Is Gender Studies a Relevant Subject of Study?

Joan Okitoi

Nairobi, Kenya - May 2007

  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab
  • Opens in a new tab

The right to vote for women is a relatively recent phenomenon which took place in the 1900’s in England. This crucial step signified women becoming active participants in the democratic process.

It was from this basic right to vote that the empowerment of women was spurred, thus to a large extent marking the beginning of gender studies. Gender studies analyzes the cultural representations of gender and peoples day to day realities. It is an interdisciplinary area of study.

Thus through studying gender, it is possible to develop awareness around the socially constructed roles of the male and female. A child is born without any innate cultural values or gender differences but it learns these things in the process of acquiring cultural knowledge. Students learn that it is at the family level that we begin to obtain cultural values. We learn that partly as a consequence of differences in physical strength, boys are encouraged to take up mechanical activities such as repairing a motor car whereas girls are encouraged to be actively involved in the kitchen.

Gender studies as a course is significant because of the social realities it portrays, it seeks to explain that such realities are a result of that which society has constructed and can therefore be challenged and reconstructed. By discussing social realities, our understanding of societies is also greatly enhanced. Moreover, gender studies as a course describes the asymmetries in gender as evidenced in different cultures.

In some Bangladeshi societies for example malnutrition is more prevalent among girls than boys, it is apparent that boys receive preferential treatment. Boys eat before the girls because they are considered more important. This example continues to illustrate the awareness created through gender studies, that gender is culturally defined. Furthermore by studying cultural perspectives on gender, certain counter-productive cultural practices can be identified, adapted or discarded.

Another relevance of gender studies as a course is the increased understanding of human capabilities beyond the socio-cultural descriptions of gender. This point focuses primarily on exceptions to the rule, for instance females who are good at mechanical tasks or men who are good at cooking, thus deviating from the pre established roles of men and women in a given society. By studying gender, students acquire a philosophical approach towards the subject and question the relevance of society defining what an individual can do solely on the basis of gender.

The prescribed roles may apply to the majority but individuals differ in their genotype and phenotype thus different capabilities arise. It is therefore through the study of gender that these patterns can be observed, one can say that the study in itself is driving towards the deconstruction of societal bound gender roles and paving the way to defining the abilities of men and women beyond previously limited social constructs.

However, one major drawback to the study of gender is the likelihood of the emergence of extremism which includes for example radical feminist movements. These groups of feminists believe that there is a struggle for power between the sexes in which one sex is trying to subdue the other. In this regard, gender differences become magnified and are perceived as a ‘battle of the sexes’.

This feminist radicalism is evident through feminist expressions such as ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’, emphasizing the lack of importance it is believed men play in the lives of women.

Such attitudes can be destructive to humanity, in a sense they violate the natural order that dictates harmony and unity among human beings.

To conclude, in my view gender studies is highly relevant, particularly in developing countries because of the enormous role played by women in development, thus indicating the link between gender and national development. In order for better national development and a more equitable society to be realised, equal access to opportunities needs to be the norm.

It is paramount that men and women are not limited by gender descriptions but are allowed to unleash their potential as individual human beings.