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Conceptual Parameters

women studies / women and development

“Women’s Studies as a field of study evolved out of what is commonly known as the Second Wave of Feminism in the nineteen sixties. It is acknowledged as a product of and related to the women’s movement that emerged as a powerful social force. At first the concerns of Women’s Studies seemed fairly straightforward i.e. to criticize masculine biases of established academic disciplines as well as exclusive male conceptions and perspectives within these. But for over 30 years Women’s Studies courses have pushed the narrow parameters of traditional knowledge and academia and have challenged the rigid and false barriers between disciplines. Simultaneously, Women’s Studies developed alternative perspectives and methodologies that were firmly grounded in women’s own experiences.

It’s aim, now, is to arrive at a holistic understanding of the historical, social, political and economic oppression and exploitation of women as a necessary step in the transformation of unjust societies. Women’s Studies, therefore, has the potential to enable an awareness and consciousness not only of patriarchy, but also of class, race and other factors underlying oppression.

Interdisciplinary by definition, Women’s Studies is best conceptualized as a mode of inquiry that puts women at the center of analysis, rather than as a discipline with entrenched boundaries. In fact, a chief goal of Women’s Studies is to overcome the fragmentation and barriers between disciplines in a bid to disprove the idea that social, political, personal and material realities are separate spheres of human existence.

Women’s Studies seeks to critique, challenge and redress masculinist modes of knowledge production across the sciences, social sciences, applied sciences, arts and humanities. In attempts to rectify omissions and distortions in knowledge produced about women, Women’s Studies identifies, reclaims and celebrates the lives, experiences and contributions of women and other marginalized people. As this woman-centered knowledge is produced, alternative methodologies and theories are formulated that call into question the very fundamental underpinnings of mainstream (malestream!) knowledge: the opposition of knowledge to experience, of objectivity to subjectivity, and of theory to action. Women’s Studies then, redefine what counts as knowledge, how knowledge is portrayed, and the parameters within which scholars and researchers operate to produce knowledge.

Around the world, Women’s Studies is acknowledged as a product of and related to the women’s movement that re-emerged as a powerful social force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For over 30 years Women’s Studies courses have pushed the narrow parameters of traditional knowledge and academia and have challenged the rigid and false barriers between disciplines. At first the concerns of Women’s Studies seemed fairly straightforward – to criticise masculine biases of established academic disciplines as well as exclusive male conceptions and perspectives within these. Simultaneously, Women’s Studies developed alternative perspectives and methodologies, which were firmly grounded in women’s own experiences.

Subsequently Women’s Studies has evolved into much more by assimilating and drawing from women’s personal experiences and personal action. This process revealed how the experience of being a man or woman has profound effects on one’s life and how related these effects were to what came to be known as ‘sexual politics’. Hence, the concern of Women’s Studies grew into looking at what the effects of gender are; why these are and where they come from; at not just differences between men and women but the accompanying inequalities and oppression; how these change over time and according to cultures; and importantly, into theorising and analysing the debates and excitement in the women’s movement.

Women’s Studies is based on the premise that there are not just sexual differences and divisions between men and women, but also that there are inequalities and oppression between and amongst them. Women’s Studies attempts to explain and change these divisions. Perhaps the greatest difference of Women’s Studies from other disciplines is that it does not emerge from think-tanks, laboratories or libraries but instead, from a strong political women’s movement. Historically the need for Women’s Studies has been stressed upon by the movement with the understanding that there is a need for women’s experience of society, of personal and political processes and the specificity of women’s issues with regard to all issues, to be given equal expression in culture, art, politics and all forms of knowledge. Since these collective experiences of women link so much that the personal – the relationships between and among ourselves as well as institutions – within a larger world order, that Women’s Studies becomes the greatest challenge to all existing knowledge systems and indeed, to all establishments and relationships themselves.

As a discipline that is involved in developing alternative views of society and relationships through this new, collectively developed knowledge, Women’s Studies resists being checked against so-called ‘objective, scientific standards’ and neither does it conform to the dominant ideology. This is especially true since dominant ideologies are located in and soaked with special interests and concerns of the dominant or dominating class. Women’s Studies is concerned with highlighting the deliberate exclusion of working/lower classes and women from not only socio-economic and political benefits but also from the very institutions and jobs that produce ideologies – be they media, education, law, religion, various forms of representation, creativity and so on. What we have then is a society ordered on the basis of exclusively male dominated experiences, situations and views. These are projected (literally through language and through various forms and symbols) as “humanity’s concerns”, but in fact are not.

Women’s Studies is concerned to analyse the political implications of the knowledge that we gain – to scratch the surface of this knowledge and see what is really operating. Women’s Studies also recognises that all knowledge is necessarily influenced by ideas, opinions and analyses but the main concern here is that since Women’s Studies is derived through a consciously collective process, it must feed into, substantiate and support women’s collective experiences. Hence, while research and the energy devoted to developing theory and practice in this connection is the task of Women’s Studies, the implicit aim of this work is that it should corroborate with the experiences of women, the poor and the marginalized. More importantly, the aim of Women’s Studies is to assess or propose strategies to produce social change as well as push for intellectual challenge by linking and feeding its reflection and analyses into the women’s and people’s movements.

The issues raised by Women’s Studies are not suggestive of merely adding something on women in every field because they were somehow overlooked in the past (the “add women and stir” syndrome). Rather, the entire field of knowledge, research and even social action needs to be rethought because the theories underlying it are the product of prejudice and bias from which women and the powerless are completely absent, marginalized or objectified. In this context, there are four main characteristics of Women’s Studies that distinguish it from other disciplines;

1. Multidisciplinary:

The most significant aspect of Women’s Studies is its interdisciplinary nature which encourages insights and connections to be drawn from various traditional disciplines. Since this requires a critical evaluation and rethinking in the approach, research, methodologies and analyses within these traditional disciplines, Women’s Studies is a rigorous political examination of concepts, theories and methods as well as specific empirical material.

Hence, Women’s Studies is not about adding a little bit from every discipline to make a new one. Rather, it implies a coming together of various units which when they come together, reinforce each other and cease to become entities or categories. Neither does Women’s Studies cease nor it is a continuous, dynamic, simultaneous and action-lined discipline that is always growing.

In Pakistan, the experience has been such that of fragmentation and loss of sight of other disciplines, other fields, interests and concerns in the approach to work or activism. The social scientist will forget the writer – the writer forgets the artist – the artist does not read what women are writing and in the process we exclude others’ expressions and ultimately end up duplicating male norms.

2. Radical:

A radical discipline does not imply just the contents of that discipline but  the very frameworks and approach to that field of study. A radical look at knowledge bases and knowledge systems implies investigating how the base and system is constructed and articulated. A radical approach also opens up the area of what is objective and subjective and Women’s Studies contend the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘objective’ researcher.

At the same time, a radical approach to research means that obtaining information must be a more collaborative effort; it must be undertaken for mutual benefit of the researcher and the researched, and for the research to be easily accessible for those who need it and it must feed into and benefit people’s movements.

3. Dialectical Relationship Between Knowledge And Action:

As mentioned above, it is obligatory on those researchers or teachers involved in Women’s Studies to relate research and knowledge to activism. However, the responsibility does not and should not end there. It becomes important to be a part of that very action and begins by challenging the very notion of scholarship and academia within the locus of wherever that research or knowledge may be produced.

4. Transformation Of Society:

Social inequalities cannot be overcome unless the very structure of production, whether it is of ideas, labour or goods, is fundamentally changed in society. All social institutions and social relationships are connected to these systems of production. Therefore the action element of Women’s Studies is concerned with structural and ideological change, which means freedom from patriarchy, racism and class inequalities.

Women’s Studies cannot and should not be monolithic and unchanging and within the discipline there are rich and exciting debates while these debates continue wherever Women’s Studies exists or is being developed, all those involved in this discipline or contributing to it recognise and agree on the need to change knowledge as part of changing the world.

However, it is not just a question of revealing that all knowledge is biased, prejudiced or contains negative stereotypes of women. Women’s Studies is about challenging and creating alternatives and new frames of thought and action which will be more interdisciplinary, radical, holistic and which will transform society and the oppressive relationships that operate within it.

While there has been considerable emphasis especially since 1975 by the women’s Movement, International agencies, NGOs and governments on the issue of Women and Development, most Practitioners have lacked a background on the problematique of the development of women. The issues have been picked up out of basic personal commitment, initiative, anger or celebration but invariably on an ad hoc basis and with little systematic thinking or training. This is primarily because women’s studies/Women In Development is a relatively new `profession’ and a new discipline which is not yet reflected in the educational systems of the world. Even where it has been included primarily in the United States and Europe, it is still often marginal to mainstream academic.

Women’s Studies is difficult in itself because it is not just a new discipline but an entirely different one and one that is still in the making. Even if this was not the case, in Asia there are few institutions that give the type of professional training needed for this profession. Just as it is unthinkable for one to be an accountant or a lawyer or an engineer or even an economist without professional training, it should be equally unthinkable for people to become women and development practitioners without systematic reading, training and supervision and analysis.