The politics that matter: Men, women and political knowledge

A recent research funded by the ESRC has reported that women worldwide know less about politics than men.  This is based on the assumption that political knowledge is produced from watching news channels, and further that the gender gap in political knowledge is a result of lack of coverage of ‘soft’ (such as family, lifestyle and culture) topics which women would be interested in.

Announcement of these findings led to reactions from some academics on twitter. Klaus Dodds tweeted ‘These research findings about #women and #politics #knowledge raises questions about gendering of key terms’. While others may have been sympathetic to this view, there was not much evidence that the wider academic community at least was interested in questioning the assumptions behind women, news coverage, political knowledge as categories that led to these findings.

Decades of feminist research and scholarship have revealed the forms of power, positionality and reflexivity that produce a variety of ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway 1988) through which men and women might be compelled to act. Yet, it seems that gender research still continues to mirror the men vs. women ideology prevalent in wider society. To me though, the ESRC funded research raises concerns not just of ontological assumptions that examine differences between ‘men’ and ‘women’ as categories, but wider questions around what kinds of gender research, the primary gatekeeper of economic and social sciences research in the UK wants to support.

Men, women and political knowledge

If ‘gaps in exposure to media are related to the gaps of knowledge between men and women’ as this research suggests, then we should ask what kind of knowledge are we interested in fostering among men and women. More crucially, what are they expected to do with that knowledge? Is it enough to just know about current affairs?

The other day, a celebrity chef was advising the audience to cook beans for two hours over the gas. This same chef was also advocating for sustainable fishing, sustainable agriculture and all things local and ethical. The men and women in the slums in India where I have researched for several years would have told him that it will save gas if one uses the pressure cooker to cook beans. Have these men and women heard of sustainable development? No. Have they heard of global warming and ecological footprint? No. But they know how to economize on gas, electricity and water. Do they watch news channels with information on current events? Not always. Do they take to the streets when their livelihoods are threatened, when their homes are demolished and when a young woman is brutally raped on the streets? Yes, yes and yes.

One might argue that women in slums are more affected by environmental conditions given their gendered roles within the household and hence more likely to engage in forms of active citizenship. After all, decades of eco-feminist literature has strived to make links between ‘women’ and their ‘environment’ – a topic that the UN was quick to pick up on and fund several development programmes on. Women in the global south have indeed become the burden of the state, the burden of development, and the burden of modernity.

Women worldwide it seems are now the burden of media. Yet several years ago, women in social housing in East London discussed with me at length about their anxieties over the increase in paedophilia incidents across the UK. This was around the time when the murders of two school girls was linked back to their school caretaker in a small Cambridgeshire village called Soham. These women had been avidly watching the news coverage of the murders, and then trying desperately to find out the number of convicted paedophiles that might be living in their neighbourhood. They were worried about their children’s safety and were aghast at how Ian Huntley the  convicted murderer had been able to avoid conviction for so long despite a number of earlier sex offences. Clearly these women were watching television, reading news papers, and listening to radio for particular kinds of news related to what mattered to them. Even by any dubious definition, these were not ‘soft’ topics, rather they were important to them because this topic was central to their identities as mothers and carers of children.

The politics that matter

Does it matter then if women (and some men) do not watch news channels? Does it matter if they do not know about the Arab Spring, or of recent events in Turkey, or even the bomb blasts in Boston? Supporters of new media might say that knowledge of current events allow affected groups to connect transnationally, creating wider global circuits of support, resistance and citizenship, such as those seen in the Occupy movements. Skeptics might say that it is local knowledge that is the most empowering, that it is the desire for justice that makes women transgress the boundaries of home to enter the public realm, to organize themselves and to politicize their demands.

In Mumbai after the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in 1992, Muslim women suddenly found themselves entering the public realm as political actors. This was a time when Mumbaikars faced the greatest challenges to multiculturalism. Faced with public suspicions around their religious identity, Muslim men – young and old found themselves under increased police surveillance. Muslim women particularly from the working classes found that the male members of their family were no longer available to mediate with the public realm on their behalf. These women watched the news, learnt how to deal with the police, how to find information about missing family members, how to deal with bureaucracy and so on. Now some of these women run women’s courts delivering local justice. These women are political because they know of the news that matter and know how to act upon this news.

The range and breadth of women’s movements across the global north or south suggest that women are neither politically ignorant nor politically passive. The Greenham Common movement in England or the Chipko movement in India, the public protests across Europe against the Iraq war and recently across India against the gangrape, suggest that women are at the forefront of practices of active and insurgent citizenships. Their lack of political knowledge (narrowly defined as news and media coverage) has not necessarily been a hindrance so far in their political organization.

Does it matter then if women ‘watch less TV, read fewer newspapers and listen to less radio programmes’ as the research suggests? Should we not be asking instead – what kind of knowledge should women (or men) acquire in order to become political? Do they need to know about current affairs in order to become political? Or should they have situated knowledges in order to engage in a politics that matter?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s