The Gender Revolution Hits Israeli Schools

Kfar Sava's cutting-edge gender-studies program, brought on by a teenager, is the exception that confirms the rule: The subject gets very little attention in Israeli schools.

The thunderous applause at the plenary session of Kfar Sava's city council about a month ago after a speech given by 17-year-old Shahar Elkwasser filled the young woman with cautious optimism. She had concluded her speech, about the status of women and the way to attain real equality and shrink the wage gap between men and women, with a declaration about the importance of sexual-equality education from an early age.

Her evident passion apparently impressed the city council members: In an unprecedented fashion the members of the coalition and the opposition voted unanimously in favor of integrating gender studies throughout the city's school system, from early-years education to the end of high school, during the new school year.

"I was surprised," said Elkwasser this week, "I didn't think it would be so easy." The sense of victory was shared by her friends who were there for the vote - members of Girls Leading Change, a municipal sexual-equality program in which Elkwasser is now a second-year participant. The program is currently run only at Katznelson High School, with a group of 50 girls.

Elkwasser was asked to address the city council following an event earlier this year that had angered Kfar Sava residents - one of several recent events marginalizing or even erasing the presence of women and girls from the public sphere. On Youth Movement Day, an annual event for members of the city's various youth movements, girls were banned from taking to the stage to sing, following a request from the Bnei Akiva National Religious Party youth movement. When this became publicly known, residents' criticism made its way into the local press. None of the Youth Movement Day organizers accepted responsibility for making the peculiar decision, but thanks to the intervention of the Kfar Sava Women's Council, it was decided to deal with the incident at the municipal level.

Now, encouraged by their local success, Elkwasser and her friends intend to promote their idea at the Knesset and propose a bill on compulsory gender studies. "Just as kids learn languages, geography and math, they have to learn the language of gender," Elkwasser says. "All teachers will have to be trained." Her sincerity is utterly delightful. "We need role models and inspirational figures," she continues, "because at the moment we only draw inspiration from our friends, our peers, and we don't really have role models."

The change in Elkwasser's own attitudes occurred during her participation in the Girls Leading Change program. "I've undergone an internal process. At some point during it, I started to ask questions," she says. "I started to understand things in a different way and to acquire tools that will help me in the future. The boundaries of our society are a little vague. For kids my age it's hard to understand the lines marking sexual harassment: when it's OK, and when it isn't OK. We don't know how to value ourselves. As girls we suffer from low self-esteem. The ideal of beauty that society imparts to us make us behave like victims.

"From an early age, we're taught how girls are supposed to behave and how boys have to be," Elkwasser adds. "It's only after I started participating in the program that I understood that so much of what we do stems from that particular line of thinking, which limits us as we grow up. The fact that women feel they have to groom themselves, take care of the children, and not worry about developing a significant career - all of these come from the same line of thinking. For men it's no less complicated. Men have to be strong, but they also have to learn that it's OK to accept help. That's the role of gender studies - to fill this void."

Sporadic programs

The success of the Kfar Sava project is fascinating. Its results, particularly the empowerment that Elkwasser and her peers project, clearly demonstrate the social value of sexual-equality education, and raise the question of how widespread it already is in Israel's schools.

The gender equality division in the Education Ministry was founded by former Education Minister Limor Livnat, but its programs are voluntary. Whether students are ever exposed to them depends on the goodwill of the district supervisor, the local government or an enthusiastic teacher. As a result some cities are already fully engaged with gender studies - Bat Yam, Ashdod, Modi'in, Yavneh - whereas in other cities, gender studies are sporadic and limited to noncompulsory programs in high schools.

It isn't hard to persuade Oshra Lehrer, the new director of the Education Ministry's gender equality division, of the need to expand gender studies. In her former jobs, as a counselor and principal of the Het Comprehensive High School in Ashdod, she was an enthusiastic supporter of such programs and even played a role in their development. According to Lehrer, the goal of the programs currently run by the division she heads is "to allow both sexes maximal opportunities and not limit anyone because of stereotypical gender roles ... Maybe one day, when all stereotypes and constructions are a thing of the past, we'll be able to identify the role that social pressure plays and then understand the role played by biological constraints. For the moment, our role as educators is to generate a change and not accept and further entrench reality."

In the next few years, Lehrer says, the gender equality division intends to have an impact in elementary schools and, to this end, has passed some responsibility for gender studies onto the ministry's elementary education division. For now, the gender equality division's main efforts are focused on teacher training. During the past academic year, 71,000 elementary and high-school teachers underwent gender-studies training.

"Our main belief is that change starts with the educators. They are the agents of change and they have to teach the children on the basis of their own ideas," says Lehrer. The training sessions aim to discuss gender issues on a critical and intellectual level - for example, examining the connection between job choice and sex.

Lehrer says a pilot scheme will also be carried out in four schools - an elementary school in Mitzpeh Ramon, and in high schools in Haifa and Tel Aviv - in which teachers will be trained in gender studies and will integrate the educational principles in their schools.

A room of their own

In all, some 300 different groups currently come into contact with gender studies, mostly in high school. Some of the programs were developed by private organizations under the supervision of the ministry's gender equality division. Two important programs developed by the division itself are called Sharsheret (meaning "chain" ) and Girls and Boys Leading Change (not identical to the one in Kfar Sava ).

The Sharsheret program, created together with the American Joint Distribution Committee, is running in some 40 schools. Starting in the ninth grade, the program gives girls a space - a room of their own, so to speak - to meet with peers and discuss, together with a facilitator from the division, various issues of sexual stereotypes and social constructions, career choices, self-image, trafficking in women and prostitution, as well as other issues touching on equality and human dignity. The workshops are designed to promote personal empowerment and allow girls to raise issues from their own daily lives. In the tenth grade, graduates of the program start to mentor girls in the seventh grade, and work with them on ideas about gender, under the supervision of a teacher.

The Girls and Boys Leading Change program was created by women's rights advocates and the Education Ministry. Student volunteers meet, usually in separate girls' and boys' groups and sometimes jointly, with facilitators to deal with gender issues.

"We tend to relate to teenagers as if they know more than we do," says Lehrer. "After all, they're exposed to so much information on the Internet. But it still surprises me over and over again how motherhood is girls' foremost concern ... And what's even more surprising is that boys are increasingly adopting macho images and fashion dictates. We have to pay more attention to this: 'The fashion police' doesn't ignore [boys]. When you stand at the entrance of a high school, you'll be immediately struck by how much time and effort they put into how they look. The media has a very powerful effect. The visual images they consume become key to constructing identity, their 'I.' Children long to have this conversation with the guidance and supervision of people of their own sex."

This month, the girls from the Kfar Sava project contacted Lehrer and invited her for a conversation. Lehrer gladly accepted. The girls deeply impressed her, she says. Their desire to work with the Education Ministry and expand the program of gender studies in their city fell on attentive ears.

One serious stumbling block on the way to imparting the various gender studies programs is their lack of popularity among most girls, worried about being stigmatized. Elkwasser, for example, admits, "You can always hear someone saying, 'Hey, she's a feminist.' For some reason, feminism has become something negative in our society. Once you agree to listen, and hear an explanation about the Girls Leading Change program, you understand it's about a group of girls making a change - not just for ourselves but really for society as a whole."