Study Finds Dearth of Gender Issues in Literature Curriculum

'A structured and fundamental discussion of works from the perspective of gender is lacking.'

Gender issues are practically absent from the basic literature curriculum of Israeli high schools, a gender equality instructor at the Education Ministry wrote last week on a literary studies website.

Although there are "glimpses" of gender issue in the curriculum, writes Orna Brazni, who is also a literature teacher, what is lacking is "a structured and fundamental discussion of works from the perspective of gender."

Gender analysis, as she defines it, examines the "representation of women and the view through which they are depicted - not the relative number of times they appear as literary characters or authors."

The article, which according to Brazni was read and commented on prior to publication by the ministry's literature studies inspector, Shlomo Hertzig, was posted on a website for literature teachers. The article is also set to be sent to all literature teachers in the near future.

In Brazni's estimation, extensive exploration of gender issues in literature can only be found in one unit of the advanced literature course, which most students do not enroll in anyway.

"Sadly, the number of students who get a taste of a critical approach to gender issues in works included on the syllabus is extremely limited," Brazni writes. In the past five years, the number of students taking the matriculation exam in advanced literature dropped by about one third - from 3,900 to 2,700.

"The average literature class hardly deals with gender issues," said Edna Rash, a literature teacher from Kfar Sava reprimanded by the Education Ministry last year for teaching poems by Yona Wallach. "The studies are very mainstream. It's not just the teachers who find this sort of instruction difficult, but also the students - many of whom are captive to the patriarchal worldview and see any view that challenges male hegemony as frightening and intimidating."

"It's not enough to teach works written by women," another teacher, from Jerusalem, told Haaretz. "We should address the manner in which women are represented, and in power relations between men and women. The seminars held by the Education Ministry on these issues are interesting, but the question is what you do in the classroom."

Brazni believes teachers should delve into gender issues as captured in the works of Nathan Alterman, Shaul Tchernichovsky and Chaim Nachman Bialik, as well as in the works and representation of Rachel, one of the key female poets of Hebrew literature. Not all works need to be taught from the perspective of gender, she continues, but certainly those which clearly address relations between men and women.

The Education Ministry said in response that its seminars for literature teachers regularly include gender issues in the syllabus, and that an entire unit in the extended literature program focuses on that subject as well.

"[Addressing] gender issues involve reading texts from a gender perspective, and this is done primarily by the teachers," said Hertzig. "In fact, you can hardly teach literature without including the gender angle."

Hertzig added that some questions on the matriculation exam are specifically aimed at exploring gender aspects of literary works.