Speak of gender at your peril!

Jane Carter, 25 August 2014
Speak of gender at your peril!

It’s perhaps useful to begin a blog with some cautionary words on the topic itself. I’ll start with “gender”….It’s amazing how often the excellently intentioned word “gender” evokes negative, defensive reactions from men and women alike. These go along the lines of “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m totally insensitive to women” (man) or “Don’t patronise me – I’m a professional in my own right” (woman) or “Here you come with your Western ideas trying to tell us how we should behave” (both). Indeed, the definition of Western in this respect can be pretty narrow – a Polish colleague tells me that in Poland, “gender” is a dirty word, provoking sermons in churches about the need to resist corrupting ideas, and retain “family values”. I was once told by a staff member of our local partner organisation in Armenia that there was no room for discussion: men are simply superior to women, “It says so in the Bible”. Here I felt reasonably confident to challenge his assertion. Although there is a Western tendency to associate Islam with limited opportunities for women, there is certainly no monopoly on narrow religious interpretations of gendered roles – or on more open ones. As I learned at a recent regional workshop on gender and development in Islamic contexts (a posting for another day), the Qu’ran includes many positive teachings on women; so much depends on interpretation.

It was at another recent workshop in Tajikistan – working with colleague Shahlo Rahminova whose translation skills cut through language barriers – that participants also expressed reservations about the word “gender” in Russian. Familiar though they were with its use in “development speak”, they suggested towards the end of the second day that what “gender” really meant, and would be better translated as, was “family relations”. Having conducted the first step of a gender analysis with two groups of farmers (men and women separately), one NGO leader got up and spontaneously expressed the opinion that if his parents had undergone a gender training, neither of his two sisters would have got divorced! He explained that both had had no say in the choice of their husbands. So much for the claim of “gender” being against “family values”…

The workshop discussion continued on the importance of not limiting mutual respect and understanding between men and women to family relations – but also applying this more widely, in society at large. We reached no conclusions, focusing instead on immediate challenges of project implementation. Yet triggering reflection on gendered power dynamics and social norms is always sensitive, not only on theological grounds. “Cultural values” are often cited even more quickly. But in which country is culture completely static, and would most people really want it to be so?

In international development, working on gender was considered a conceptual breakthrough after years of promoting women in development (WID). WID was criticised for reinforcing (limiting) female stereotypes – and for sometimes provoking a backlash from men. Gender, by contrast, concerns the socially determined roles of women and men and their consequences. Yet in a recent paper in Development in Practice, Sri Lankan academic Vidyamali Samarasinghe notes that not only is “gender” a foreign term that translates very poorly into Sinhala, Tamil and other languages, but is a concept that women at the receiving end of development interventions may find threatening. Women she interviewed pointed out that they had fought hard to gain a small slice of development funding coming into the country, and that now even that is supposed to be shared with men. They have a good point. We should certainly avoid getting into a “battle of the sexes” – alienating men doesn’t help. Neither should we assume that all men and all women think the same way, creating a simple male – female dichotomy; things are rarely so simple.© Helvetas

It is truly unfortunate that that the word “gender” translates so poorly into other languages, and is so often negatively perceived and/or interpreted. Yet it is a very widely used word, and one that is usually strongly defended by those who know most about it. Gender studies is, after all, a well- established academic discipline. And what alternative is there? I haven’t found a satisfactory one yet. Perhaps negative reactions to the word are best seen as an opportunity for beginning a discussion….And for those who are interested in learning more about our organisational approach to gender, our gender and social equity policy is a good place to start.

Jane Carter

Jane Carter

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2 Comments for «Speak of gender at your peril!»

  1. Zenebe Uraguchi

    09 September 2014 at 09:18

    You have raised, Jane, quite interesting and relevant issues. It is also indeed wise to start with what you called some “cautionary words” on the topic of gender.
    This reminded me the exchange that I had with my boss, a Professor from the Free University of Amsterdam. While out in the field in rural Ethiopia 17 years ago, he probingly posed the question: “do you think that you know better than I about development issues/problems in Ethiopia?” I guessed correctly where he was driving at, and astutely replied: “being a native of Ethiopia, I may have more information than you do. This information gives me tacit knowledge. But my knowledge may be limited, as what I know sometimes is taken for granted. As an external expert, you bring in know-what (facts) and know-why (analysis).” I ascribed my answer to the book that I read many years back: Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

    The moral of the story is that mutual learning is the key to advancing innovative ways of addressing problems rather than stubbornly resisting to every suggestion to develop the “culture of honest inquiry”. We came a long way to address gender inequalities. Yet, for many reasons, there are still huge challenges, many of these (and not all) unfortunately in a number of developing countries – from violence to institutional exclusion.

    • Sarah Byrne

      11 September 2014 at 15:21

      The exchange you’ve recounted, Zenebe, reminds me of the question: “Fish know how to swim in the water, but can they see it?”.

      I would add, Jane, that what you’ve described goes for many of the words & concepts that we work with. For example: “governance” can have quite negative connotations in some languages, being associated more with rule and authoritarianism. Some concepts, like “accountability”, are very difficult to translate at all, and can require a whole sentence to get the ideas across. And some concepts, again like “accountability”, are politically sensitive in some contexts and have to be translated in more neutral terms. All of which is to say that I think it’s important to invest time in listening to each other and finding a common understanding of what we mean when we use certain words for certain concepts.