They Say They Wanna (Sexual) Revolution

Along with elementary-school classes in gender issues, feminism and sexuality, lessons are being offered in Israel to teenage girls to enable them to speak out about – and even teach – such subjects.

Tomer Appelbaum

It’s Monday of last week, 10:45 A.M., at the Kehila Democratic School in south Tel Aviv. Gender studies teacher Il-Il Kofler enters the packed classroom where 23 fourth- to sixth-grade girls are seated. Today’s lesson will focus on the question of how Lego evolved from a game that was not gender-specific to one intended mainly for boys. Kofler shows the class commercials and advertisements for the Danish building-brick game, from the 1960s to the present. Everyone notices the changes and have something to say about them.

The girls in the classroom find the latest commercials – touting a separate Lego line for girls, in pastel shades with a strong emphasis on pink, called Lego Friends, which has hardly any pieces that require assembling – quite amusing. Even at their tender age, these kids can spot the manipulation.

At the end of the lesson, Kofler reminds everyone that in two weeks the class is going on a field trip to Dizengoff Cetner, where the children will go from store to store and look for the differences between the toys that are meant for girls and those meant for boys.

Meanwhile, one girl tells about what happened once when she ordered the kid’s meal at McDonald’s, and asked for the boy’s version of the toy that comes with it rather than the one for girls. The woman behind the counter asked her to pay extra for it.

The awareness that these young girls already have of the gender pitfalls awaiting them in the world is surprising considering their ages, which range from 9 to 11. But Kofler’s class at Kehila is unusual; indeed, very few Israeli kids, boys or girls, receive any education in this realm.

Two days later, at the same place but this time during the evening, it appears that the revolution is already on the way. In the wake of the “No More Being Silent” (Mafsikot Lishtok) Facebook page started by Ramle high-school student Rotem Elisha (to protest the ban on high-school girls wearing short skirts or short pants, while boys were allowed to wear shorts) – which sparked a wave of protest throughout the country against the inequitable treatment in schools regarding girls’ attire – Kofler organized a one-time workshop for high-school girls who want to be able to give gender lessons in their schools.

Tomer Appelbaum

Once again the classroom was packed, this time with 10th- to 12th-graders from Jerusalem, Hadera, Rehovot and other cities. These were teens who are fed up with waiting for the Education Ministry to take clear and consistent action to deal with gender issues in high schools, and who are ready to take on the mission themselves.

In the workshop, Kofler spoke mainly about the various ways to approach the subject, and the pedagogical tools that can be used, such as videos, games, clips of familiar songs accompanied by textual analysis of the lyrics. She also talked about how to discuss the gender issue with teachers at their schools, so that the teens would be given an opportunity to present such a lesson.

Almog Cohen, a 12th-grader from the Ohel Shem School in Ramat Gan, came to the workshop with her friend Hagar Ashtar, and 11th-grader at the same school. They already had a clear idea of what’s missing at their school in terms of gender and related issues, and hoped that Kofler’s workshop would help them achieve their aims.

“We want to prepare a curriculum on the subject of sex education, less about gender and feminism,” said Cohen, “but everything is connected. At our school, nothing is done about this subject. No one talks about it at all. Sex education and how it relates to feminism and gender is something that’s never discussed, and it’s very important. It influences the lives of both women and men, on a daily basis. It’s a topic that people are afraid to touch, and I think it needs to be brought up, even in elementary school.”

Added Ashtar: “We want to get into the topic of gender in the sexual arena, to look at what’s expected in romantic relationships from the man and the woman – what it is she is supposed to do, and what he is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to happen. There can be all kinds of stereotypes here too that have nothing to do with girls not playing soccer, but things that are hard for people to deal with, especially teachers. For example, what is healthy sexuality? What is consent, in those relations? What about social pressure?”

How will this be accepted at your school?

Cohen: “We’ve already started to talk about it with the guidance counselor, and there is a math teacher who asked me to give a lesson in his class one time. I think that if I keep nudging people enough about it they’ll eventually get tired of listening to me and they’ll agree.”

Ashtar: “I know which teachers to go to. But problems will begin when we get to the students – how do we get them to open up to the subject? I hope we’ll find the ways to do this.”

'Alarm bells'

Gaya Bugat and Netanela Tzur, 11th-graders at the pluralistic Keshet High School in Jerusalem, also feel that while the gender issue is interesting and important, what’s needed more urgently is a discussion of serious topics like sexual offenses.

“We want to do workshops on understanding what sexual harassment actually is, and how to deal with it,” Tzur explained. “The kids at our school don’t know enough about it. They think that rape is the only sexual offense there is.”

Where does your awareness come from?

Tzur: “It comes from my mother, who worked at the Joint Distribution Committee in the field of educating future generations, and dealt with gender. I used to visit her at work and I heard about it there, and it would make my blood boil when I saw things and couldn’t do anything about them. I kept quiet for a long time but now I see that I can do something, that I can present this subject and show girls that there is something that can be done.”

Bugat: “I took part in a leadership project and that’s where it started to come together for me. I never felt any limitations because I’m a girl. Not in my family, not at school or in general. But I gradually began to notice that there were some restrictions that applied to me. I became more aware. And now everything I see sets off alarm bells.”

Kofler, 30, has been teaching feminism and gender for five years, since completing a university degree in gender studies. She also started a website that offers lesson plans for anyone who is interested in introducing the subjects in the schools. The first year she taught at Kehila, her class was described as a course on the history of feminism, and open to children in grades 3 through 8. Since this is a “democratic” school, the students decide which classes they are interested in. If there is no demand, the course doesn’t take place.

“The first year, the course was really packed, there was no room to sit. It was great, but then I saw that it would be better to divide it by age, to separate the elementary school kids from the junior high-schoolers. This year the class is just for elementary school grades.”

Asked if girls who are so young are even aware of or concerned with feminist issues, Kofler replied that their young age is actually an advantage.

“Young girls understand this much better than adult women, because schoolgirls see that their world is much more separate from that of the boys. They are told what girls are supposed to wear, which games girls are supposed to play. The existence of different worlds is clear, and so is the injustice. When they want to do other things, they’re laughed at,” she explained.

In any case, Kofler added, it’s important to adapt the lesson to the students’ ages: “Because teachers who are interested in feminism usually come from a background of fighting against sexual harassment, their lessons often aren’t suitable. In third grade, you’re not going to do a class about the right to an abortion. So I talk with the elementary school students about stories and fairy tales and toys, about Disney films – things that are connected to their world. You can also do gender lessons for boys, because there are forms of oppression directed at them too. They’re taught that to be a man is to be aggressive and watch porn all day long.”

The workshop Kofler leads for the high-school girls focuses primarily on ways for them to present a lesson themselves.

“There are lots of girls who are interested in feminism and gender, but don’t know the terminology and where to get the knowledge from. I want them to have basic materials and to see that holding a discussion needn’t be that complicated," Kofler said. "Most will get a chance to give a single lesson, 45 minutes at the most, in order to convey a subject that is quite vast, so I’d rather have them touch on a topic that really speaks to the class and will raise awareness, rather than get into very difficult discussions.”

Kofler is encouraged by the high-schoolers’ awareness, and said: “It’s often the case that feminist awareness comes about when something affects us personally. You won’t usually see women getting into their first feminist struggle without something having happened to them. Now that there’s all this interest in girls’ attire and the girls see that there’s inequality, that there’s even a perception of them as sluts – they understand that it’s all related to a bigger issue. I’m not sure there would have been such a big response had I offered this workshop six months ago. It’s exciting. It makes me feel that new generations of the feminist revolution are arising.”