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Gender course begins bridging men-women gap
By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-12-27 08:56

Seven universities in Shanghai opened a new course about gender and society to all undergraduates and graduate students when the autumn term began in September.

The course has turned out to be popular in Fudan University, Jiaotong University, Tongji University, East China Normal University, Shanghai University, Shanghai Normal University and Shanghai Foreign Studies University.

It starts with an introduction to basic theories on gender and social development, and goes on to discuss topics such as women's job-hunting and roles in society and in families.

"The offering of such a course became possible with support from women's studies centres that have been founded at the universities since the 1980s," said Xia Lingying from the Shanghai educational administration.

Students welcomed it, she said, citing Shanghai University as an example, where the course was first introduced a year ago. In the first term, 117 students signed up. Since the spring term it has been attended by 170 - the maximum number of students the classroom can accommodate.

Xia stressed that male students account for about 30 per cent of the participants.

At Fudan University "the classroom is always crowded and some medical students travel an hour to the main campus to attend it," said Zheng Guizhen with the women's studies centre of the university.

The popularity of the course has been somewhat surprising as women's studies as a field has yet to take firm root and expand in China, said Du Fangqin, director of the women's studies centre of Tianjin Normal University.

Women's studies began in the West in the 1960s with the feminist movement and has been developed and incorporated into a mainstream discipline in social sciences, said Du.

She said that in the United States there were more than 250 institutes of women studies and 700 women's research centres.

In China, women's studies centres mushroomed among Chinese universities in the 1980s and especially in the early 1990s, when research in social sciences prospered and when China was preparing for the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995.

Of the 5,275 research projects sponsored by the State Social Science Development Foundation between 1999 and 2004, only 28 have to do with women's studies, according to Tan Lin, director of the women's studies centre affiliated with the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF).

"Women's studies are still considered marginal among disciplines of social sciences in China," Tan said.

Efforts must be made to enable women's studies to become part of mainstream social sciences studies and to help push for gender equality and for women's development, said Gu Xiulian, ACWF's chairwomen, at the second conference of the China Women's Studies Society recently.

The country's development needs society to develop a stronger awareness of gender equality and to take positive action to reduce and eliminate discrimination against women. Women's studies would surly help facilitate such progress.

Sources with the ACWF said it has only received about 100 applications of projects in women's studies in the past five years, among which 28 won their sponsorship.

"That already signals a great rate of success," said Li Wenqing, with the foundation.

Li also said Chinese researchers needed to be more creative in choosing their topics in relation to women's studies.

Meanwhile, most women's centres do not offer related courses to undergraduates, said Du of Tianjin Normal University.

Only since this year has the Ministry of Education been sponsoring symposiums and training programmes at Beijing Normal University, which cater for those teaching women's studies at colleges around China.

Women's studies remain a marginal discipline primarily because almost no researchers in China majored in women's studies in their graduate studies, according to statistics from the Department of Sociology of Peking University.

It was not until 1998 that Peking University became the first in China to offer a Master's degree in women's studies.

Course wins applause

The gender and society course in the seven Shanghai universities has appealed to a lot of students, but some keep it quiet. Yan Caixia, a junior at the Shanghai University, told the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily: "My classmates and I have started job hunting. We have never felt the gap between women and men so obviously as now and I really want to know more about my own gender."

"Some of my roommates are interested too but they feel embarrassed to include such a course in their resumes," Yu Haibin, a 22-year-old male student of the university, said.

But the lack of professionals in the area has raised doubts among both academics and students over the quality of courses on gender issues offered at colleges, said Xia with the Shanghai educational administration.

"The course consists mainly of discussion classes, but I want a more systematic learning of gender issues rather than discussions with my classmates about marriage or job hunting. We have already talked enough about it," a student of Fudan University said under the condition of anonymity.

Many believe the course is necessary. Min Min, from a rural area near Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, said: "The course has opened a window for me. I have viewed myself as an educated, intelligent woman who can realize my dreams with efforts."

Ji Bing, a student at Fudan University, said he registered for the course only because his girlfriend insisted on his going with her.

"At the beginning I did feel uncomfortable. We boys, who really wanted to understand the girls, became targets for all the females in the classroom and it seemed we had to apologize for all the wrongs done by men to women," he said.

"But things began to change and I myself also changed a lot. At least I enjoy a more harmonious relationship with my girlfriend and the female students around."

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