Activists Battle to Establish a Secular Feminist School in Israel

At a time of increasing gender segregation demanded by parts of the religious community, will the initiative be a feminist achievement or create a gender ghetto?

The Elmwood girls' school in Ottawa, Canada.
School courtesy of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

Hardly a day goes by without news on gender segregation – just this week it emerged that the army is calling for bids to build “decorative and modern” barriers to separate men from women on bases. Also, school principals in Tel Aviv came out against the Education Ministry’s requirement to separate boys from girls in elementary school sports activities, and the health system is heading toward gender segregation at the behest of the ultra-Orthodox community.

In stark contrast to the objections to these trends by large segments of the population, an initiative – indeed a feminist and secular initiative – is underway centered on gender segregation: a high school for girls only. The secular part bears repeating.

Gender segregation for feminist reasons is a known concept, though a controversial one. Supporters rely in part on research showing that girls who study separately from boys are more successful in their studies, have greater motivation, are more confident about expressing their opinions, have an improved self-image and participate more in social and political activities.

The idea behind the new initiative is that ordinary schools, as microcosms of society, don’t give girls the freedom to fulfill themselves and maximize their abilities. For example, study materials largely emphasize men and boys, and teachers unconsciously give boys preferential treatment. Thus many girls emerge from adolescence with a damaged self-image that mars the rest of their lives.

How has this idea been received so far? “Very often we encounter suspicion; segregation is a very problematic word,” says Hadas Reis, the educator who launched the plan.

But she adds: “I don’t see this school as segregated but rather as a high-quality framework for excellence that provides an answer for those suited to it. There are approaches under which an educational process for changing the situation has to happen in a mixed group. What we’re saying is that a school for girls can definitely effect change because the students will have the optimal environment for their development, and so society can only benefit.”

Reis, a consultant at a center for business entrepreneurship and the CEO of the nonprofit group Atid Bamidbar, is promoting the initiative in partnership with the Society for the Advancement of Education in Jerusalem. Talks are moving ahead with the Jerusalem municipality, where, if all goes as planned, the school might come into being about a year and a half from now.

Reis says she has visited a number of American schools of the kind she’d like to establish, which are neither private, religious nor selective; among them are institutions with links to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in the United States and Canada, and the Young Women’s Leadership Schools. At one of the latter, in Harlem in New York City, “most of the girls are of the first generation to obtain higher education,” Reis says. “One-hundred percent of the graduates attend college and 96 percent complete a four-year program.”

Public, non-elitist and diverse

Galit Deshe, a gender studies lecturer who once headed the Israel Women’s Network and a supporter of Reis’ project, talks about her visit to a feminist school for girls a few years ago. “It was wonderful, public and located in Atlanta in a very complex neighborhood,” Deshe says.

“I’m also familiar with models of separate education in mathematics for girls and how successful they are. I think this is definitely a possible model and see its unique feminist aspects. It provides a unique possibility for personal development for girls, by choice.”

One big question is which girls – and parents – would accept the offer of such a school. Reis says the intention is to establish a public, non-elitist school that would be open to any girl and be committed to diversity, both among the students and teachers.

Deshe believes that to a large extent this depends on the marketing. “It’s definitely possible that we’ll see a very varied population,” she says. “You have to invest in building the right mix and not create a one-dimensional model.”

And what about the expected criticism – that gender segregation entails a danger of regression – regression in the achievements of equality? What if it basically creates a ghetto for girls?

“The discourse that’s developing now is very innovative; it shouldn’t be seen as support for gender segregation of the kind that excludes,” Deshe says. “On the contrary, it’s a model that expands possibilities.”

Reis says her project doesn’t aim to change the whole education system. “It’s clear to us that such a framework isn’t suited to every girl. We recognize that multiplicity and variety are essential for developing gender equality,” she says.

“That is, girls definitely can benefit from studying alongside boys, but many girls can flourish better in an environment that’s not mixed – especially if they seek to go deeply into subject areas defined as masculine, or for social and cultural reasons.”

The idea is to offer a different model because of the constant pressure on girls to look a certain way, talk a certain way and choose to do things a certain way.

“We’ll give them the time needed to understand how to be themselves, without apologizing for their femininity or getting stuck in a role that others decide for them. We believe that if they experience a different kind of interaction, they’ll enter the next stage prepared and mature,” Reis says.

“School isn’t a closed framework – the girls will experience the gender world the way it exists outside the school walls and also in the curriculum. The difference is that they’ll learn how to integrate into society from a place of leadership and not as excluded or led.”

Girls and boys

Sigal Oppenhaim-Shachar, a lecturer on gender studies at Bar-Ilan University who has written the academic justification for the plan, says “gender segregation is a political issue that for the most part entails processes of exclusion and is based on false premises – ‘This is how we will protect the girls; that is, the boys, from the need to sin.”

She says that in this situation, “I see a difficulty in defending separation without qualifying it. I’m in favor of separation aimed at inviting girls, who usually live in a sexist and for the most part unaware learning space, to investigate themselves and their strength in supportive circumstances with a staff that’s knowledgeable, understanding and able to provide a model. It’s only in conditions like this, when the reasons are to strengthen girls and expand the range of their introspection, that separation can be appropriate.”

As she puts it, “In light of the discourse that makes thing superficial, I wouldn’t want a recommendation like this to become sweeping, because it could serve as a justification for segregation for extraneous reasons. For example, for reasons of ‘modesty’ or the argument like ‘oy vey, in a minute we’ll see sexual relations before our very eyes.’ Separations like that only increase sexism and instances of sexual violence because they reduce the possibility of believing in a sound life together in the future – that is, a life where a person isn’t obedient or motivated only by a sexual code.”

Indeed, gender segregation is an explosive issue, certainly in Israel today. On the one hand, it’s possible to understand opponents of separating the sexes who fear that it perpetuates the treating of women based on their sexuality, leading to a higher barrier. On the other hand, supporters of separate education for feminist reasons cite the great potential for liberation from the male gaze.

And from the religious angle, the issue doesn’t get any simpler. Here, as with any establishment, there is the threat of badly blurring the boundary between the religious establishment and religion itself.

That is, in some places political or misogynist interests might be served by gender segregation, but does this mean, for example, that religious women should be prevented from studying at university only with other women, or that they should be prevented from dancing at a graduation party only with other women? To some extent this case, which came up two years ago at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, exemplifies the dilemma.

Beyond that, schools for girls are of course a matter of routine in the religious community, and among them is a tiny minority with a feminist outlook, like the Pelech school in Jerusalem established by Prof. Alice Shalvi in the 1970s, which has become a cornerstone of religious feminism in Israel.

So does the new initiative have the chance to become the “Pelech of secular feminism”?

The leaders of the project have presented it to the Education Ministry and are taking part in a research and development program there that follows innovative educational initiatives. As part of this effort a kind of pilot study is underway – a group of seventh-grade girls in Jerusalem called Girl Power.

The initiators are also holding discussions with academic and activist women and men about ways to bring the initiative to fruition; to this end, they’ve also applied to a number of foundations for support.

Will all this be enough? We’ll wait, we’ll study the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Nawal El Saadawi, bell hooks, Catharine MacKinnon and Vicki Shiran – and we’ll see.