Why we need to discuss gender issues in development institutions

Published on 26 April 2016

The “Gender Takeover” Week, an event that students of MA Gender and Development annually hold to raise the issues of gender and sexuality in IDS, took place 4-8 April 2016. We carried out three activities during the week:

  1. “I Heart Consent” Workshop

  2. Movie Screening “Pride” (2014) and Discussion

  3. Gender Bender Party

In addition to those events, we also: placed opinion board at IDS and created video interviewing people in IDS about the issues of gender, sexuality, and feminism; staged a take-over of a toilet in the IDS building changing it into a genderless toilet; created our own t-shirt saying “This is What Feminist Looks Like” with the word “feminist” translated into different languages.

Here’s my personal reflection from that week about why events like “Gender Takeover” are important at development institutions like IDS.

Because development workers need to practice self-reflexivity

IDS always teaches its students to be aware about our positionality, to be self-reflexive, and aware of how our backgrounds can shape our perspectives on certain issues. But do development workers really embed this idea into daily practice? Based on people’s response to our toilet takeover, apparently not always.

A couple of the responses we received on our toilet takeover signs were “what about my privacy?” and “as a woman in a patriarchal society, I have a right to spaces where I am free from the oppression of the male gaze”.

The first concern about privacy was written on a sign in the male toilet, and I assume it was written by the usual user of the toilet, a man. Whoever wrote that concern may not realise that the facilities they are used to are a privilege that they receive above minority groups such as LGBTQ. Likewise, the second concern raised the issue of oppression against women, but didn’t consider that women have been able to enjoy more “protection” or safe spaces, over gender minorities. Both concerns are valid, but neither considered perspectives of the more oppressed groups, or gender minorities. I think this way of thinking limits our ability to empathise with others, which I think is very detrimental to societies.

The question about whether our method is participatory was also raised. This fails to consider how un-participatory it was to decide two kinds of toilets without thinking about non-gender binary concerns. It was not really surprising to receive this kind of response because there’s a saying “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Because feminism is for everyone

Feminism still has negative connotations for some people, even those who work in development. One respondent to a video interview that colleagues made didn’t want to identify as a feminist because she felt that it equates to being perceived as a ‘man-hater’. It’s apparent to me that some people either don’t understand feminism to the full extent, or if they do, they choose not to challenge the negative thinking around it in society. Feminism is really about challenging the power relations and social norms that sustain discrimination, against groups of people based on their gender and sexuality.

Another thing that I realise from Gender Takeover Week is how people make assumptions about gender. Some comments that were written in the toilet assumed that LGBTQ people can “use whichever bathroom you feel comfortable” or “if you’re a man turned woman use the ladies, if you’re a woman turned man use the gents. Simple”. These comments demonstate that people don’t understand how complex the problems that others, especially marginalised groups, face. They probably don’t know that in most cases LGBTQ people get harassed and bullied in toilets. They also may not know that some people may choose not to conform to gender-binary or to simply be women or men. I mean, if it doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right? And gender is about you who are and how you define yourself, not simply male or female.

I was sceptical at first about the “I Heart Consent” Workshop, which is part of “I Heart Consent” campaign led by Sussex Student Union, because I thought the discussions may be limited to certain groups. Yet it turned out being a fun and mind-opening workshop. The facilitators asked us to discuss the broader issues about stereotypes of gender minority groups and the culture of victim blaming and patriarchy. They even discussed stereotypes of people who believe in abstinence like me! I really appreciated the workshop, I think it was an important exercise to really analyse subconscious beliefs and practices that discriminate against gender minority groups.

Because gender is not only an issue in developing countries’

During that week, I heard someone saying in class that gender isn’t an issue in developed countries. This is another misunderstanding because we always focus our attention to Africa and South Asia within development studies. That’s why we chose to play the movie Pride (2014) which raised stories about the union between LGBT and miners groups in UK during 1980s. The movie was inspiring and sent a strong message about union and solidarity. It was also a chance to learn more about the history of the country we live in, the UK. Our aim for the movie screening was to start discussions about gender issues in the UK, which do exist.

Because we like having fun!

The fact that IDS students, especially my gender cohort, are very close to each other, is something I always appreciate. We often hold parties or social events together that are also inclusive to students or people from other schools. No wonder students from other schools in Sussex or other universities get envious of us. Holding events together with my MA Gender and Development cohort has helped us to really get to know each other even more, and get closer. And because we love party, we held the Gender Bender Party as the closing event of the week, where people challenged gender norms and had a great dance!

What’s next?

Well, we tried to challenge perceptions by holding Gender Takeover Week, it was a success but certainly more can be done. One constructive feedback we received was that it would have been good to have more discussion throughout the week about gender issues, not just focussed around provocations. We agree for sure. I think IDS should have discussions and events about gender and sexuality more regularly.

We welcome creative thoughts and ideas for next year’s Gender Takeover!

Disclaimer: This writing is my personal reflection and does not necessarily reflect the voice of all MA Gender and Development 2015-2016 cohort.