Once upon a time there was a handsome boy named Sami. His father died when he was young and his mother married a widower with two sons. They all lived together.
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So begins a puppet theater performance by fourth- to sixth-grade students at the elementary school in Buqata, a Druze village in the northern Golan Heights. If it sounds familiar, it's no coincidence – it is the classic Cinderella story with the genders reversed.
In the Buqata version, Cinderella is the handsome Sami, and the stepmother is replaced by an evil stepfather, who forces Sami to work in the garden and clean the house while his stepbrothers laze around indulging themselves.
The context is a lesson in gender studies. "The students examine whether a story like Cinderella can still work if the main character is male and question why only females are depicted in that way in the fables with which they grew up," says Suhad Antir Tarbiya, the school art teacher who initiated the program two years ago.
In the story, a beautiful princess is holding a ball and invites all the handsome men from the area in order to choose one of them as her beau. The stepbrothers arrive dressed in the new clothes their father bought them, while Sami is magically transformed into a clean handsome youth in a fine and expensive suit. Mice are transformed into a carriage pulled by a white horse.
While the story does not have a glass slipper, the princess asks Sami to dance with her and they fall in love.
The characters are played by dolls, manipulated behind a screen by boys and girls. "There is no difference between a man and a woman; women are also capable," exclaims sixth-grader Allisar al-Aweel, who is manipulating one of the puppets.
Her friend, Iris Abu Shaheen, says that the girls try to persuade the boys to "change their preconceptions," while Hatem Farhat proclaims that "there is a place for women in society, just as there is for men." All three acknowledge that they thought differently until recently.
Jamila Shams, the first kindergarten teacher in the village, who has been invited to address the students, was also the village's first female high school student. Her decision to continue studying caused a scandal in the village, "as if I had done something wrong," she says.
The scandal did not abate. When she got to eleventh grade, her father was ostracized and expelled from the prayer house. The pressure forced her parents to decide to withdraw her from school, she says, "but when my mother arrived at the school to fetch me, the teachers wouldn't allow it. They told her that I was talented."
While formally no longer at school, she continued studying in secret. She hid her books and notebooks and left for school only after her father went to work. After matriculating, she began to work as a kindergarten teacher in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze town on the Golan Heights, returning to do the same job in the village the following year.
Until that point, she says, the four kindergartens in the village were run by men. She discovered that she had a special talent for soothing crying children, possibly due to her feminine and motherly touch. "They saw that I was good at the work; that I was successful and produced results," she says.
The parents also understood that "it was the right thing for their children," she says. "After that, all the girls in the village began learning."
Shams continued studying after her marriage and gained a teaching certificate. "I fought for what I wanted," she says. She has been working as a kindergarten teacher for 38 years. "I have a degree in the real world," she tells the students in the gender studies group.
Art teacher Antir Tarbiya relates that the idea behind the group was the gender equality unit in the Education Ministry. "I heard about the concept of 'gender' and fell in love with it," she says, "because I very much believe in equality between the genders."
Having worked at the school for 13 years, she made it her goal to empower the girls and implement the concept of equality among the students. "There is discrimination in the way boys and girls are educated," she says. "The boys have more power, while the girls are coddled."
She began a sixth-grade personal identity project, in which the students drew themselves and their place within the family. "The boys drew themselves riding motorbikes and playing sports," she says, "while the girls were in nature or cleaning the home. The boys used blue and green colors, while the girls went for pink and yellow."
One boy was laughed at when he used pink. But this week, when the students made papier-mché masks, one of the boys created a pink mask without any trouble.
Antir Tarbiya used paintings to introduce discussions about gender. "The students begin discussing and slowly they begin to think differently," she says. It's not easy and there are still students who think along traditional lines.
"But the essence it that we speak about it," she says. "For example, one female student told me that she hadn't been persuaded and intended discussing it with her parents. There are also those who say that there is complete equality in their homes, while others say that the father has the final word. But what's important is that we're talking about it."
This year, the project has been extended to fourth-graders. Butina Farhat Shams, the school's social education coordinator, says that the results of the program are seen everywhere.
This year, for example, for the first time in the school's history, a female was elected head of the students' council. There is also a special student's gender council, with representation from all the classes, which initiates activities together with the teaching staff.
One focus of the activities is on successful Druze women. "The students did research projects on the women, who were invited to the school once the research was completed," says Farhat Shams.
The project has now gone beyond the confines of the school. On a recent visit to an old-aged home, the students discovered that the majority of the women in the home had never even entered a school and that many were illiterate. Since then, the students and volunteer teachers have been teaching the aged women to read and write.