By Mahrukh Murad
S aida Waheed Gender Initiative (SWGI) at LUMS operates as an academic center and focuses on bringing research and conversations around gender to the fore. However, a survey conducted by The Post found that 60% of respondents were unaware of SWGI’s work.
Ms. Aimen Bucha, Program Manager for SWGI, spoke to The Post about her role in running the initiative, “I am responsible for coordinating and handling the financial aspect of the canter. I am involved in the day-to-day running of the canter, putting out the events, coordinating with folks. I’m not only a part of the logistics but also help in planning events.”
She went on to add, “SWGI has a Steering Committee that consists of faculty across the five Schools, who have an interest in gender studies on an academic and individual level. The Committee comes together with the director and myself to plan the calendar for the coming semester.”
Dr. Nida Kirmani, former faculty director at SWGI, says, “SWGI grew out of an endowment gifted to LUMS by Saida Waheed’s family in 2015. The family wanted LUMS to work on women’s rights, and we suggested setting up a hub for gender studies research and advocacy in the region. Dr. Kamal Munir, who was the Dean of the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences (MGSHSS) at LUMS at the time, played a leading role”.
Ms. Aimen comments, “The endowment by Saida Waheed’s family is to foreground research that is happening in Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS) within Pakistan, but also research happening on and beyond Pakistan. There are limited political and academic spaces for conversations around GSS as it is not considered integral, but LUMS shows its commitment towards GSS”.
She further remarks, “We want to take Saida Waheed’s legacy forward by ensuring these conversations are happening as these conversations aid our learning experience and help us as scholars and students to think about issues around GSS more deeply.”
“The initiative aims to develop an academic culture of Gender and Sexuality Studies, look at these topics in depth, and develop linkages with other departments in different universities. Additionally to host events that help the LUMS community to develop its skills around GSS”.
Speaking about the work SWGI does, Ms. Aimen says, “We host different kinds of workshops. We have workshops targeted towards senior scholars that are knowledge sharing, co-learning experiences where scholars fine-tune each other’s work. We also host the Research Mentoring Workshops targeted at young scholars and aim to promote their work. Primarily the work that has been done through workshops and learning events is building the capacities of our community, whether that be academics, staff, or students. SWGI also helps scholars from outside of LUMS build their capacity and provide them a platform to come and bring forth their work”.
“SWGI also does film screenings and plays, as we are interested in not just looking at feminist theory, gender and sexuality from an academic lens but also a [broader social and artistic perspective]. We inculcate art and media forms as it highlights an artist and their work and brings to the fore this idea that different forms of art also contribute to conversations around GSS, even academic ones. Additionally, SWGI funds research internally for both faculty and students”.
Ms. Aimen further comments, “Our biggest contribution has been developing the GSS minor at LUMS. However, the GSS minor was announced during COVID-19. It’s been difficult as we weren’t able to host open houses for it and meet students. Hiring faculty for a minor during a pandemic is hard. We’re trying to streamline the process as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this means much of the LUMS community does not know that SWGI took the lead in developing the GSS Minor”.
Speaking on SWGI’s impact at LUMS, Dr. Kirmani says, “I can see a growing interest amongst students in gender and sexuality studies and a community of people (faculty and students) who are interested in these issues. This has also led to the creation of a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. This would not have happened if SWGI did not exist”. Indeed, 66.7% of The Post’s survey respondents were unaware of SWGI’s contribution to creating the minor.
One survey respondent commented on the minor’s significance, “I think the Gender and Sexuality studies minor within this initiative is very important, and offers some courses that are not available anywhere else in Pakistan, and in this way is doing revolutionary work. (Please don’t shut down)”.
Discussing SWGI’s commitment to amplifying marginalized voices, Dr. Kirmani says, “I think SWGI has managed to provide a platform to researchers and activists from the region and create a community around gender and sexuality studies. We always strived to engage with individuals and groups outside of LUMS as well, particularly from public sector universities. I think SWGI has managed to do that, but there is always scope for more growth”.
Ms. Aimen mentions, “A comment on Facebook highlighted that while our webinars are great, they are centered around the urban experience, and people from rural and suburban centers are not represented, and that takes away from their voice. This is something we have been thinking about for a while however, in the [quest] to amplify marginalized voices, the foremost problem is of access itself. We are also trying to bridge the gap between practitioners and researchers and having conversations with a more diverse group of individuals that will allow us to have a more cohesive sort of experience. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to bring in different opinions to the fore and amplify diverse voices”.
Talking about the challenges of running the initiative, Dr. Kirmani says, “SWGI relies on an endowment, which is fairly modest, and gets little financial support from any other source including the University. More investment in the Initiative would certainly be helpful. However, few other roadblocks have come up thankfully”.
Ms. Aimen explains, “SWGI is internally supported, but at times, there is an external reaction and mild trolling. However, at a place like LUMS, where we still want to hold as many open conversations as we can, you’re prepared for criticism on some level or the other.” She adds, “Something that works in our favor is that when conversations about GSS transcends the political feminist framework to the academic one, trolls do lose some interest.”
Commenting on how the pandemic affected operations at SWGI, Dr. Kirmani says, “It has definitely slowed things down. We have not been able to hold the kinds of workshops we did before, and webinars are great, but as we know, they also have a lot of limitations.”
Ms. Aimen reflects on working remotely and hosting events online, “It requires a lot of creativity and it does challenge you to be flexible and adapt quickly. There is stress because there is a lot of dependence on technology, especially in Pakistan, where we have really shaky infrastructure. You have to come to terms with the fact that hiccups can happen”.
Ms. Aimen highlights the need to support the initiative, “We will be showcasing student’s projects done in collaboration with SWGI in April 2021. It would be great if The LUMS community encourages these students and looks at their work with an open mind and heart. We want students to give us as many ideas as you can and post pictures [for increased visibility] if you’ve attended our events.”
Dr. Kirmani adds, “I just want people to support it, come to events, show an interest. Even though awareness is growing, I think there are a lot of students who still don’t know about SWGI.”
SWGI, as an academic center, is doing important work that must be appreciated. The Post echoes the sentiment of one of our survey respondents, who commented, “I think it’s crucial to have women’s voices integrated into the narrative that’s been dominated by men for so long. About time we had a different perspective introduced formally!”