Gender Sensitivity through Literature

Judul: Gender Sensitivity through Literature
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Nama & E-mail (Penulis): Purwanti Kusumaningtyas
Saya Masyarakat di Salatiga
Tanggal: 25 Januari 2008

There are still many Indonesian women who are unaware of their potentials. Not only is it in the villages and the uneducated, but also is the city dwellers and university students who think that their ability to work outside the house as the liberated condition from the oppression of patriarchy. On the other hand, they often do not have enough freedom to make decision both in their family and in their office. In their family, a married woman will be dependant to her husband; her husband is the head of her family and she must be submissive to him; he is the decision maker, whereas the wife is responsible for bringing up the children, keeping the house neat and tidy, and cooking for the whole family. Wife must serve both her husband and children. When she is working outside the house, she supposed to earn lower wage from her husband since higher position and wage will undermine and frustrate her husband. Furthermore, she is carrying double responsibility: the success in the job and the success at home.

Why Literature?

A simple and little survey that I did to some of my students in my Literature classes proves that what is stated above is true. Most of them think that it is the nature of a woman to be a housewife and to stay at home, taking care of the family and the house. The other thought they share about women's nature is that a woman must carry double responsibilities if she works outside the house. It means that if a woman works, she remains the only person in charge of the household running; so, when she returns home after work, she will continue working at home, doing most of the house chores. Although there has been a shift in sharing jobs at home to more families, the number of families with such willingness to share is still relatively small. Even if they are willing to do so, they are still occupied with the idea that if possible, wives must do more chores than husbands must. Husbands can "help", but they are not to be responsible for that. On the other hand, many of the women (both teachers and students) that I met shared that if a woman works, she must not think that she can replace her husband's position as the decision makers in the family. Decisions for the family remains in the hands of the father-husband, as the woman's function to work is just to "help" husband support to finance the family. It is always a husband's responsibility to earn the money, while a wife "can" help (meaning that it is not necessary for her to do so).

Such view is in fact made and institutionalized by the New Order regime for 32 years. When the regime fell, it does not mean that the idea of a "true" woman immediately vanishes with it. It remains among most Indonesian woman that that they have to obey and be loyal to their husband, able to help their husbands financially by earning money, and at the same time successfully raise their children and maintain their home perfectly. This old paradigm is even held by those with high education.

Considering the condition, as a teacher in the Department of English Education which prepares its students to be English teachers, I make use of the opportunity to influence my students by bringing up the issue of gender to class. This department is a potential field for disseminating the issue because starting form the class of 30 students, there will be at least another 30 other people brought to realize the issue, if it is only a quarter of them become teachers. Thus, it is a slow but certain way of disseminating the idea of liberated women. The way is effective to tear down the paradigm established by the New Order regime applied for 32 years.

The main division of literary approaches as what Abrams put into groups - objective approaches, expressive approaches, mimetic approaches, and pragmatic approaches - enables readers to respond and react freely from one angle to the other. Those four approaches are not rigidly divided, as there is always a possibility to combine them. Besides that, such division is open to interdisciplinary approaches. Therefore, the study of literature can be analogous to a spider on its web. Just like the spider's legs that stand on different thread each, a literary work - which is the spider - has some possible angles to view.

With the idea in mind, the use of literature for bringing up the gender issue into mainstream is effective. Moreover, one of the ways to view literary works is by specifically applying Feminist Literary Theory, which focuses its concern on the voice of women in texts. Thus, from the analysis of texts, which poses gender idea theoretically, the discussion can be elaborated to a movement although it is just a little action, even as least as a person's questioning the mindset s/he has so far.

What can we do with Literature?

To explain how Literature helps disseminate gender sensitiveness, I will use the class that I teach to illustrate it. The class is named "Women and Literature" although the idea is in fact to discuss gender through the study of Literature. Academically, it is a class of Feminist Literary Criticism. However, I found it very effective to spread the seed of gender sensitivity, as the discussion often led the members of the class to relate it to what they experienced and saw in their environment. I use literary works - drama, short stories, and novels- as a means to introduce the idea of liberated women. What I mean by "liberated" women is the idea that women have choice and have the right to make their own decision concerning their own lives.

I use some texts as those written by Lewis Carroll, Henrik Ibsen, Kate Chopin, Sandra Cisneros, Katherine Anne Porter, Zora Neale Hurston, Amy Tan, and Maxine Hong Kingston. It is essential to provide various texts with various background to give the students wide range of view; they need to see different background and the variety of problems faced by different women of different society. Besides those texts, I also use excerpts from some theorists as Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex), Kate Millet (Sexual Politics), Ann Rosalind Jones ((Writing the Body: towards an understanding of l'ecriture feminine), and Barbara Smith (Toward a Black Feminist Criticism) to help them keep up with the gender issues proposed by the theorists. Knowing it, they are led to see their own condition and problems with their aspects in order that they are able to respond to them proportionally. The reason is that even though the class aims at seeing how literary works pose women in them, it is actually a very effective door to get into the discussion about women and their roles in the society as the result of people's construct to the society and culture that very often contains differentiation, including gender differentiation. The door opens wide as literary works may be either a portrayal of the society or a response to it, or even both.

The class discussion is mainly for discussing the texts through sharing everybody's view on gender issues in it. For example, when we discussed an episode of Alice's adventure in the wonderland, a story by Lewis Caroll, in which Alice met Humpty Dumpty, we found out that the characters' position as described in it showed how the society put such a hierarchy that put men in a higher place than women. Moreover, language was revealed to be engendered, as the same word may connote differently when it is used for a man from when it is used for a woman.

As a part of the assessment, the students are to present their ideas in the form of creative presentation such as poster or video presentation or slide or picture show in groups. I found out that they start to see things differently, for example, one of the groups presented a video showing how marriage life could be; it is not always a happily-ever-after kind of life like what fairy tales often tell. Instead, it may be a chain and strangle for the couple. The other group combined picture show and poetry reading performance. Interestingly, they could catch how society may often create stereotyping that constrains a person's (woman's) liberty.

After the class discussion, the students are assigned to write journals. So far, what they wrote in their entries shows that at least one third of the class start questioning what they have been thinking and doing. One of them are even able to contemplate the lessons in such a way that they create such work as poetry. The other starts to be more critical in viewing things; it can be seen through the pictures and stuffs she put in her entries. Another student who is working already start re-questioning what he has done so far with his projects and how he can put gender-sensitive perspective into his projects later on. Furthermore, as a married man, he starts thinking to evaluate his relationship with his wife and his way to raise their children.

From the explanation above, I conclude that Literature classes can be a very effective place for educators and teachers to spread the idea of gender sensitivity. Even though there may be only a few students influenced immediately, I believe the seed may grow eventually. If the students cannot understand the idea now, I am certain that on one of the days in their lives, they will remember what we discuss in class at present. We will see little by little women change their view of themselves as potentials and men view their environment as a place for both of them to live out of the oppressing patriarchy, but in harmonious humanity.

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