Deconstructing Masculinity in a 'Female Bastion': Ambiguities, Contradictions and Insights

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article is informed by my experiences teaching women's studies and specifically feminist theory to predominantly female and male students offering Women's studies. As a mainstream academic discipline at the University of Buea, housing the only such Department in Cameroon's Higher Education system, this study uncovers the broader polemics regarding gender and women's studies.

Against the backdrop of a patriarchal society, this study attempts to account for the shifting strands on masculinity and femininity and gender transgressions as played out by students taking women's studies. It also analyses the notions, misconceptions and stereotypes that characterise the discipline of women's studies, specifically at the University of Buea, a replica of the cultural mindset across Cameroon, largely perceived as a female bastion. Borrowing from Derrida's concept of deconstruction, this paper situates inherent biases, contradictions and the mediations surrounding the discipline. The standpoints of male and female students are sought on their reasons for taking women's studies, how they are perceived by their peers in the University of Buea, the stereotypes and labels they are christened with and the ambivalence that surrounds women's studies as a field of scholarship.

The study concludes that women's studies is largely construed as a 'women's affair' and a "no go" area for males, on the pain of being considered effeminate while the female students are seen as fully 'empowered' and, therefore, a potential threat to the patriarchal order. Yet the survival of women's studies as a discipline rests squarely on how it can be viewed by society at large.

Keywords: Deconstruction, Women's Studies, Gender, Stereotype, Masculinity, Femininity, Patriarchy

Situating the strands in masculinity and femininity

The identities we have as women or men throughout our lives are not fixed or absolute but multiple and shifting (Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994). As many have argued, historiographically speaking, academics has focused on men until very recently, reflecting a belated recognition that men also have gender identities (Cornwall 1997), which are subject to change (White 1997). Feminist anthropology has provided ample evidence to show that western understandings of gender, and of biology, are not universal, but particular and culturally specific (Moore, 1998 1993; Strathern, 1988; Guijt and Shah 1998, Wood 1999; Erturk 2004). Understanding gender as a binary concept has become an uncontested tool of analysis within mainstream development theorizing (Erturk 1997a, Goetz 1997).

While this conceptualization is misleading, it is necessary to re-examine the concept of gender for its analytical underpinnings in relation to the discourses on women's studies as a nascent field of scholarship. The premise that gender is the social organization of presumed sexual differences and that it defines the roles and identities associated with femininity and masculinity and their entitlements, provides such a starting point (Goetz 1997 and Wieringa 1998). The thrust of this study is to situate the perspective of Cameroon where the patriarchal structure remains intact and the use of gender synonymously with women can serve to conceal the latter before they have a chance to become visible actors in public space. Connell (1987) differentiates between 'hegemonic' and 'subordinate' masculinity to capture the differential access men have over power and social privilege.

In most of Africa social constructs associated with gender are diverse and subject to constant negotiation and alternatives in every day life as there are plural and fluid in diverse societies of the continent. The dominant gender identities and their patterned interconnectedness are embedded in the patriarchal legacy that manifests itself through particular relations of 'domination and subordination' depending upon the specific cultural context (Johnson 1997). …