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Gender Studies is yet to make its mark among university students in Pakistan: Findings from a study on perceptions and attitudes towards gender studies among students in Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan.

Since 2010 I have been working as a lecturer at the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies at  the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. I am also pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Sociology, with my research focusing on understanding the challenges and opportunities related to offering gender studies as an academic discipline in universities in Pakistan.  Moreover, I will also be joining the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) as external Ph.D. candidate beginning in May 2022.

 

 

Main Entrance Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Credit: Ghulam Mustafa GMG, November 2021

Quaid-i-Azam University is a public university, established in July 1967 under the Act of National Assembly, and offers research programs for PhD and MPhil degrees across several disciplines. The university is renowned internationally, and attracts many foreign students, although gaining an admission is fairly competitive. However, the student body is quite diverse, with students from across Pakistan enrolled at the university.

The master’s program in Gender Studies was first started in 2008 at the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies[i]. The data show that between 2008-2020, more women (252) applied to study gender studies than men (220). Moreover, overall, the total number of students who applied for gender studies increased after 2008, although there was also a decline observed in the number of students who enrolled in the program in 2015.

Myths and misconceptions associated with Gender Studies among students

The data to examine perceptions towards the discipline of gender studies has been gathered from  show that between 2008-2020, only 37% students outlined gender studies as their first choice for field of study in university application. While it is unsettling to see such low interest among young people towards this discipline, these findings not only reflect the low awareness and commitment in Pakistan toward gender justice, but also illuminate how factors such as merit, affirmative action, and broader socio-cultural dynamic in Pakistan contributes towards certain academic disciplines being perceived as less important or prestigious than others.

One possible reason for this interesting enrolment trend could be that new study programs usually garner a lot of attention initially from students, but gradually the numbers decline as students begin to question the market utility of the degree, particularly if there is a sizeable number of past students who remain unemployed post-graduation, with bleak prospects for employment. Another reason could be the considerable reduction in the higher education budget in Pakistan in the past few years, leading to limited financial aid and scholarship support for new students.  There is also the additional factor of master’s degree programs all over Pakistan, since 2020, being replaced by four-year bachelor’s degree programs, thereby translating into additional cost of pursuing higher education for students across Pakistan.

As part of this study, I also conducted in-depth interviews with students to further unpack the enrolment trend and perceptions held by students towards gender studies as a discipline. I have categorised these perceptions into the following themes:

 

  1. Assuming that studying gender studies makes one a feminist

The foremost assumption among the new students is that gender studies, as a field, is limited to studying about patriarchy and social construction of gender, and hence focusing on these issues makes one a feminist.  Feminism and feminist activism are some of the most controversial terms in the context of Pakistan, viewed as being against the Pakistani society and harming its social fabric. Moreover, feminist activism, soon after the emergence of Pakistan as an independent state, has remained confined largely within the bounds of bourgeois respectability, thereby misunderstood, and sometimes even despised, by the masses. As a result, students are often oblivious or unaware about the richness of this discipline and its diversity. In this sense then, teaching gender studies has become a deconstructive project (Bari 1996).

  1. Misplaced focus on jargon rather than lived experiences by the students and teachers

In term papers, students are often more concerned about using terminology and jargon, instead of grasping a deeper understanding of concepts such as social constructionism, feminism, and patriarchy. In other words, pedagogy in our context involves unpacking these assumptions. Adding to Dr. Bari reflections, I point out that at times teachers’ in terms of assignments, reflection papers, and critical essays from students are unrealistic as they come with a specific cultural baggage and presuppositions. It is true that students feel burdened to use certain type of language and jargons, hence feeling burdened by the discipline rather than enjoying it.

  1. Low market utility of a degree in gender studies

Concerns related to employability of a gender studies degree in the job market are highlighted in the lived experiences of students pursuing gender studies. For example, one of the respondents from the study shared:

Where we will go for a job after this degree. The development sector has already shrunk in Pakistan, and gender studies is not being offered at college level. What is its scope after college?”   Our concern is a job after all our parent’s will not feed us throughout the life and we have seen that most of our seniors in gender studies are not doing any job, they have no work.

  1. Gender studies perceived as not relevant to daily life

Another important perception related to gender studies was the belief that the discipline doesn’t relate to their lived experiences. As one student noted:

“If the research and theory is not produced in our own local context, then this whole exercise is detached from our society, and it is less relevant for us.’’

In fact, some students also claimed that gender studies, as a discipline, was a form of western propaganda, with little relevance to their daily life. Moreover, it is also important to note that such misconceptions persist event among students pursuing other degree programs at the university. They question the relevance of gender studies as an academic discipline, given that they are unaware of what it entails, as it is not a subject that is offered during undergraduate studies in Pakistan.

  1. Perceived judgment from fellow students

Most students reported feeling judged by fellow students from other socials sciences departments because of the course content, with a common assumption being that the focus of the discipline is primarily on teaching about sexuality. As one student shared: “He considered it [gender studies]  to be useless.”

 

Increasing awareness about Gender Studies key to making it more accessible

It can be concluded that discernments, disillusions, and self-transformation struggles are important for a newly emerged discipline. However, we have now had gender studies at the graduate level in Pakistan for 30 years, and there is an urgent need to devise and implement strategies to address these myths and misperceptions about the discipline. For instance, introduction of gender studies at the undergraduate level across Pakistani universities can help increase awareness about the discipline and address the associated stigma and misbeliefs. In this context, in-depth interviews with educators and policymakers can also help identify ways to incorporate ownership and state patronage to this discipline.

Moreover, to increase awareness about gender studies within the university, organising engaging events and session, such as reading groups or movie screenings can help students from across disciplines not only learn more about gender studies, but also encourage them to see and understand, in a relatable way, its relevance to their own life, and to that of their communities. Lastly, valuing students with this degree in the job market, by increasing access to job opportunities for gender studies graduates across different sectors – non-profits, policy jobs, education, healthcare, etc. – can encourage current and future students to build a stable and inspiring career with a gender studies degree.

 


Bibliography

Ahmed, A. (2019, December 17). DAWN. Retrieved from dawn.com/news.

Bari, D. (1996, April). Women’s Studies: a Cause betrayed? Islamabad, ICT, Pakistan.

Khan, R. A. (2021). From Antagonism to Acknowledgment: Development of Gender and Women’s Studies as Academic Discipline in Pakistan. Progressive Research Journal of Arts and Humanities, 3(1), 171-185.


[i] Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author

Rabbia Aslam is currently working as lecturer at the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan for more than ten years. She is enrolled in Ph.D. Sociology at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. With an Academic background in Sociology and Gender, her research and teaching areas include Violence, Sociology of Knowledge, Sociology of Gender, bifurcation in the Education system, Post and Decolonial thinking in Pakistan. She writes for newspapers and blogs as well. She has been a speaker for national and international forums, also has been part of international projects. She will be joining ISS as an external Ph.D. candidate in May 2022.

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Keeping Africans out: Injustice following wilful neglect and the politicization of Covid-19 measures

As the Omicron variant continues to spread across the globe, Western nations have taken the decision to impose travel bans to African countries. This measure to contain the virus, is the latest -but neither the only nor the most outrageous- example of how Covid-19 responses have been instrumentalised for political purposes, write Dorothea Hilhorst and Rodrigo Mena. 

This weekend, BBC News featured an interview with the co-chair of the African Union Vaccine Alliance Dr Ayoade Alakija. Visibly angry, she explains in a nutshell how it was inevitable that a variation of the Covid 19 (Omicron) would develop in Africa, and that the travel bans imposed on African countries only are more politically-motivated than scientifically-justified. Dr Alakija’s anger concerns both the lack of action beforehand and the immediate reaction when Omicron evolved, even before it has been properly established where the variation comes from and what its exact properties are. At the moment of writing this post, the travel ban is restricted to African countries, whereas the Omicron variation has already been found in several other countries too, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Israel. This ban shows how, once again, measures related to Covid-19 are not always taken based on scientific knowledge, but maybe on political agendas and strategies.

Multiple examples of the instrumentalisation of Covid-19 responses can be found in a recent article based on a research conducted by a group of ISS students on responses on Covid-19 in conflict-affected countries, including Brazil, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, India, Philippines, and Zimbabwe (see in the links blog post in the cases).  The country studies found ample evidence for the claim that Covid-19 policies were often instrumentalised and subsumed to non-Covid -19 politics. The pandemic was either over-securitised (where its impacts were exaggerated), or under-securitised (where impacts were denied), and there were many examples of governments seen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to tighten their control over the population at large and political opponents in particular. In several of the countries, governments used the COVID restrictions to curb opposition or even arrest opponents on grounds that they violated these restrictions. Even though the global situation today is in many ways different from these country cases, they have in common that COVID responses are highly politicized and subject to geo-politics interests.

Another example of the instrumentalisation and injustices that Covid-19 measures may carry is found in Calais, France. The knee-jerk European reaction in response to the Omicron variation reminded us of the stories that Cambridge PhD candidate Maria Hagan heard from irregular migrants residing near Calais, in the early months of the pandemic. When the Covid-19 crisis evolved last year in 2020, authorities in Calais and other surrounding municipalities were quick to take ´protective measures´. However, it soon appeared that the measures were not meant to protect migrants from the virus, but to protect the French population from the migrants while rumours started to circulate that the latter were particularly likely to carry the virus.

In a similar twist as with today’s response to Omicron, these rumours in Calais were loosely associated with ideas of dirtiness and lack of hygiene. It was glossed over that if indeed migrants could not maintain hygienic standards, it was because of the French policies denying them shelter and showers, and leaving them to sleep in small tents that did not enable maintaining distance. At some point, migrants were not even allowed to enter grocery stores. This left them hopelessly outside, unable to buy the most basic supplies, which were indeed necessary to strengthen their bodies against the virus. As Maria Hagan concludes in a forthcoming article: “The half-hearted humanitarian response by the French state to protect the displaced at the border from pandemic […] demonstrate the state’s prioritisation of protection from the displaced above their protection from infection”.[1]

There is a lot amiss with the reaction to ban travels from African countries. To some extent it is a case of under-securitisation, by assuming that a travel ban from Africa can keep the variation under control, although it has been found beyond the continent too. On the other hand, there seems to be over-securitisation because the strictest measures are already taken while the scientific evidence is still being collected about the level of danger the variation poses. Moreover, the travel restrictions come into play in a world where the access to and distribution of the vaccine is highly unequal.

Important then is also to ask: Would these restrictions have been imposed if the majority of the population in southern Africa countries had been vaccinated? llustrative is the map below that shows the geographical division between Europe and the global South regarding the position in relation to the waiving of patents for COVID-related medical tools. The map shows how European countries voted against vaccine patent wavers, and with it, contributed to (or are in part responsible for) the low African vaccination records, because of a lack of sharing technology and not making vaccines available[2]. Now they act all alarmed and resort to reaction to keep (unvaccinated) Africans out.

Politics that protect the economic and political interests of a few above general interest and that resort to a strategy to keep people out are not only blatantly unjust but also another example of the instrumentalisation and politization of Covid-19 measures. Unless vaccination becomes available at a global scale it is likely if not inevitable that the virus will evolve variations that become increasingly apt at spreading. To stop this, we require genuine global policies aimed to protect all.


The authors thank Isabelle Desportes for her inputs and comments.


[1] Forthcoming paper: “They tell us to keep distance, but we sleep five people in one tent” The opportunistic governance of displaced people in Calais during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maria Hagan; Department of Geography University of Cambridge

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/56100076

https://www.openglobalrights.org/mobilizing-international-human-rights-to-challenge-coronavirus-vaccine-apartheid/

https://www.openglobalrights.org/supporting-the-trips-covid-waiver-is-essential-to-support-international-human-rights/?lang=English

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst
Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at ISS.

Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at ISS.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.