A Room of Their Own

In a class on gender issues, senior high-school girls are discussing sexual harassment. More specifically, they are examining how the cases against former president Moshe Katsav and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have influenced their lives. Suddenly one girl asks another why she is wearing such revealing clothes.

"You can hardly imagine the discussion that ensued," says Dana Frank, who took part in the class. "We talked about our feelings, about what clothing symbolizes, about externalizing our sexuality as young women and about the limits each of us sets for herself. I never thought I would be able to talk so frankly with other girls about these basic elements of my character."

The standing joke among the girls, Frank adds, is that classes on gender issues always end in tears, because someone makes a poignant confession.

Frank, who graduated last year from Mevo'ot Eron High School, spoke about the class at an award ceremony for the school. Mevo'ot Eron was honored by the Menashe Regional Council for its feminist-oriented curriculum. There are separate gender studies classes for male and female students.

"I learned a basic and very meaningful lesson in feminism, without even noticing that I had learned it," Frank said at the ceremony. "That may not sound like much, and cynics will say it is just 'girl talk,' but it is no small thing."

The 11th and 12th-grade female students attend a class on gender issues once a week. "I learned about the importance of empowerment, about how each one of us wants to be heard and about the importance of safeguarding this right," Frank said at the ceremony, which was held in conjunction with International Women's Day. "This is what I take to be true feminism: the ability to look at someone else and know they are undergoing what you are undergoing, to listen to them willingly and give them room, instead of stepping on them or not listening to them at all."

Mevo'ot Eron is one of some 100 schools that now offer advanced programs in gender studies. The school has run its program for eight years already, and the teachers in charge espouse radical views.

"There are very few schools in which one finds a feminist ideology, rather than an attempt to soften that approach, and Mevo'ot Eron is one of them," says Miriam Shechter, who is in charge of the Education Ministry's department responsible for gender equality. "Generally, we reach schools through concepts such as equality, human dignity or social justice. It is harder to introduce programs by hoisting the feminist banner."

The curricula in gender studies and equality are set by the Education Ministry or by the teaching staff in each school. In a few dozen additional high schools the subject is embedded in the existing curricula - for example, through a course on women's writing. There are only two schools that allow students to take matriculation exams in gender studies. Following the success of the programs in Mevo'ot Eron, which has about 950 students from local kibbutzim, cities and towns, the school is now considering the possibility of introducing gender studies as early as 10th grade.

The egalitarian approach inherent in gender studies has also trickled into other subjects. For example, Mevo'ot Eron has introduced separate math classes for boys and girls to allow female students to manifest their talent in this realm (although this requires extra funding because of the duplicate classes).

Macho atmosphere

"The first stage is to understand that a problem exists," notes Rakefet Zohar, who was part of the team of female teachers in Mevo'ot Eron who pushed for the new approach. "A huge difficulty was the myth of kibbutz society, which insists that education must be egalitarian. It took time to understand that children's society is hierarchical. There was a small group of boys who ran things in the school, and their underlings were the auditing students, the Russians, the Ethiopians and the girls. It was totally patriarchal."

Zohar is seconded by the school's principal, Ronen Dori: "The female students were underdogs ... in learning and in social terms. The girls' performances were inferior in almost every sphere."

The beginning was relatively modest. Eight years ago, Mevo'ot Eron introduced separate homerooms for boys and girls. Afterward a similar separation was instituted in mathematics classes in the higher grades and in ninth-grade physics classes.

"There was a macho atmosphere in the classroom," math teacher Rachel Sharon says. "The boys made fun of the girls and bugged them with remarks like, 'why are you always asking questions?' They wanted to rush ahead with the material and accused the girls of holding them back."

Although it means double the work for her, Sharon is in favor of separating female and male students in math classes. "The boys don't feel they are being held back and the girls don't feel threatened by their comments," she explains. A survey of the students' achievements after math classes were divided showed that the girls' average grade rose from 90 to 95 and the boys' rose from 80 to 86. When the physics classes were divided by gender, the number of girls who chose it as an elective increased fourfold. Despite the encouraging data, however, the concept of separate classes did not take root in the school and remained a thought-provoking experiment. The main reason for this was a budgetary shortfall.

According to Dori, the Education Ministry department responsible for the kibbutz schools - to which Mevo'ot Eron belongs - only recently began to help cover the costs entailed in having separate classes. Despite the financial problems, the school's gender studies classes continue to be separate. The girls' classes are taught by female teachers, the boys' by male teachers. The girls' class discussions usually kick off with the screening of excerpts from films ("Billy Elliot" or "Girlfight," for example), or the starting point might be a sexist commercial or a newspaper article. Initially the teachers wanted to use classic feminist texts, by Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, among others, but the classes slid into talk about experiences with members of the opposite sex. The class turned from a group study of feminist texts to more of a support group.

According to Henya Shapira, the coordinator of gender studies for girls at Mevo'ot Eron, "the girls are drawn toward the support group; they prefer those talks to classes on the history of feminism." The result is discussions on how to deal with a restaurant manager who doesn't pay a waitress' salary, the girls' relationship with their mothers or sexual relations with a boyfriend. There is one strict rule all must abide by: Everything said in the classroom stays in the classroom.

"We are trying to understand what the right path is for each issue and to clarify what each of us thinks," says Ravit Inbar, a senior. "If one of the girls has a new boyfriend, the discussion immediately moves to the issue of sex. It is totally irrelevant to talk about these things with the boys. Each of us knows she can talk about whatever she wants and it will not go any further [than the room]."

In the boys' class, displays of feelings and openness are far more rare. Most of the discussion in the boys' gender studies classes deals with conventional social concepts, such as keeping one's distance from girls who hit on boys.

"It is a long process, and the very fact that adolescent boys are able to sit and talk about feelings is already a major accomplishment," says Eitan Namir, the coordinator of gender studies. "The boys already know what they are supposed to say and do. They know that remarks like 'don't worry, you'll get it, babe,' from Uri Zohar's film, 'Metzizim' ["Peeping Toms," 1972], have no place in today's scene. And the same goes for the male attitude toward women in the 'Eskimo Limon' ["Lemon Popsicle"] series. Still, they find it strange for a girl to pay on the first date."

'Like pearls before swine'

Many of the boys treat the gender studies class as an hour of fun, a break in the high-pressure matriculation exam preparations.

"Almost no one remembers anything from those classes," says Niv Alhasid, a senior. "It was nice while it lasted." In contrast, Erez Rak, also a senior, notes, "it turned out in the classes that we are a lot less chauvinistic than we make ourselves out to be. No one thinks that women have to stay home and do nothing."

When the gender studies classes started, Dori recalls, there was a furor over [teacher] Rakefet Zohar's remark that giving boys gender classes was like casting pearls before swine.

"Today I would never think of saying anything like that," Zohar says. "We were more radical back then, and the situation was tougher, both among the boys and within the school administration. In time, we moved from a status in which we were feminists first and only afterward female educators, to the reverse. All in all, this is a revolution that succeeded. In the first year or two, people thought we were crazy. Now we are running the school."

There has been a certain trickle-down of feminist attitudes. Eight years ago, when the gender studies classes first kicked off at Mevo'ot Eron, the boys went to gym class while the girls met for gender study sessions. A year later, male teachers and students also began to benefit from the project. In the past few years, the boys have requested that at least some of the classes be co-ed. Some teachers have softened their stance on this question, but Zohar, for one, is still firmly against the idea: "Our whole life is an encounter with males. There has to be a place that is ours alone."