Engendering Gender Studies in academics

Last Updated 27 February 2013, 18:55 IST

Given the horrifying rise in gender-based crimes and biases, there is a gaping need for the inclusion of Gender Studies in today’s education, writes Padmakumar MM.

It is tragic that gang rapes, acid attacks, dowry deaths, gender-centred harassments, oppressions, biases and prejudices continue to happen with disturbing regularity. It is also tragic that the academia - with the responsibility of shaping the young minds of the nation - has for centuries together largely remained in blithe disregard of Gender Studies.
Given the volatile mood of the nation, and the way popular perception goes, we might perhaps assume that shoring up a case for Gender Studies is primarily a step towards checking crimes against women.

It is understandable that emotions run high on such occasions. Some of us get swayed and even go on to make frenzied demands of death penalties and chemical castrations for the rapists and prescribe protectionist standards for the women. A case for Gender Studies need not be bound by such a framework. It has to be understood in a wider context.

For example, building healthy inter-relationships among sexes, addressing gender equity, busting myths about body and self, critiquing ‘commonsensical’ ideas about gender in culture, scientifically countering biologically reductionist assertions, untying problematic knots of gender and caste, and assessing the understanding of gender in law are as well pressing concerns of our times.

For whom?

On the positive side, the UGC has finally stressed on gender sensitisation components in curricular domains of higher education. However, having lived in a society that is patriarchal in its very bones, we cannot let a change for the better be postponed till the higher education stage. Gender sensitisation ought to happen right from primary school levels. Those of you in doubt could notice or recall how kids mimick their parents, and how the dad is often portrayed as the commanding, authoritarian taskmaster and the mother as the obedient, nurturing cook. It is obvious through such simple day-to-day examples that we think about the sexes on the basis of uncritical and fixated roles and responsibilities.

Even intellectual giants like Sigmund Freud had such limited and limiting observations. Freud in his early days had claimed that anatomy is destiny. In other words, it meant that one's sex decides what one has to do and what one has to be. However, in an intellectual domain, feminist thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir have countered such biological essentialism.

Beauvoir in her 1949 book The Second Sex,  famoulsy asserted “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” and emphasised gender as a social construct.
A man can draw rangoli on the streets and that does not make him feminine. A woman can play football or basketball and that does not make her 'tomboyish.' It is precisely this kind of clarity that people, even from an urban and educated background, seem to be missing. Without gender-centered critical orientation, myths and biased assertions become the norm.

Recent gender controversies associated with Dr. Rajith Kumar, the President's son - Abhijit, and self-proclaimed Godman Asaram Bapu offer compelling examples of how such 'norms' have a deep-seated impact. To dislodge gender bias, it is pertinent that we have early exposure to gender studies.

Gender Studies, should not be seen as a domain where women alone stand to benefit. With its emphasis on gender as a social construct, gender studies could dispel a lot of myths and misunderstandings built around the human body. It is especially important in a society like ours where 'sex talk' is taboo.

Our doubts about the body cannot be that easily clarified either with medical experts or with friends and family. Consequently, the understanding of many teenagers about their body and bodily changes are caught in a web of fears, anxieties and worries.
A gender studies course with Bama's Sangati, life histories of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawkings could go a long way in disassociating self-image from problematic notions of beauty, deformities, disabilities, etc. and prompt a healthy notion of the body and the self.
How to conceptualise it?

The academicians who feel the need for a gender studies component – be it in schools or in colleges – will realise that gender studies could only work parallel to notions of gender that children of today pick up from the family, the society, religion, caste, and media. The challenge is to understand the complex interrelationships between them, in differing contexts.

A case in point is the variety of responses – many conflicting – that the Delhi gang rape has fetched. Considering media, as a domain where such complexities operate, proves helpful. For instance, the audio-visual media has often uncritically allowed the eye of the camera to read bodies as objects of desire. In complete contrast to such a stance, the same media suddenly wakes up to realities of policy issues on gender and debates it with gender activists, politicians, and social scientists.

Apart from such internal inconsistencies in some sectors, domains like law, science, religion, and state have locked horns over how the women ought to be ‘protected.’ The mismatch between Justice Verma committee’s report and the State’s follow up response are clear indicators.

Hence, law and religion, science and literature, family and nation, all need to come to the talking table and self-reflectively assess their conceptions of gender. On the basis of such examples and by its very nature of being trasgressive, gender studies demands an interdisciplinary approach.

This will open up the boundaries between domains and allow free pursuit of knowledge. Further, the domain ought to be dynamic as notions of gender rest on shifting socio-cultural stances. Less than hundred years back, women wearing blouses were seen as problematically ‘modern.’ Fifty years back, education for women was unpopular. Twenty years back, it was not okay for any male actor to cry on screen. We know where we are today.

If we want to triumph over the forces that manufacture and maintain gender bias, and if we would like to ensure a gender-sensitive future, then we need to take firm steps. Introducing Gender Studies in schools and colleges could be one of the firsts.

(Published 27 February 2013, 16:47 IST)

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