The study of gender and sexuality at AUB has a much longer history than when the Women and Gender Studies (WGS) minor officially began in 2016. The university has had many faculty members who have taught courses regarding gender and sexuality in their respective disciplines, and has even been home to graduate students who have worked on dissertations on the topic.
The minor, however, is the first of its kind at the university and aims to provide an interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender and sexuality.
Outlook met with Sara Mourad, Ph.D., program coordinator for the recently implemented Women and Gender Studies Initiative, to discuss how the minor transcends several scholarly fields and pushes the boundaries of academia to also curate knowledge outside the university.
“The idea behind the WGS initiative is to start building a visible structure where efforts that are already underway in different forms at the university can be recognized, brought together, and supported under the WGS umbrella,” Mourad explained.
“We want to start building a program where we work on events and activities and research collaborations and partnerships with community members, and to do this we need a concrete, institutional presence, which we will obtain, in part, through the minor,” she continued.
The WGS minor is housed under the English department, but falls within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Several courses that count towards the minor are offered across different departments, and are not simply limited to the English department.
Courses being offered this semester are scattered between the Arabic, English, Health Promotion and Community Health, Psychology, and Sociology departments. Through the website, students can keep up to date with upcoming events and courses, such as an ‘Introduction to Women and Gender Studies’ course being offered next semester.
Kathryn Maude, Ph.D., assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies, is currently teaching English 258B – ‘Queer Saints: Pre-and Post Modern’ – a course that counts for the WGS minor.
Speaking to Outlook, Maude further explained how her course offers valid and critical knowledge in comparing current and past texts regarding women and gender studies.
“I’m a medievalist. I work on women’s writings in the Middle Ages and also on what the Middle Ages can tell us about changing attitudes to gender and sexuality. The point of my course is to ask the question: what happened then?” Maude said.
“If the way we think about gender and sexuality was different in the Middle Ages, that demonstrates that it could be different again in the future. I think it gives us a real basis to think about how this is societally created and how gender difference is not natural, it’s kind of created, and it could be created differently.”
In order to fulfill a minor in WGS, one would need to complete a total of five courses. Mourad explained that the initiative makes it very simple to complete the minor and said “we are very flexible about these courses, they have to have a significant component that deals with gender, women, and/or sexuality. Students can use their free electives to take these courses.”
Mourad continued by saying that, “it is great because you can assemble your own minor. It is not repetitive in any way, each class will build off the other, and and you will accumulate knowledge from different fields about the ways in which gender shapes social practices, institutions, and identities.”
As a liberal arts institution in the Middle East, AUB is invested in thinking about gender as a question that deserves to be addressed across different disciplines.
“In our political and geographical context, and especially at this institution, we need to nurture critical thinking among our students to question what have come to be understood as social norms,” Mourad conveyed.
“These are unchanging realities in our region and they are one of the major reasons we’re lagging behind on multiple fronts. We need to engage them more systematically, and build a curriculum that tackles this question of gender when it comes to family life, social movements, health care, political systems, and cultural productions.”
Mourad and Maude both emphasized the importance of encouraging research to produce more knowledge in the region, about the region, on the “realities that we are currently living in”, and understanding them in order to be able to change them.
Both professors reiterated that gender and sexuality are very personal notions, and so the courses offered are not only political, but also touch on deeply held beliefs and attitudes.
“It is about creating spaces in the classroom and beyond where we can think together and discuss these issues, obviously in an environment that prioritizes the importance of having diverse opinions of dialogue,” explained Maude.
Marylin Chahine, a Junior who is double majoring in Psychology and Sociology/Anthropology expressed her reasons for deciding to pursue the minor.
“I need to learn more, and cannot accomplish that on my own. The WGS Initiative offers incomparable resources, in terms of journals, material, and professors, and this is how I can obtain valuable knowledge and hopefully dedicate my future studies to researching the study of gender.”
Mourad and Maude both wished to express their gratitude towards Dean Nadia El Cheikh, Ph.D., who, in the words of Mourad, is “someone who has been invested in creating the space for a more systematic engagement with questions of gender for a long time now, and this is happening under her tenure which has to be recognized.”
In the words of Maude is the Dean is “very supportive of the minor and she was instrumental in getting the English Department to hire me and to help to administer the minor and the gender initiative.”
A two-day interdisciplinary conference titled “Feminism in Crisis? Gender & the Arab Public Sphere” is planned for January 2018. The conference asks, “In the midst of the geopolitical crises sweeping the region, and between state-feminism’s lip service to women’s rights on one hand and the NGOization of activism and political participation on the other, what can feminism accomplish?”