Why Is Gender Studies Dominated by One Gender?

Yiftach Shiloni

Last week the annual Gender Studies Conference was held at Bar-Ilan University, which has one of the leading programs in Israel for a master's degree or doctorate in that field. The well-attended conference was titled "Gaps between Practice and Theory" and included 64 speakers at 10 engrossing sessions.

However, anyone who studied the conference's program closely would have noticed that there was not even one male among the dozens of speakers.

A conference that deals with the complex ties between women and men, with the issue of exploitation and repression, which aimed at examining developments in the field, "forgot" that at least 49 percent of its field included men.

This phenomenon can be found not only at the conference but also with regard to the number of male lecturers in the program - 11 per year, as opposed to some 20 women - and the minute number of male students enrolled (0-2 students per year, as compared with 30 women ).

As the first and, to the best of my knowledge, only man so far to complete the Gender Studies program at Bar-Ilan, it seems to me this is not merely coincidental. Gender issues were promoted by very talented feminist women who decided to combine field work - quite justified in my eyes - with the academic theories that were developed in parallel.

However, alongside this important work, a number of problematic tendencies developed, the most problematic being the lack of men in this field. It is hard to imagine a department for Middle Eastern studies without Arab students and lecturers. It is impossible to imagine a conference on the situation of Ethiopian immigrants without a sizable representation of them. Only one thing is indeed possible - totally feminist and female gender studies.

The lack of men in this discourse is ludicrous, not merely because of the lack of a very essential voice in research but because it also undermines the academic side. How is it possible to formulate a theory without reinforcement or criticism from colleagues in the field?

During my studies in the program, I found myself listening to the discourse and not being able to believe my ears.

The absence of males in so conspicuous a manner - and perhaps their exclusion is intentional - from the academic gender discourse, makes it monotonous. The accepted wisdom is that in the past men repressed women and that they continue to do so today, because every man has the potential to act violently.

Bad women? Violent women? Abusive women? Merely vulgar women? There is no such animal. At least not in feminist research.

Not that there is not a grain, or perhaps more, of truth in some of these claims. But the way in which the issues are presented and the extent of internal conviction about their truth repress any other form of thought.

To my regret, the gender studies program lacks all self-criticism, giving students a narrow view of the world. This approach allows female lecturers and students in the program to "feel at home" and to turn the academic world into another arm for their activity.

However it puts them in a very dangerous spot from the academic point of view, that of absolute certitude. It is from places where absolute justice and uniform ideas reigned that hatred and wars have broken out.

The heads of the gender studies program would do well to understand that the integration of men into the program as teachers, researchers, colleagues and students would be the right thing for the program itself, and even more so for Israeli society at large. It would be wise on their part to once again stick to academic fundamentals and to encourage continual criticism of research studies and ideas.

Without a substantive change, the program will be detached from reality, turn into an academic problem child and often be simply boring. And until such a time as they decide to do change course, it would be appropriate for them to change the program's name to "women's studies" or "feminist studies" - a name that better fits the current academic reality.

The writer was the first male to receive a master's degree in Gender Studies from Bar-Ilan University.