I had the opportunity to take a gender studies course as a sophomore at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) a few years ago. It investigated the portrayal of seemingly ‘westernized’ women in Pakistani dramas like Humsafar and what that meant for the female subject in national consciousness.
Much to the chagrin of drama enthusiasts, I learned that the leading lady Khirad’s innocence manifested symbolically in her white head covering throughout the show. The protagonist Sara, meanwhile, wore jeans with heels that indicated the high horse she lived on. By pitting the westernized, demonic Sara against the eastern, innocent Khirad, the drama was seminal in perpetuating the trope of the ideal Muslim Pakistani women in public consciousness.
We were all smitten by the show, but the gender studies course helped me cut through the hidden imagery and emerge more cognizant of the role of the media industry in perpetuating widely agreed upon national ideals, which for the most part, are deeply rooted in patriarchy.
The course made me a better ally to women when someone blamed their clothing for sexual harassment. The course made me more aware that misogynistic toxicity impacts men more than women. Above all, it helped me breakdown the everyday uneasy incidents I am confronted with as a woman, which have nothing to with a lack of religiosity or disregard for the family system, but everything to do with how men and women are conditioned into the role of the oppressor and oppressed respectively.
Students who pursue gender studies courses or majors in universities are equipped to combat gender discrimination around them. But a lawyer has reportedly moved to abolish gender studies departments in court. University of Peshawar Arts and Humanities Faculty Dean Dr Nasir Jamal Khattak tweeted that the lawyer has argued that gender studies are an affront to “family, marriage, religion, state” etc. Dr Khattak added that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) had formed a committee to address the lawyer’s concerns.
A lawyer has moved the Lahore High Court pleading that Gender Studies Depts in universities should be banned because the discipline questions "family, marriage, religion, state" etc. The HEC has constituted a committee to look into the issue.
— Nasir Khattak (@nasirjkhattak) September 25, 2021
While it is unconfirmed whether such a motion has been raised in the court, it is alarming that the lawyer’s sentiments are shared by quite a few in Pakistan. Above all, South Asian parents are still afflicted with the archaic notion that their child must become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. The disdain for gender studies stems from a larger misunderstanding of liberal arts discourses in universities, which are often thought to be pursued by those with low grades and lesser brains.
The stigma around gender studies in specific is only exacerbated for its emphasis on gender equality, which has only recently blown up in public discourse. Contrary to the lawyer’s alleged reduction of gender studies as a destroyer of Pakistan’s value systems, the field is quite interdisciplinary, which gives a more valuable return on higher education to anyone who pursues it. The discipline brings together sociology, criminology, literature, history, political science, and health studies, amongst numerous other fields. It also gives students the ability to locate and position themselves in a post-colonial society, while encouraging them to deeply introspect about their role as democratic citizens who practice empathy and inclusivity in their daily lives. For the skeptic parents, gender studies open multiple doors of opportunities for students who go on to become justice-oriented lawyers, ethical journalists, empathetic public health practitioners and more.
Pakistan currently has just a handful of gender studies programs, one of which is at Peshawar University. LUMS, Punjab University, Shah Abdul Latif University, Bahauddin Zakariya University, University of Sindh and others also offer concentrations in it. Regardless of the gender studies programs available, the brunt work of gender equality research and advocacy has come from other political or student organizations, which include but are not limited to the Digital Rights Foundation, UKs research centre and the Women’s Action Forum. Movements such as the Aurat March have also made headway in normalizing what you would typically study under Gender Studies.
In abolishing Gender Studies departments, Pakistan would regressively wipe out ‘gender’ from public discourse on daily social phenomena like wage gap and domestic violence. To do so would be a great disservice to the many women and men who do the heavily lifting to redress injustice that stems from gender inequality in Pakistan.