Understanding gender and its inter-linkages to various institutions is crucial to gaining a nuanced understanding of social relations.

The question surrounding the relevance of gender studies recurs given the evolution in the understanding of gender with the growth of women’s movements, introduction of laws concerning gender identities, the spate of violent incidents against women, as also the LGBT.

Ammu Joseph, journalist, says, “An attractive aspect of gender studies is that it is closely connected to current affairs and, especially, movements for human rights, social justice and peace. For example, while activism creates public awareness of and demands official action on issues such as violence against women, scholarship provides the information and understanding necessary to ensure that the action is effective.”

What is gender studies?

Gender Studies can sometimes be understood as an attempt to comprehend power relations. Writer and social historian V. Geetha says, “Gender is both a term that refers to relationships of power, and a category of analysis and knowledge. You need to understand and take a position on how this power functions, who benefits from it, who does not, who has vested interests in keeping this power in place, who resists and why and so on. For this, you need to use gender as a category of knowledge, as an analytical tool. Gender Studies is meant to teach you how to do this.”

The “power” in such instances is derived from a well-entrenched patriarchy. Kalpana Sharma, independent journalist, says, “It is the patriarchal system that reinforces the gender divide. It is the patriarchal set-up that has to change, not just the mindsets (of the people involved). It is the system that privileges the man over the woman. Gender Studies helps us understand the roots of it.”

Gender studies emerged as a discipline of study in recent decades. It is important to get a picture of what necessitates the study of this discipline. S Anandhi, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, says, “Feminists have looked at historical events and reinterpreted them from the point of view of women's lives and not from a man's perspective of how events are shaped. By reorienting this, we can sensitise students towards what happens in the private sphere and public sphere in terms of male-female relationship, and even how politics is shaped through the perspective of gender relations.”

A critical approach aids the understanding of gender studies. To this, Dr. Geetha adds, “One cannot conceptualise or do research or read and write on issues to do with women's lives and with gendered relationships, without being invested in thinking through them critically. To be critical of the existing gender arrangements is central to the knowledge we wish to have about gender. If such knowledge is not critical and merely descriptive and falsely 'objective' then the point of Gender Studies is likely to be lost.”

The advantage

Ambiguities persist on the relevance of a separate course on Women’s Studies. Dr. Anandhi says, “The advantage of having Gender Studies over Women’s Studies is that we are able to critically look at the question of gender and its inter linkages with various institutions (caste, class, state); how these institutions mediate and position men and women in different ways. Therefore, Gender Studies has an advantage of giving a nuanced understanding of social relations.”

Gender Studies is taught both as an individual course of study as well as an elective or concurrent course to the main subject of study. Besides, LGBT and men’s studies also fall within the realm of gender studies. So, what should the pedagogy focus upon? Madhavi Menon, professor of English, Ashoka University, says, “All classifications — class, race, gender — need to be looked at in a holistic, structural manner — this makes us realise that these are intertwined rather than separable. LGBT, women, men studies — all these subjects need to be studied along with other sources of oppression and violence of state against the people.”

“In fact the gender studies programme at Ambedkar University, Delhi, is inclusive, covering how patriarchy marginalises men in fulfilling gender roles; interface of feminism and queer; bodies and masculinities; feminist movements in South Asia, et al,” says Rachna Chaudhary, Assistant Professor, Gender Studies.

Choice of profession

Though gender studies may not come across as a strictly professional course — besides research work and teaching — there are opportunities for gender experts in international institutions from World Bank to the UN, women’s institutions, companies and NGOs.