Women and gender inequalities

By Zubeida Mustafa

WOMEN’S STUDIES WOMEN’S LIVES:THEORY AND PRACTICE IN ASIA edited by Committee on Women’s Studies in Asia. 208 pp. Rs 260. Published by OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi.

This is a book on Women’s Studies. But it is publication with a difference. It does not adopt the conventional format to define this newly emerged discipline in the academia. Jt seeks to look into the subject through the lives of thirteen women who are teaching/researching Woman’s Studies.

Coming from Asian countries as diverse as Pakistan, China, Korea and Indonesia, the writers give an account of how they became aware of gender inequalities and what led them into taking up Women’s Studies as a subject of investigation.

The accounts are naturally as diverse as are the backgrounds of the writers. Thus Fanny M. Cheung of Hong Kong became aware of the burden women carry when she worked with rape victims as a psychologist. For Li Xiaojiang of China the hour of awakening came early. Her reaction to her sexuality was one of contempt which drove her on to emulate men. When she encountered obstacles in her drive to succeed in her career she turned to research to analyse the factors which made professional life such a challenge for a woman. Nora Lan-hung Chiang learnt of her secondary status when she went to Taiwan with her husband to live in an extended family.

One common thread running through all these writings is the high education standard and upper middle class background of the writers. These factors have equipped them with the skill to explore various issues of relevance to Women’s Studies. But this also means that the writers belong to a privileged class and have not in most cases personally suffered the male oppression which makes the lives of many women dark, brutal and short. In fact many of the women became aware of this oppression through their interaction with others who had suffered.

That is one of the paradoxes of Women’s Studies. Malavika Karlekar and Barbara Lazarus write in their excellent introduction to the book “the advantaged social and privileged background of the teacher who determines the methodology and direction of research and uses the participatory method to create a new reality reflects a privileged view of another’s world”. .

There are many contradictions inherent in Women’s Studies which this book fails to clarify. The new discipline which became the rage of the late seventies in the academia and women’s groups after the international women’s year in 1975 is designed to provide theoretical underpinnings to the women’s struggle. But by its very nature the methodology it adopts  is subjective and defined by the experience of the researcher.

It also seeks to create an awareness in the students about gender inequalities. As some of the writers confirm, this consciousness did not exist in them before they started studying the subject. Is it not possible that some people might not have actually experienced the oppression but acquired a false awareness of it through the teacher’s power of suggestion? The book fails to discuss the issue that for Women’s Studies to be established as a credible branch of knowledge it must adopt a scientific and objective methodology.

The book also leaves unanswered many dilemmas which women face in the process of redefining their identities. These dilemmas have been spelt out — the chief one being that of balancing family ties with the demands of a professional career which all married working women face at one stage or the other. These inner conflicts have been recalled by a number of writers while recounting their experiences. But apart from those who remained single such as Yasuko Muramatsu of Japan or Cho Hyoung who walked out of her marriage the others have no solution to offer. Not all would like to go for these extreme options.

Nevertheless this is a readable book which would give the uninitiated a fairly good idea of what Women’s Studies is all about.

Source: Dawn,  11 May 1997