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Feminism, Jews and teenage boys

2013 September 9
by Zoe Strimpel

Last night’s ideal setting, in downtown Gangtok, for a salon on feminism and anti-semitism.













After a really pretty awesome school musical performance of Across the Universe in the most spacious theatre I have ever seen, featuring a best-of-Beatles soundtrack sung and played by local students (the actor playing Jude sang Paul in the style of Justin Timberlake but hell, I still loved it), me and Professor Tom and Principal Lauenstein went out for dinner.

Accompanying us were four boys from the school – all on the basketball team, all swaggerers, all with big poofy hair in the style of boy bands. At first Tom and I thought it might be hard work.

And then, over slabs of spicy pork and deep fried dumplings, I decided to ask some general questions. “Have you heard much of feminism? What do you think it means?”

The answers were interesting. The Bhutanese boy to my right, a good looking young man with very voluminous hair, said he thought it meant “to do with women and girls”. The boy to my left added: “girly”. And so I established that feminism was being conflated with the feminine, rather than as a political movement with any aims.

After some conference among themselves, though, the boys came back with: “oh, like, equal rights for women and stuff”.

The Principal chipped in: “Have you been brought up thinking boys and girls are equal?”

The gentleman to my right didn’t need to think: “No. Girls are weaker physically and I never see any in technology or science.” Pushed a little, it appeared he had concluded that girls were just worse at those things because they were born with less able brains. In this vein, boys “think outside the box” while presenting creative ideas to girls leads to cold water pouring.

I spent the next ten minutes or so outlining the “scientific” arguments against the claim that women’s brains are born stupider at maths and better at helping around the house and cooking than men’s. I told them that the fact they didn’t see many women in technology or science was not a matter of brain, but of acculturation and opportunity. Indeed, did they know that more than half of biology majors are women? Did they know that a woman runs Facebook, eBay and Yahoo? (Of course, they were right to note a serious lack of woman engineers and tech entrepreneurs but I had to make them know that their conclusions about gender were not right).

They took this information in good grace, and one boy even admitted that the girls he knew worked harder and often did better in school than the boys. Another, a former resident of Queens and thug-in-training, noted that his mother, a nurse, was his role model. Later, though, as we were walking along the street we talked about the provocative swagger one of them sported. “I’m glad I’m not a boy,” I said, “and getting punched all the time”. “Ha ha,” snickered another, “girls get punched too”. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Over dinner, the woman question dealt with, it was time for another. “Have you heard of Jews?” They had. What did they associate with them? There were some mimes of curly sidelocks, of some big noses, and talk of controlling money. However, to my surprise and the Principal’s smug smile, they had all seen Schindler’s List and were fairly well versed in the Holocaust, piping up with Six Million.

“But have you heard of anti-semitism?” I quizzed. They had not. “Well,” quoth I, “just as important as knowing about Jews is knowing about anti-semitism. Throughout all time and in all places, wherever there have been Jews and even where there have not been (North Korea, for instance), there has been violent hatred of them. The hallmark of antisemitism is its irrationality – the Jews were accused of being money-grubbing capitalists AND communists by the Germans; effete and sexual aggressors; weak yet insatiable; cowardly yet dangerous…and so on. Be aware of anti-Semitism, boys”, said I, “and counter it!”

When we left the restaurant the boys had a clear action plan. Counter prejudice, and pay particular attention to two of the most insidious and time-honoured forms: that against women and Jews.

Easy peasy. And I’m sure they’re looking forward to the next dinner.

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