves. Women officers complain that they don’t receive the same treatment as a male counterpart in school or in the workplace but they still must show up for reserve duty. It still raises eyebrows,” says Brig. Gen. Kalifi.

Specifics in the field

Along with changes made in the past ten years, there is widespread activity throughout the IDF (Zahal) to make it more suitable for its female population, an indispensable portion of its force. One such program is called “From Sector to Sector”, offering principles values for gender-based thinking.

“The idea is to examine the needs and key differences between men and women and to integrate them as an inseparable part of the protocol,” explained Brig. Gen. Kalifi stressing that, “The army is an inherently male organization. I am definitely not interested in making a woman change her nature. The surroundings need to enable success and the full ability to work.”

The new program is intended to provide women with an environment in which they serve the terms expected of them in the most efficient and professional manner possible. “When you put a woman in a combat zone, it’s important to ensure that it is tailored to her needs so she can perform her duties the best way possible. This includes lightweight shoes, an appropriate flak jacket and helmets, adjusting combat instruction methods, and all the way down to proper food,” explains Brig. Gen. Kalifi. And it’s not just in combat positions where these changes can be seen.

“For example, the controllers in the Closed Circuit Television System are not built to fit the shape of the female field intelligence observers or for their physical abilities despite this being a position usually occupied by a woman. It’s not done out of spite – it’s just not mainstream. We want to widen the mainstream to include more variety,” says the Women’s Affairs Advisor.

Since changes are implemented mostly as a result of increasing awareness, time is key. “Slowly commanders in the field are learning. Lots of things are happening, too. The gaps in personal equipment, for example, we expect to see closed by March 2011.”

In addition to technical concerns, the question of whether men and women can serve in combat units together remains. “All throughout their lives men and women work together. But the army is set up such that women and men end up in traditional gender roles,” says Brig. Gen. Kalifi.

“So it seems like certain positions lose some prestige when women enter their ranks. But as soon as you look at the women actually there, you see that, with time, these feelings disappear. According to our research, the title ‘woman’ slowly dissipates and people focus on the quality of an operation soldiers take on,” she says encouragingly.

Today women serve in as many as 90% of available positions

Today, women serve in as many as 90% of the available positions in the IDF (Zahal). As for working to get women in the remaining 10%, the Women’s Affairs Advisor does not place the effort among her priorities. “Women don’t serve in certain positions not because they are unsuitable for them or because women are incapable of doing them. It’s about deciding what’s most important to take care of.”

In Brig. Gen. Kalifi’s opinion, emphasis on the opening of new positions for women is not necessarily the army’s goal. “I don’t see equal opportunity as the most important goal in an organization whose mission it is to defend the citizens of the State of Israel,” she says. “We have to look at it from an ethical point of view, as the nation’s army and in terms of building society’s appearance. The army creates opportunities for as many sectors in society as possible to express themselves.”

And when will we be seeing a woman ranking Maj. Gen.? We may not have to wait for long. “Unlike years before, the IDF (Zahal) is much more prepared to see a woman ranking of Maj. Gen. today,” says the Women’s Affairs Advisor.

“Today, three women hold the rank of Brigadier General [the rank just under Maj. Gen.], all three having climbed up clear and defined steps. For the Commander of the Telecommunications and Technology Information, Brig. Gen. Ayala Hakim, they did not make concessions, they saw that she’d really taken on all the positions it was said she had. The Manpower Directorate Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Orna Barbivai, and I did as well. I would have been offended it I was chosen just because I was a woman,” she adds.

Empowering soldiers, teaching new comers

In terms of closing existinIn terms of closing existing gaps between men and women and integrating women into the IDF (Zahal) to a higher degree, a wide range of work is being done to enrich women’s service in the IDF (Zahal).

“With the help of the Chief Education Office’s headquarters we are exposing more and more women holding senior positions to gender studies and are empowering women,” says the Women’s Affairs Advisor.

“In addition, we are holding panel discussions for enlistees where women combat soldiers talk to them honestly. Only one year older. This is, in fact, a league of women, salt of the earth, who truly want women to have meaningful services as in the path they have paved for themselves. They really excite,” she says.

“And women soldiers in their regular service can see more and more women in key positions with obvious effects. They see that it’s possible,” she says, adding, “An interesting fact is that the motivation to become an officer is the same in men and women. At first, people were afraid to extend women’s [original] nine month [officer’s service] to a year, like that of men’s, but it didn’t change anything. Young women today want to be officers. They understand what they can give and what it will do for them in the future.”
So should women’s regular service be extended as well (as women currently serve for two years and men for one)?

“It’s not right to judge conscription through the perspective of women’s services. It must be looked at through the societal perspective,” says the Women’s Affairs Advisor. “We have to pave the way for the army we want to see. You have to decide on the length of someone’s service according to their position and not their sex.”

Another subject often spot-lighted in the media is that of sexual harassment. The Women’s Affairs Advisor unit is the main professional authority on the subject, its goal is to provide complete treatment for soldiers who were victims of sexual harassment. This includes medical and legal help, education to those in the appropriate fields, etc.

“We look at this subject as a matter of respect to human beings, a core ethic in the Spirit of the IDF (Zahal) and is thus the responsibility of commanders. A commander is responsible for the mental and physical health of the soldier,” says Brig. Gen. Kalifi. According to her, awareness has changed as well as attitude and treatment.

“More women are reporting about harassment because of awareness. As long as women and soldiers see that there are tools to treat it, the amount of girls who do something about it will grow,” she predicts.

These days the Women’s Affairs Advisor is working on her own initiative for the problem of sexual harassment called Project Mahut (essence), the acronym standing for dealing with and supporting victims in unique crises. The center will address issues such as sexual harassment, family violence, unwanted pregnancies and will be situated in the Tzrifin base, as it is close to medical centers.

“At the aid center the soldier will be asked a series of questions then be directed to a social worker,” explains Brig. Gen. Kalifi. “Throughout each step, the questions, the family and legal help the center will be there, its team of officers built of IDF (Zahal) personnel. This will be a full service for each person in each subject matter in order to enable the victims to return to the army and have a regular service.” At first it will be implemented into the Technology and Logistics Branch and to the Ground Forces, and by the end of the year to the rest of IDF (Zahal) units.

The subject of women’s health, crucial as any among the issues of women’s rights, is under the jurisdiction of the Women’s Affairs Advisor unit as well. The subject, much advanced by the Medical Corps, is developing faster in the IDF (Zahal) than even civilian bodies.

“There are days designated for officers in the field of women’s medicine and compulsory service. The Medical Corps opened, with our help, a gender-oriented field of medicine with hopes to open a center for women’s health in the future,” she reveals. “This matter is accelerating in the world and there is consciousness in the need for this type of treatment and awareness. It was even discussed in the women’s health council at the Ministry of Health of which I am a member. I believe that the project will continue to gain momentum but I’m not sure of a specific timeline at the moment,” says Brig. Gen. Kalifi.

“You don’t have to be a man to command men”

As a veteran officer in the IDF (Zahal) and as someone who’s seen many women enter and exit its gates, Brig. Gen. Kalifi can say that the IDF (Zahal) is inseparable among influences on the character of Israeli woman, like the character of society.

“Service in the army is a substantial experience for every teenager,” she says. “You can see it from the perspective of time. When you are on the inside you don’t understand how much it affects you.”

Brig. Gen. Kalifi never hid who she is. The army, as far as she is concerned, did not change her female identity and she did not develop “male” characteristics as many people believe women must in order to succeed in the system.

“I did not hide my femininity. Both high-heeled shoes and a weapon slung across the shoulder were in my service. You don’t have to be a man to command men,” she says.

As a mother and one married to a Maj. Gen. in reserves, Brig. Gen. Kalifi can see how her different positions shaped her character at home and outside of it. “Positions in which I commanded helped me as a mother, and as a mother I look at soldiers as gifts their parents handed over to me for a certain period of time, and it’s not just teaching but also providing a respectful environment and keeping their bodies and minds safe. The army is a box of tools, schooling you can’t get anywhere else.”