Why looking at the world through the gender lens is essential

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Women’s studies bring light to a deeper understanding of gender equality and serve as a necessary part of development. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The images we see on mainstream media often denote the typical Filipino woman to have a conservative demeanor similar to Maria Clara in “Noli Me Tangere.” On the other hand, representations of Filipino men are modeled after gun-wielding protagonists in action films. The disparity can be clearly observed in local commercials and hit television series, and any depiction that drifts apart from these archetypes can give people false impressions when it comes to understanding gender.

Looking at real-life implications of such misconceptions, social constructs of gender roles and the traditional division of labor in the household can still be observed in Philippine society until today. Men are expected to earn for the family while women are bound to the roles of housewives.

Women continue to face challenges in the workplace, and a survey among Southeast Asian women reveals that 21% of the Filipino respondents were told that they were "too emotional" for a leadership role. Meanwhile, 59% feel that their career was affected because they chose to have a family.

According to a study by the United Nations Development Program and the International Labor Organization, 30% of the Filipino women respondents reported that they experienced harassment and discrimination in the workplace based on their sexual orientation and gender identities (SOGIE). Even more, a 2018 report revealed that no Philippine-based company involved in the study had policies that protected employees from SOGIE-based discrimination.

These alarming statistics show the need for women's and gender studies in the country as people still lack understanding of these areas due to long-standing biases and discriminatory beliefs. It is necessary to look at development in the context of gender, and only then will the Philippine society address the conditions that perpetuate gender inequalities and misrepresentation.

Far from an easy subject, the area of study brings light to a deeper understanding of gender equality and serves as a necessary part of development. The goal of the discipline is to assess the present conditions of men and women in society, and provide the framework to change the present realities.

The advent of women’s studies amid political unrest

Martial law motivated the formation of several human rights organizations. “Although these discussions initially focused on class issues, they later expanded to include ethnic and gender inequalities,” as stated in a UNESCO 2004 report on Philippine women’s studies.

By the time that the dictatorial rule has ended, many women’s organizations have also been established. Among these were Kilusang Kababaihang Pilipina (PILIPINA) and Katipunan ng Kalayaan para sa Kababaihan (KALAYAAN), which were founded in 1981 and 1983 respectively.

The two groups were the first to start the discourse on gender issues in the Philippine patriarchal society, campaigning against sexism, gender violence, and gender inequality, and fighting for women's reproductive rights.

"People experience the world differently according to their gender, with patriarchal values determining the difference."

On the other hand, feminist educators headed the discourse about women’s issues and sexism in the academe, influencing schools and institutions during the ‘80s to include gender courses with a feminist orientation.

In 1988, the University of the Philippines Diliman inaugurated the Women and Development program, pioneering postgraduate women’s studies in the country. This later developed into the Department of Women and Development Studies under the College of Social Work and Community Development, where Women and Development is offered both as a Diploma program and a Master of Arts program.

More than three decades later, the DWDS of UPD remains to be the only institution offering a full postgraduate degree program on women’s and gender studies in the Asia-Pacific region. But institutions such as the University of the Philippines Open University, Silliman University, and St. Scholastica's College have also begun to recognize the importance of women's studies, through their offerings of a Diploma in Women and Development, Certificate of Women's Studies, and Cognate in Women's Studies, respectively. This is a positive indication that women’s studies are being integrated into more programs across the nation, as well as globally.

“There is a long way to go for universities in the global South, but in the Philippines, the push of GAD mainstreaming via law has hastened the process,” says DWDS Associate Professor Roselle Leah K. Rivera.

The interdisciplinary relevance of women’s studies

Women’s and gender development studies analyze systematic gender issues, which can be deeply entwined with other academic disciplines. Women's studies can be taken up by anyone, regardless of their background. By using gender as a lens to examine social structures intersecting with race, class, and culture, people will get a more solid idea on how to advocate for gender equality in society.

It is an important academic area for the simple truth that most, if not all, aspects of life are gendered. Some may believe that gender studies would not at all be relevant to their professional careers, but such programs equip students with the knowledge of the role that gender plays in daily lives.

The field of women’s and gender development studies allows people to navigate the world knowing how society is structured. Challenging social norms and pursuing gender equality are important with all the prevailing gender issues in the Philippines, such as gender-based discrimination and violence, denying the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons, and the gender pay gap, among many others.

“People experience the world differently according to their gender, with patriarchal values determining the difference,” says DWDS Chairperson and assistant professor Rowena A. Laguilles-Timog. The significance of gender studies is interdisciplinary as it introduces feminist theories and lens with which to view the world. “As new issues come up — such as the current COVID-19 pandemic — the gender lens comes out as essential in ensuring that responses to social and development issues do not push anyone behind,” she adds.

The field of women’s and gender development studies allows people to navigate the world knowing how society is structured.

Carolyn Israel-Sobritchea, who wrote the Philippines’ country paper in Women’s/Gender Studies in Asia-Pacific, presented the risk of “armchair feminism,” referring to how being engrossed in discussing theoretical ideas on gender equality and women empowerment can lead to inaction in realizing said theories.

For Laguilles-Timog, armchair feminism is like a paradox. Feminism is already “being aware of gender issues and doing something about it.” Armchair feminism gives off the idea that talking about issues isn’t that important when discussing gender matters is already a form of concrete action to change present realities. “Sometimes, ‘talking’ can be ‘doing,’ too,” she says, considering that actively “doing something” can also depend on one’s resources.

In any case, women’s studies programs do encourage praxis as the learning process empowers students for social transformation. The theories they discuss guide their future actions and the knowledge that they have are applied and further deepened through fieldwork courses where they work with the marginalized people in society. Institutions offering the program and other derivatives also carry the responsibility to constantly evaluate their courses to capture the changing realities, such as the case of understanding gender as a continuously evolving concept.

Gender-responsive approaches from development programs benefit everyone. The country has come a long way in acknowledging women’s struggles and advocacies, and such programs help illustrate where people may still lack understanding. In today’s time where rape culture is perpetuated and individuals find difficulty in distinguishing the difference between sexual orientation and gender identities, the importance of gender studies could not be more emphasized.

Women’s studies in the Philippines promote the need for us to keep relearning the present realities and unlearning outdated beliefs. It is through this that we support the struggles for freedom and equality and ultimately improve society as a whole.