Pioneering the Gender Studies major at Monash Malaysia

Whether or not we realise it, gender has a deep impact on how we experience the world around us, and carries major cultural implications. In Southeast Asia, the region’s immense socio-cultural diversity means that the relationships between genders, sexualities and religions are uniquely rich and complex.

At Monash University Malaysia, Associate Professor Dr Sharon A. Bong has developed her research specialisation at precisely this intersection, which will soon form the basis for a new Gender Studies major in the School of Arts and Social Sciences. “In a nutshell, my research started with women’s rights and religions, and in recent years has evolved to genders, sexualities, and religions,” she says. “My work deals with the nexus between these, aiming to demystify some misconceptions that the majority have in the interpretation of religious texts and cultural practices, which can be sources of discrimination or marginalization for gender/sexual minorities and women at large. A lot of the motivation centred on trying to demystify these misconceptions, so that's my passion and it's still there.”

A foundational understanding of gender studies is that all social processes, large or small, are gendered. This means that an individual’s gender influences how they perceive, and are perceived by, their surrounding environment.

In this way, gender is intimately tied to our individual lived realities. Dr Bong explains, “I guess society at large might feel that gender is quite unrelated to their lives. The very quick, reactionary response often is that there seems to be gender equality - women are able to work, go into virtually any profession, and there are women footballers today, so women have also filtered into male-dominated professions.”

“A lot of developed countries would be the first to point out that women seem to have equal rights, because they're looking at some of these indicators, and really omitting quite a few others. For instance, how disproportionately women and girls would experience certain phenomena, like the impact of globalisation, or poverty, or even trafficking and gender-based violence in particular. The particular standpoint, that all social processes are gendered, is really still true… a lot of people don't really see the relevance of being clued in on how so much of what we do is highly, highly gendered.”

Approaching gender from this angle necessarily entails a heavy emphasis on probing identities and lived experiences. This forms a key component of feminist and queer theorising, and over the course of the Gender Studies major, students will learn to expand and deepen this framework in relation to a rapidly changing Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

The Southeast Asian connection is a special strength of the program, linking back to the faculty’s established specialisation of social transformations in the region. “Southeast Asia, in relation to both the West and other parts of Asia, certainly is unique – not least of all because cultures and religions still play quite a pivotal role in social processes and how these may be gendered or sexed,” Dr Bong shares. 

She explains that its contrast with several more secularised countries in East Asia, as well as its continued status as ‘developing’, means that the social relevance of inquiry into the interactions between genders, sexualities, and religion in the region is higher than ever before, with wide implications for the futures of the nations that comprise it. “Most Southeast Asian countries are also highly multiethnic, and that diversity in terms of religions and cultures makes it interesting as a collective,” she says. “When you study it as a composite whole, the divergence is what makes it really exciting to explore.”

Prospective students can look forward to these and many more opportunities when the Gender Studies major is formally offered from Semester One, 2016. The program will include gateway units on gender and sexuality studies, followed by in-depth explorations of feminist theories, sexuality studies, masculinity studies, and the intersections between sex/gender, class, race, and religion.

“A unique component of the gender studies major would be an emphasis on drawing the connections or recognising the synergy between what is learned in the classroom and the industry,” Dr Bong adds. To this end, the major will also incorporate a capstone internship unit, which students can complete over the summer semester. The program may also be undertaken as a minor, and is deliberately crafted to ease students into either working life or postgraduate studies by equipping them with relevant tools and skills, as well as encouraging original research projects.

As the 2016 academic year approaches, Dr Bong looks forward to seeing the Gender Studies major, which she describes as a “long-held aspiration” of hers, finally realised. It is her hope that the material covered will resonate with students on the levels of personal experience and wider social needs. In her words: “It goes back to bringing the point home that, as I've come to believe and practise, good research is always political. It should have an impact on society, and it does have an impact, because it draws precisely from lived realities of marginalised members of that society.”

By Dr Sharon A. Bong, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia.