Gender representation

Following on my previous post about representation, I wanted to talk about it a little more by giving a concrete case.

Last night, my friends and I went to a panel about Islam & politics. We got there and found four men on the panel, and zero women. This was following a panel last week about Islamic feminism, on which (of course) there were four women and no men. Our issue was not so much that there should have been men on the feminism panel, but that it was strange that there were no women on the politics panel – a topic that affects everyone. 

During the Q&A, Asma Barlas brought up the fact that there were no women on a panel that professed itself to be a critical and decolonial panel. Someone in the audience responded by asking why it matters that there are no women on the panel, as long as it was a critical and interesting panel. In other words it is more about the discourse being used and arguments being made by members of the panel, and not the gender. 

On the one hand, I see where this comment comes from, because all too often we demand “token women” who end up perpetuating uncritical arguments, since (obviously) not all women are automatically decolonial or critical. On the other hand, there are critical women out there that could have been invited to this panel. Our knowledge always depends on our positionality, and so to exclude women from panels means excluding knowledge produced from this positionality and location. 

Another point is that it matters symbolically – seeing no women in these positions of authority and power does affect people’s gender perceptions. In fact throughout the program I’ve been at, I have seen people react differently to the same argument depending on whether it is made by a female scholar or by a male scholar. Like it or not, we are still not used to seeing women that are confident and that take themselves seriously and demand to be taken seriously. 

Of course the quota system is problematic. Of course demanding a “token woman” is problematic. But isn’t it better than continuing to see all-men panels? And does the “token woman” argument even make sense anymore, considering we have so many women that can and should be on these panels?

Are we at a point yet where we can say it’s all about what is being said, and now about who is saying it? Can we ever reach that point, given that our knowledge production and our positionality are always intertwined in complex ways?


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