As gender becomes a bigger conversation topic in our day-to-day lives, it is important to think about how it affects a particular type of college experience: study abroad. As a woman studying abroad, gender has played a significant role in my experience. I have had to learn how to navigate gender roles in another cultural context. (You can read more about that in Part 1 of this post: “Gender in Jerusalem: My Experience as a Woman Studying Abroad.”)
I knew that there must be difficulties in navigating gender roles during study abroad outside of my own experience as a woman. Even though men and women are almost equally represented on college campuses in the U.S., men usually comprise less than a third of college students studying abroad. I always assumed this was because they are more likely to pursue STEM majors that require many courses only offered at their home university. Since I’ve arrived in Israel, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of my fellow students about their experiences, and it turns out that the issue of masculinity abroad is much more nuanced than that.
One student, Jacob Miller from Rutgers University, decided to study abroad in Israel to study political science, explore his Jewish identity, and “experience life in Israel as an actual resident.” However, what he did not bargain for was how Israeli gender roles would make him question his perceptions of masculinity.
“Being a man in Israel is kind of confusing. In the U.S., I know what it means to be man, and how to act as a man, because there are pretty clear gender roles (and because I’m used to being a man in that context). In Israel, however, there is a kind of paradox: On one hand, women and men both serve in the army and there is the stereotypical “sabra” stereotype (tough on the outside but sweet on the inside, much like the plant of the same name), so women are often more confrontational and less intimidated than one might expect from women in the U.S. On the other hand, there are many religious Jews in Israel who encourage very traditional gender roles. Therefore, one segment of the population expects a more egalitarian attitude than the U.S. and another expects a more traditional attitude, while another expects some strange combination. Perhaps I’m thinking about this wrong, and traditional roles and “sabra” roles are not necessarily contradictory; after all, living in a place where one’s wellbeing is under threat from surrounding countries forces everyone to develop outward toughness so that their traditional ways of life can be preserved.”
Gender roles may be complicated in cultures that are different from the ones we’re used to, but perhaps that’s a good thing: it makes us re-evaluate the ways we’ve always believed and behaved, and it teaches us to adapt to new contexts. For me, that has meant weighing respect for religious traditions alongside my values of equality for women. For Jacob, that has meant understanding the deeper reasons behind the expectations and gender roles of Israeli society.
Despite all these complications, Israel is uniquely suited to a specific type of study abroad experience that is valuable to men as well as women. You don’t have to sacrifice your program of study or your interests to study abroad; in fact, studying abroad in a place like Israel can enhance your academics in a way that may not be possible in your home country. I believe this is why there is an equal number of men and women in the IFSA study abroad program: there’s something for everyone here. One of the IFSA students, Mike Iacono from Haverford College, chose to study abroad in Israel because he wants to learn Arabic for future use in the political realm. Mike said, “Being in a country where so much is going on makes the theories behind my [political] studies much more tangible.”
Similarly, Jacob said, “There’s no better place to study the art of politics than in the quagmire called the Middle East. If I can understand how political leaders approach problems here, I can learn how they approach problems anywhere.” But Israel isn’t just good for political or religious studies—it is also the perfect place for Jacob to explore his Jewish identity. Because he is studying abroad in Israel, he has had the unique opportunity “to visit the Old City, take a class on Jerusalem’s architecture, eat everything I get my eyes on, attend Sabbath meals with Israeli families, attend Hillel events, attend political lectures around the area, and talk to as many people as I can about what it means to be Jewish (or not Jewish) in Israel.”
Jacob’s final word of advice? “My message to men who are hesitant about studying abroad is this: yes, you might be comfortable in your dorm and class routine, and you might have found your niche and friend group, but you aren’t going to be at school your whole life. Get used to change, and embrace it.”
It’s not just women who can have these new cultural experiences and opportunities. Men can—and should study abroad, too. If approached thoughtfully, one could say that study abroad is the perfect place to evaluate the gender roles we are used to and approach the world with a richer, more sympathetic lens.
Tori Paquette is a Jewish Studies major at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA at Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.