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Breaking through assumptions about gender and conflict

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Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel WOMEN OF THE WALL PHOTO
Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel WOMEN OF THE WALL PHOTO

I teach a course on Women in Israel, part of the minor in Israel studies for the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. There are numerous sources for such a course: historical chronologies, political analyses, memoirs, biographies and even cookbooks. But exposing North American students to a critical look at gender in Israel is difficult since many enter the classroom anticipating discussions of Palestinian claims and gender oppression only caused by Israelis. In this context, focusing on the problems of Israeli society is a risky business. Additionally, gender is a complex subject that requires a multi-layered perspective.

In order to alter the discourse, I use a film titled A Slim Peace. Yael Luttwak (founder and co-director) produced the film in 2007, following a group of 14 women who meet together in a Weight Watchers program. It does not hide the conflict or the hatred, but puts it into a human dimension, allowing a glimpse of women’s lives, of a reality that crosses boundaries and borders.

No longer in a generalized and ambiguous plane, the film displays real people uttering clear emotions and ideas that are not easily dismissed. Significantly, some of the statements infringe on and even violate those cherished ideas the students held so passionately. They can begin to perceive a human dimension more acutely and personally as they recognize the dividing line between oppression and freedom, between conflict and coexistence is not so neat.

In particular, this film highlights the struggles women have in a conflict zone while revealing their very corporeal female existence. The conflict is not the primary topic and it helps to advance understanding when the class sees that people can live lives, meet each other eat, and socialize. Only sometimes does the “conflict” enter their conversation. It is not always front and centre.

READ: WONDERFUL WOMEN LOOK TO CLOSE ISRAEL’S GENDER GAP IN THE SCIENCES

Make no mistake, this film is not a pie in the sky, lovely women making friends and dancing the hora together. Not at all. They are uneasy, but polite. One woman says “the word Palestinian makes me uncomfortable. I cannot believe I am sitting here with my enemy!” Another innocently proclaims, “I thought everyone wearing a hijab wanted to kill me. But now I enjoy being your partner Amal!”

They don’t become BFF’s! One woman likens the meeting to an uncomfortable blind date. They speak their minds and get into some painful and difficult discussions.

But they all want to lose weight. And in that moment of concern for how they look, they share a universal female experience that strangely, and even awkwardly, brings them together. They talk not of fighting, but of fighting the urge to eat. They understand the battle of the bulge and that is again a shared territory.

The premise of the film is that it’s possible to build upon shared territories, shared understandings and shared experiences. The lines of conflict are blurred here. They still exist, but other experiences prevail for a few short moments.

One woman notes that as a secular Jew she has more in common with the Palestinian radio-show host than with the religious Jewish settler. “All you religious people look the same to me.”

Friendship does not emerge here. But cognizance does.

The various conversations are in fact illuminating; from the daughters and the mothers, the Jews and the Muslims, the religious and the secular. So many different categories and so many boundaries crossed. We see and hear the women laugh, doubt, agonize and clap for each other as they lose one pound.  My students, the men as well as the women, are intrigued, gaining candid insight into the issues. The students must renegotiate their approach to Israel.

Using this film as a pedagogic tool leads to an open dialogue about gender, conflict, Israel and human relationships. It does not solve anything. But it breaks through some basic assumptions and opens up discussion.

Film can do that!