‘My hope is necessary, but not enough’ teaching and learning Feminism at the University

By Aruni Samarakoon

Modern university education was introduced to Ceylon by the British colonisers in 1921 with the establishment of the Ceylon University College, which eventually developed into the public university system where academics and researchers could explore universal knowledge. In 1947, the very first University, the University of Ceylon, was established. Later, the Ceylon University Act No 01 of 1972 was to set up the institutional framework for the universities, which reflected and further entrenched colonial and patriarchal values in university curricula, and the administration system. The University culture originally shaped by the English-speaking elite white men was transferred to, and dynamically transformed, “native” intellectuals, hailing from the lower-middle class and rural peasantry.

Today, these “native” intellectuals, both Sinhala and Tamil, many of them with foreign postgraduate credentials, are the dominant group determining the scope of the teaching and learning culture at the Universities in Sri Lanka. Over 70 years, after Independence from British rule, Feminist thinking has largely been absent in teaching and learning at our universities, except in a section of social sciences and humanities curricula.

To what extent do Sri Lankan universities take the initiative to, or at least, support teaching and learning Feminism? This article explores the challenges of teaching and learning Feminism at Sri Lankan universities. It begins with a brief introduction to feminist thinking and is followed by a presentation of empirical data, from 2019, collected through ethnographic research, carried out at three universities in Sri Lanka, under two themes: Challenges in presenting Feminism as “New Knowledge” and “New Practices”; and hearing the “Voice” of Feminist scholars.

What is feminism?

Feminism is a terminology that derives from the French language; it means the subordination of women due to their sexuality; subordination of women to the politics of Patriarchy. Feminist schools have aligned with the main political streams such as Liberalism, which suggests reforms and Socialism, proposing radical changes to the patriarchal structure, to end the subordination of women in economic, political and social spheres.

The focus of First Wave Feminism was to promote gender inclusivity in politics, demanding voting rights and representation of women in governing institutions. However, the dimension of gender inclusivity in Liberal Feminist Discourse was criticised for failing to represent the Political aspirations of working-class women and women in non-white communities and immigrant women. The evidentiary support to this claim is that Emmeline Pankhurst’s (1858-1928) campaign “Deeds not Words” for voting rights did not include the voice of working-class women, immigrant women and non-white women in the UK.

The criticism of Liberal Feminism provoked a new school of thought, the Second Wave of Feminism, which was developed on the theory of socialism. The Second Wave Feminists proposed radical changes to the prevailing patriarchal structure that objectified women as sex-objects and demanded equal pay for women’s labour and women’s reproductive rights. Third wave Feminism is an extension of Second wave Feminism, though it foregrounds personal narratives and the intersecting forms of oppression that structure women’s subordination. It emphasises everyday politics. This is a fundamental reading of Feminist schools, and more recent Feminist literature, emerging from the global South, delves into other aspects such as representing Women’s Voice.

Feminism as “New Knowledge” and “New Practices”

Feminism aims to end suppression; stereotyping; hierarchies and to foster new knowledge and practices. However, Sri Lankan university scholars have failed to draw on feminist thinking to deconstruct “hierarchies and stereotypes” at the universities. For example, a senior colleague stereotyped Feminism as “a power against man” and as an “anti-man Discourse.” A department at a Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has even removed the Gender Studies module from the undergraduate degree programme as it has no “market value”. Sri Lankan public universities are more open to marketable undergraduate courses due to the impact of neoliberal policies, which place more “value” on STEM education.

How has Feminist literature been used in teaching and learning at Sri Lankan universities? Who has the power to access this knowledge? Empirical data shows that reading Feminist literature and theories are confined to a “particular circle” at universities, who are fluent in English. Therefore, discussions on Feminism at the Universities are limited to that “particular circle”. One of the undergraduates, in my research sample, said that “discussions on Feminism occur when scholars have High-Tea at the Faculty room at the University”. This conversation indicates that discussions on feminism are confined to a particular class, mostly middle class, who can speak English, the colonial language. The class factor in this scenario has placed limits on undergraduates engaging in discussions on Feminism.

Are there spaces outside the classroom for students to discuss Feminism? The University Grants Commission has issued directives to establish a “Centre for Gender Equity and Equality” at every University in the country. Those centres could have offered a space to discuss Feminism, although they currently operate in the corners with little interaction with the undergraduates. “I have never found the Centre for Gender Equity and Equality at the University. What is that centre for and who runs it?” was a response from an undergraduate of a University in the Capital of the country. The undergraduates, in my sample, did not know how to find the centres, physically, at the universities, and encountered difficulties in contacting the person(s) in charge of the centres. In my view, these centres could follow the basic principles of Feminism, such as raising undergraduates’ political consciousness to end the subordination of women and produce new knowledge on Women’s Rights.

Hearing the voice of Feminist scholars

I never underestimate the historical contribution of Feminist scholars at our universities to end the subordination of women; suppressions; stereotyping of women as “objects”. These scholars have raised their voice, calling for a new culture of equality and freedom at the universities. I remember a female Senior Professor, in Political Science, at the University of Peradeniya, sharing her narrative of being suppressed by male peers at her department. Those female scholars have fought with a rigid Patriarchal system for a long time.

Some Senior Feminist scholars have been subjected to verbal and sexual harassment by their peers, who were cronies of the top-administration of the Universities. These scholars are yet to receive justice and their “Her + Stories” are not discussed or considered a part of the history of Sri Lankan Universities. Why have these stories been hidden?

The Feminist scholars, I met in my ethnographic research, raised the question with me as to why women had to wear six-feet long sarees to work and how this attire was crucial for professionalism? A senior female colleague, who wore t-shirts and denim trousers to undergraduate lectures, made a heavy outcry at a University in the South. Imposing a dress code is symbolic of power and, in the case of women, it is symbolic of the power of Patriarchy.

These also voices stressed the need for “Freedom of expression,” which is limited at universities due to the hierarchies of rank, age, ethnicity, caste, class and gender. I would argue that these hierarchies have made a huge impact on the critical thinking of newly recruited academics. The latter tend to try to please their superiors rather than critically evaluate the policies at our universities. Unfortunately, these new recruits gradually become carriers of these hierarchies.

In conclusion, I state that “my hope is necessary but not enough ” as Paulo Freire mentions in his Pedagogy of Hope (1999). Kuppi is one of the spaces that I have hope to raise the voice of feminist scholars and be heard. I will be discussing this matter further, in my next Kuppi article.