College of Accounting Sciences

Unisa joins US university’s SA celebration

Just a test

Gender is an integral part of human identity and existence, but it cannot simply be taken for granted. We are born male, female or intersex, but we may not behave in a traditional masculine or feminine way.

A careful look at the way society moulds individuals to conform to gendered ideals of behaviour (such as the truism “boys don’t cry”, the title of a famous Hollywood film starring Hilary Swank as a transgender boy) will reveal that gender is not given, but constructed through various social forces, such as the family, education and organised religion. A slightly deeper look at the matter reveals that society has a vested interest in gender norms because having men earning money in the world while women stay at home and take care of children will guarantee social reproduction.

Given the centrality of gender in human life, one has to question why it does not occupy a primary role in the country’s education system, and in particular, universities. As head of Unisa’s Institute for Gender Studies, I discussed this topic during the university’s Research and Innovation Week held from 2 to 6 March. I looked at what gender studies is, and how it fares in South African universities in order to explain its peripheral position.

Overall, women’s and gender studies units in South African universities tend to be small and under-resourced. There are several possible reasons for this; one is that, although gender studies is an important component of many teaching programmes, it is not yet fully mainstreamed in university offerings. Another is that only two South African universities, and a few African universities, offer undergraduate courses in gender studies. There is also a perception that “there is no work available for gender studies graduates” other than at NGOs.

What is gender studies?

Before I explore how gender studies has fared in the South African academy and in SA civil society, it is important to understand that the discipline is a field of academic study – an intellectual pursuit like history, sociology or epidemiology where the object of study is gender. Gender is variously defined, but all accounts agree that it refers to the social performance and expectations that are associated with a particular sexual identity.

Among intellectual disciplines, it is unique because it directly deals with an aspect of human existence that shapes individual and social being. Gender is an integral part of every individual’s experience of him- or herself, and can only be ignored by an effort of will. Most of us take our gender completely for granted. We “are” a man or a woman, homosexual or heterosexual – it is part of who we are and we interact with others on the basis of this interwoven facet of our being.

Gender studies, as an academic discipline, is multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary (what is known in academia as MIT). It is located at the intersection of the way individuals understand themselves (so it is related to psychology), the way they interact in social situations (so it is related to sociology), and the way gender is represented.

Many higher education institutions world-wide have units, departments, centres or institutes that deal with either women’s studies or gender studies (sometimes both, as in the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies). There is a great deal of discussion about the name of these bodies, which derives from the fact that gender studies has its historical origins in scholarly feminism, which takes women as its primary subject. The founders of many organisational units within universities have felt that this should be reflected in the name of these bodies (such as Departments of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California Davis, Smith University, and the University of Oregon, while York University in England has a Centre for Women’s Studies).

In my view gender studies has extended beyond the conceptual boundaries of women’s studies into the interesting fields of masculinity studies and LGBTQIA studies – that is, into the areas of sexual identity and sexual diversity. It is within this context that I understand gender studies to be a field of study that explores ways in which gender is constructed, performed, represented, enacted and enforced.

Struggle for freedom vs struggle for gender equality

Women’s and gender studies fares very well in northern universities such as in America and the United Kingdom. But how do they fare in South Africa? Part of the answer to this question lies in our national history. While the struggle against apartheid was fought on the battlefields of race, it was assumed that the struggle for racial freedom was more important than the struggle for gender equality. Many sisters in the struggle were committed to bringing about racial equality before fighting for gender equality.

Now that we have a racially free society, we are, theoretically, free to pursue our ideal of combatting patriarchy and gender discrimination. It seems logical, therefore, that women’s and gender studies units would flourish as centres of research and teaching at higher education institutions in South Africa. However, this has not proved to be the case.

In 2012 the African Gender Studies Institute at UCT conducted an audit of teaching modules across Africa that were dedicated to women’s and gender studies. The results were shocking: there were 57 modules in 2000, but by 2012 the number had dwindled to a mere 14. I believe the reason for this is that gender has not been mainstreamed in either the research or the teaching agendas of most higher education institutions in South Africa.

A new agenda for genders studies

Having painted a picture of gender studies in the South African higher education landscape, it is my hope that we can move from the current situation into one where gender studies is offered at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, as well as across disciplines in order to sensitise students to the South African gender context. As is well known – but possibly not well enough – South Africa has the highest rate of gender-based violence in the world. This can only be the result of inhumane perceptions about gender, including the notion that one gender is “naturally” subordinate to the other. In the light of gender inequity, gender violence and gender bias in present-day South Africa, this may be the perfect time to change these perceptions and for gender studies to come of age.