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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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About the author
Rabbia Aslam is currently working as a 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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