Outraged women's organizations in Israel are waging a war against a male parliamentarian. Moshe Sharoni, 78, from the Pensioners Party, has proposed in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) that the existing duration within which women who are victims of sexual harassment at the workplace can file a complaint be curtailed from the current span of seven years to only a month.
Sharoni was quoted saying, "If a woman is harassed in her workplace, and suffers trauma, she would find it difficult to continue working there in the short-term and anyway file a complaint as soon as she was abused. The current law, which lets a women complain within a long period of seven years opens opportunities for women to make up a story, file a false complaint against male managers, ruin their reputation, even if they are innocent. If a harassed woman continues to attend her workplace, and avoids complaining within a month - it means that her trauma is not 'that bad'."
Dikla Totian (35), a lawyer at Noga Center, an NGO that represents sexually harassed victims, finds Sharoni's suggestion outrageous. "I am furious that a person in such an honorable position chose to speak publicly against women's basic rights so frivolously and without fully understanding the severe consequences of his words. If, God forbid, this suggestion is to be accepted in Parliament, the results will be catastrophic. The instances of sexual attacks would increase but fewer complaints would be filed."
Ronit Lev-Ari (57), a criminologist who served as the former head of the Authority for Women's Advancement in the Prime Minister's office, also thinks that Sharoni's idea reflects his ignorance on the subject. "My professional experience says that many harassed women and girls can only talk about their pain and humiliation after many years. They could be poor women, who simply cannot afford to give up their jobs. Such women might suffer silently under a harassing boss and bear his aggressiveness because they have to feed their children. Other women hesitate to file a complaint as they are afraid of further victimization in the courts. Such legitimate and understandable hesitation might linger on for several months... sometimes years - until the woman decides to let the truth come out. In a nutshell: Sharoni's law would offend the victims and favor the offenders."
Adds Totian, "Sharoni feels that the victim's return to work, soon after the attack, implies that the harassment wasn't so traumatic. However, he fails to realize that trauma doesn't necessarily mean broken bones. Trauma also means low self- esteem, guilt, fear, secularization of privacy, and being forced to cope, day after day, with the attacker's presence. I am sorry that he lacks the sense and sensibility to understand that reality is not so ideal. Many women are forced to bear their suffering silently for a while, in order to provide for their families."
Sharoni is also certain that his suggestion would contribute to the decrease in the number of false complaints against male workers and would minimize future blackmails.
Nili, 42 - now working as a secretary in a large accountancy firm - was abused by her boss for over two years. An angry Nili feels that the MP's suggestion reflects a lack of empathy for the real victims. "If a woman cynically uses the police against her boss and files a false complaint in order to blackmail him, I would be the first one to support punishing her severely. However, Sharoni's suggestion robs a woman of her rights. You cannot cut down the whole tree just because one branch is ill. And how is it that a parliament member from the Pensioner's Party is dealing with sexual harassment laws? He was elected to deal with old people's rights, not with women-abusers' rights," she retorts.
Suggests Lev-Ari, "If a subject such as sexual harassment excites Sharoni, I advise him to initiate a survey among old women and explore how many of them have been harassed while they were young. Through such a survey, he would surely learn - first hand - how difficult it is for women to speak and why they remain silent for years."
The existing Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, 1998, which defines sexual harassment as a criminal offence, provides Israel's working women, who constitute 48 per cent of the workforce, an opportunity to take legal recourse. It is reported that around 20,0000 Israeli working women have been sexually harassed between 2001 and 2007.
Despite the public outcry over the insensitivity of the MP's view, members of civil society fear the worst is yet to come. "While Sharoni's suggestion appears absurd and unjust to any sensible human being, my main concern is that in a crazy State like ours, such a law might become a reality - faster than we can imagine," says Totian.