Bat Yam teens explore being a woman in Israeli society

The former poor suburb of Tel Aviv has come into its own as a vibrant innovator of culture and education.

June 18, 2010 19:33
A photo exhibition with a feminist theme.

photos of women 311. (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)

‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” writes Simone de Beauvoir in her famous 1972 treatise on feminism, The Second Sex. Coping with the thorny issues of adolescent girlhood is at the heart of Being a Girl, Bat Yam’s yearlong female empowerment initiative for 15- and 16-year-olds, which ended last week with a festival of arts, theater and music.

Highlights included a photographic exhibition titled “Just Because of the Spirit,” featuring portraits of Israeli female celebrities on the cover of alternative women’s magazine Alumah, and musical performances by the girls themselves alongside established acts like 2009 “A Star is Born” (Kochav Nolad) winner Roni Dalumi.

Eighty 9th-grade girls from different Bat Yam high schools took part in the program, which used arts and culture as a medium to explore what it means to be a young woman in Israeli society.

In a country famous for tough women – Israel elected the world’s third-ever female prime minister in 1969, and young women serve alongside their male counterparts in compulsory army service – is it really necessary to teach Israeli girls to be more assertive? Being a Girl organizer Galit Shasho, Bat Yam’s Cultural and Strategic Planning Manager, believes it is absolutely essential.

“Even though women’s status has improved tremendously over the past years, there is still a long way to go before there is true gender equality in our society,” she says.

Being a Girl is aimed at 15- and 16-year-olds, says Shasho, because this is such a difficult age. The Hebrew word na’ara means an adolescent female – no longer a yalda, or child – and not yet a bahura, or young woman. These no-longer-children-but-not-yet-women have a tough job balancing school pressures while coping with new issues of sexuality, body image, friendships, peer pressure, parents, siblings and plans for the future. All of this is set against a constant and confusing bombardment of messages and images of how women should behave, how they should look, how they should speak and think.

As well as its cultural initiatives, Being a Girl also runs workshops on gender issues for both boys and girls.

“We asked these teens whether they think women are treated differently from men in the workplace,” explains Shasho. “What about in science? In sports?” If these issues are controversial, so much the better.

“Our aim is to create social activism,” she emphasizes. “We want to promote gender equality.”

Being a Girl, now in its third year, has grown from a small festival into a major educational program. It is no surprise that this innovative project is the brainchild of Bat Yam. This former poor suburb of Tel Aviv has in recent years come into its own as a vibrant innovator of culture and education.

“When we started Being a Girl in 2007, such an initiative had never been held in Israel before,” Shasho points out proudly.

One of Being a Girl’s innovations has been the use of theater to help teens explore various aspects of becoming a woman in Israeli society. Over the past year, community theater leader and playwright Keren Cohen has run a series of drama workshops that have brought together ninth-grade girls from across the city.

“This is a very difficult age for girls, they have lots of pressures,” says Cohen. “Through the drama workshops we wanted to help them overcome their fears and social anxiety.” Local teens Meytal Laor and Morag Lachs, both 15, who took part in the theater workshops and starred in the final performance, say the project had a huge impact on them and on their self-confidence.

“At first it was scary!” laughs Laor. “None of the girls in the group knew each other, but soon we started telling each other everything about ourselves.”

As Cohen helped the girls explore the issues that concerned them most, themes and stories began to emerge – conflict with parents and siblings, anxieties about body image and weight, peer pressures, boyfriend and best friend troubles.

“The project made the girls answer questions like: Who am I, how do I come across, do I do things to please others instead of being true to myself,” explains Cohen.

“We want to give girls the self-confidence and self-expression to be their own person instead of trying to be like everyone else.”

Cohen took the girls’ stories and used them to write a powerful stage play, which the girls performed at the Being a Girl festival. Watching the girls act out their stories is a moving experience, a real glimpse into their innermost lives as they pour out their hearts and souls to share the things that upset, frighten and anger them.

“Everyone tells her own story in the play, and mine is about my family, my mother, my big sister,” says Lachs. “I want them to listen to me, but it’s hard because I’m the youngest, the smallest.”

Being a Girl has received support and praise from leading feminists and institutions seeking improvement for women in Israeli society. Among the project’s collaborators and supporters are Prof. Hanna Herzog, head of the Women and Gender program at Tel Aviv University, and Vered Swid, director of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

“Being a Girl is important because it gives girls real tools to help them fulfill their potential,” says Swid, who believes this is an essential step toward gender equality in a society where women remain underrepresented in many professions.

“There are not enough women in medicine, in academia, in economics,” she continues. “My dream is to see true equality in all of Israeli society, and for that to happen we need to influence girls from a very young age.”

Bat Yam’s project has certainly made strides toward making this dream come true. Not only is Being a Girl currently considered a national model that could be rolled out to other Israeli cities, one of its major outcomes has been the establishment of a National Girls’ Parliament, a social and political task-force of young women calling for social action and change. Taking part in the parliament’s inaugural meeting in Bat Yam were teenage representatives from across the country, including Ra’anana, Herzliya and Kfar Saba.

While the social action that Galit Shasho is so keen to promote has certainly already started to happen, the true fruits of the project will be reaped in years to come, when today’s teens have blossomed into tomorrow’s successful women. A project that started out as a Bat Yam festival will have a much wider impact.

“These issues are universal, not just Israeli,” says Swid. “I am so proud that this project started here in Israel, in Bat Yam.”

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