Why do we need International Women’s Day? Because if you look around you will see the marginalization of women everywhere, even in the most unexpected of places.
Take for example the classic Israeli children’s book “A Tale of Five Balloons” that we all know and love. In the book there are five children, among them – you will notice – two girls. Violet’s (Sigalit) balloon is obviously purple. When she bends down to pet a kitten, the cat scratches her balloon and it pops. Ruthie’s blue balloon pops too when she hugs it “the way you hug a doll, or hug your mommy.”
Both girls are given caretaking roles: they caress or hug a pet or a doll. Compare the girls’ activities with the actions of the three boys in the same book: Uri throws his green balloon, which starts to get away from him. But don’t worry - Uri will catch the balloon so he can throw it far into the air again. Ron gives the balloon to his father to blow it up until it is as big as the sun (that page in the book is glistening in bright yellow). The book ends with Alon, whose red balloon “floats upward, as high as the sky and clouds,” or, in other words, in Alon’s world the sky is the limit, no less. (All the balloons, with the exception of Alon’s, pop.)
The balloons are the only colorful thing in the book, brightly juxtaposed against black and white figures and background. The balloon, therefore, represents each child’s soul – that which makes the child unique. The size of the balloon, the distance the balloon travels and the height it reaches – all these symbolize the amount of room that the book gives to each child’s expectations. The narrative makes a powerful statement, even if it is not a conscious one, on the place of little girls who will eventually become women: they are caregivers, they contain, they give. The price of the caregiver role is that the girls cannot make the balloon as big as they would like, or dare to throw it as far as they would like, the way Uri and Alon can. Their personal space is restricted in the book, their bodies turn inward, not outward toward a growing or floating balloon.
Let us be clear: I love this book, very, very much. It manages to communicate to toddlers what the world can offer, and gently and honestly hint at what the world can take away (all the balloons pop, with the exception of Alon’s, which flies away). This book is only an example of how a wonderful children’s book can illustrate women’s shrinking place in society. They must not dare, and they are not permitted to stray any further than the nearest caregiving facility.
This book also supplies an answer, to some extent, to the question of why fathers often feel that their fatherhood and their emotional and caretaking abilities are inferior to those of their spouses. They see this inferiority as something natural and inborn. But that is not the case. It is books like this, rife with powerful messages defining male and female roles, that inundate us from childhood.
We see these differences between the sexes as parts of our nature, but in fact these are only cultural differences, and they begin when messages are transmitted to us from an early age, in a subliminal manner.
That is why we need an International Women’s Day – to become aware that even when we read innocent children’s books, there are chauvinistic messages hidden therein.
It must be said that Israeli society has made great strides toward gender equality – but we must not rest on our laurels. There is still a long way to go before true equality is achieved.
In conclusion, let us take advantage of International Women’s Day to internalize the idea that men, too, can care, love, contain, and that women can aspire high, go far and be daring.
All of us, men and women alike, deserve to experience all that life has to offer. In order to make all the opportunities accessible to everyone we must start telling our children how Uri pets the kitty and how Ruthie sends her balloon higher and further – to the clouds. Perhaps we should begin by telling ourselves.
The writer is a fellow at Shaharit: Creating Common Cause, an independent think-tank in Israel.