The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Shereen Abouelnaga (English and Comparative Literature, Cairo University, Egypt)

Shereen Abouelnaga. Photo: private

The title of this essay suggests that gender studies has been located somewhere and that this location needs to restore its original objective. To speak about the importance of gender studies is like reinventing the wheel, not to mention the attempt at discrediting all past scholarship. My concern, instead, is about how (the why is a corollary) to revive and relocate gender studies to restore the political core of the feminist project and thought, which would endow it with a more productive role in the humanities. Gender studies were originated for the purpose of redressing the imbalanced power relations and this is what constitutes the political dimension. Interrogating the techniques of power and its ability to not only sustain but also consolidate its hegemonic discourse are (or rather should be) among the goals of gender studies. The latter are part of the humanities, epistemically and pedagogically. Therefore, if the humanities is a means of understanding and reading the world, gender studies should follow suit.

Before unpacking this objective and detailing the best trajectory/practice, I must justify my concern. Mainstreaming gender in formal institutions and gender studies in academia has rendered the concept itself normative, to a great extent. This normativity has become part and parcel of the institutional discourse and gender studies has, thus, lost its radicality. It has also generated a traditional, pale, soulless version of the feminist project that has been co-opted by the dominant matrix of power to render a version of gender that is void of any political denominators that point alarmingly at the necessity of change. Therefore, feminist concepts and theory are abundant in academia minus the political dimension; they have assimilated the neoliberal connotations of fundamental objectives and techniques, such as empowerment, agency, resistance and voice, to cite a few. I here refer to Chandra T. Mohanty’s question that best expresses my concerns: “What happens to feminist scholarship and theory in our neoliberal academic culture? Have global and domestic shifts in social movement activism and feminist scholarly projects depoliticized antiracist, women-of-color, and transnational feminist intellectual projects?”[1] Gender studies and issues are apparently welcomed, provided the political is absent. Although studying/doing gender is bound to subvert and nuance the status quo, it has consolidated the current power relations since the dominant discourse has assimilated ‘gender’ and turned it into a decorative tool. Accordingly, the ‘institution’ has acquired an exterior modern shape that does not reflect the core of the discourse. Hence, the inability of this mainstream gender discourse to effect any change.

Today’s scholarship is catering for a market governed by neoliberal postmodern values (if we can use the term), promoting a harmless discourse of difference and diversity that does not threaten the matrix of power, be it the orientalist perception, the state control or the community of academia. Therefore, courses in gender studies usually remain an elective for students in the credit hour system at most universities. This optional presence has a twofold ambivalent nature: The first relates to being ‘politically correct’ since the gender factor should appear fashionably on any curriculum; and the second consists of always being taken lightly by the administration, which translates it as ‘women and their issues.’ Despite the latter’s superficiality, it is always capitalized on. Put differently, gender studies courses provide spaces that are always overlooked by the power structure. This renders it valid to pose all the relevant critical questions and revisit old ones from a progressive perspective.

How can one restore the political dimension of gender studies? For practicality, I focus on the strategy of reorienting syllabi design, which necessitates elaborating on my pedagogical methodology. As I see it, syllabus design and pedagogy are both engulfed and contoured by political epistemology. I teach “Feminist Literature and Criticism” in the MA program and “Gender Studies” in the PhD program in the English department at Cairo University. In this specific academic, educational and sociopolitical context, I cannot overlook the quintessential intersection of pedagogy, theory and precarity. The “gender paradox” – a term coined by Nicola Pratt[2] in the wake of the 2011 Revolution – materializes in these two courses. The paradox springs from the fact that the gender element had acquired a high visibility at the beginning of 2011, however, equally, women had to suffer from a setback in relation to their rights and presence in the public sphere. In other words, those who are calling for democracy are not necessarily on the side of women’s rights. I practice freedom of speech and thought with my students in the classroom in a country being suffocated and cracked down on by unprecedented repressive measures. To be credible, it is a carefully nuanced freedom in a context governed by precarity.

The MA students are mostly young women at the very early stages of their careers, excited about studying ‘feminism’ (as simple as – “We are strong independent women”). This explains the confusion between critical feminist theory and developmental projects led by NGOs. Yet, they are usually adamant about giving up two beliefs: The first relates to the nature of feminist research as the analysis of the ‘image of women’ in a literary text. The imagination of that text which comes from a distant place replaces reality, and whatever is happening there is not happening here. The text becomes an object and loses its importance as a discourse in the field of humanities. The second relates to the students’ personal experiences that are, in fact, limited to their experiences at home, i.e. if there is a good father–daughter relationship, there is no patriarchy (again, similar to the text mentioned previously, it happens to somebody else or it does not exist). The result is that we have some very angry women.

If a feminist pedagogy is all about subverting the paradigm of power relations, including the traditional hierarchy of teacher–students, then the MA class is the right place for doing this. I discard all traditional openings in introductory classes and resort instead to telling them the objective of the course: I am here to disturb you. I tend to bring in the personal to turn it later into the intellectual/political. In fact, standpoint theory, proposing that authority is rooted in individuals’ knowledge and the power that such authority exerts, has its pros and cons; I sometimes come across students who are unwilling to move beyond their own idiosyncratic opinions and worldviews to connect to broader knowledge claims. Cathryn Bailey has observed that it is a phenomenon that “reflects a perennial pitfall of standpoint theory – that it can be interpreted as epistemologically authorizing any and all claims based on personal experience – and it is routinely replicated in our classrooms – sometimes with disastrous results.”[3]

My other pedagogical strategy is to contest the normative forms of precarity. Gender studies, as part of the humanities, aim at changing power relations. My ‘lead in’ is usually sexual harassment or gender-based violence as portrayed in a literary text; the discussion often begins with a mild condemnation of the protagonist, but, throughout the course, they all progress a long way. While I address precarity carefully, I address class and religion overtly to point out how power abuses both elements for its own interest. These two factors denominate the differences among students in the classroom, and, by addressing them, I achieve the two other important pedagogical strategies: acknowledging different voices and introducing power to the feminist classroom. After all, these both constitute part of the political dimension that is missing in the field of gender studies. Without addressing precarity, gender studies loses its momentum as an essential vision that complements the humanities.

Addressing these problematic issues, which are not problematic in themselves but have been perceived so according to normative social values, facilitates establishing several important feminist goals: Firstly, education becomes a practice of freedom (bell hooks[4]); secondly, teacher and students become the subject of the discussion, i.e. we are gazing at ourselves instead of being not gazed at; thirdly, the personal and local are linked to the intellectual and global. The class is part of the world, and the latter cannot be interpreted in the 21st Century without centralizing gender studies. As a feminist, I cannot understand the world without the gender lens.

Moreover, syllabi design, methodology and pedagogy are no less important; they are also related to balancing the global economy of knowledge. One of my aims – in both MA and PhD classes – is to bring up the issue of the global economy of knowledge as part of the package of neoliberalism (reminiscent of colonization). My point of departure is Chandra T. Mohanty’s debut article “Under Western Eyes” (1984), where she critiques the values of American and Eurocentric humanism that are based on universal and masculinist assumptions and govern gender scholarship. Mohanty revisited her article in 2003 and drew attention to the importance of studying the micro-politics of women’s everyday lives in marginalized communities if we are bound to combat globalization, neoliberalism, capitalism and co-optation.[5]

How to transgress boundaries of thought and subvert paradigms of power and existing norms should be the guidelines of text selection and syllabus design. It is a matter of leaving the comfort zone to affect a nuisance to the dominant vision that categorizes gender studies as an elective course that is usually founded on the concept of ‘oppression’ rather than on ‘resistance.’ Instead of exploring the nature of power and its structures, as reflected in the texts, we can look at the forms of resistance to that power, which will reveal the way it sustains and renovates itself. Gender studies needs to focus on testimonies, the archive and oral history. This neo-historical approach, whether in teaching or in researching, is bound to restore gender studies to the political fore.

Methodologically, especially in literary studies, one notices the high interest in analyzing women’s characters – as portrayed in the text – in a way that obscures and even severs any links with external reality. That is, the text is denied the right to be an event in the world, as Edward Said has argued.[6] It should be made clear that the text offers an alternative view of dealing with reality but not reality in its entirety. Instead of such undisturbing texts, curricula must be designed in a way that engages rigorously with the norms that validate precarity. The choice of specific texts that engage with the quotidian reality of women could be one of the most practical routes to destabilize existing norms. If feminist scholarship redirects its attention to challenging the frames of precarity, power relations that sustain them are bound to be subverted. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”[7] could be a guiding example in the way it restores the political dimension of the feminist project and raises a discussion about hidden colonization.

The curriculum should not lose sight of the global economy which attributes the precarious lives of women in the Arab world to essentialism and religion. This requires the highlighting of grassroots experiences and local voices without abandoning the global dimension. It also means paying attention to South-South links, whether by means of comparison or transnational tracing of gender constructs. It is not enough to read texts from India, South Africa, the Maghreb, Egypt and Syria. It is by seeing these texts together that we become conscious of a body of knowledge with a scope and sophistication comparable to the output of the center. Therein lies the importance of transnational studies. Accordingly, the continuing transnational interweaving of gendered experience around the world is an asset, not a difficulty.

Gender studies will never be re-politicized without confronting the status quo that aims at legitimizing precarity. Only then can it restore its place in the humanities and gain legitimacy and centrality in the field of knowledge production where capitalism, neoliberalism and patriarchy come under scrutiny. I conclude by quoting Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.”[8]


References

[1] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique”, Signs 38/4, 2013, 967-991. DOI:10.1086/669576

[2] Nicola Pratt, “Egyptian Women: Between Revolution, Counter-Revolution, Orientalism, and ‘Authenticity’”, Jadaliyya, May 6, 2013, [accessed: 27.03.2021].

[3] Cathryn Bailey, “Online Feminist Pedagogy: A New Doorway into Our Brick-and-Mortar Classrooms?”, Feminist Teacher 27/2-3, 2017, 253-266, 259.

[4] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, London: Routledge, 1994, 13.

[5] Chandra T. Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles”, Signs 28/2, 2003, 499-535. DOI:10.1086/342914.

[6] Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983, 39.

[7] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”, Critical Inquiry 12/1, 1985, 243-261.

[8] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, California, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1984, 137.


Shereen Abouelnaga (شيرين أبو النجا) is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University and a feminist literary critic. From 2004 to 2006, she was a fellow of EUME’s predecessor program “Working Group Modernity and Islam”. She has published books (in Arabic and English) and critical literary articles in scholarly journals, with a focus on gender. Aware of her position in the third world, Abouelnaga views the world through the lens of a socialist feminist. Her Arabic books include A Passion of Difference: Readings in Selected Feminist Texts (1997), Feminist or Womanist? (2001), Nation in the Narration of Arab Women Writers (2003), and Intellectuals in the Transitional Phase of Egypt (2014). In English, she has published Women in Revolutionary Egypt: Gender and the New Geographics of Identity (2016).


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021


Citation: Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28296.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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