Feminist Pedagogy

Unpacking the reality and building towards a new model of education for women and girls in Zimbabwe

@Logan Abassi, UN Photo
Feminist Pedagogy
@Logan Abassi, UN Photo
Grace Chirenje's picture

Feminist Leader

June 15th, 2017

During the month of June 2016, I came across a very interesting website, the Global Change Lab (n.d.) which has online “training bits” for activists around the world. What struck the chords of my soul was a discussion of training on feminist pedagogy and women’s learning experiences. It became apparent why I had always struggled with mathematics and science subjects during my high school years – no one considered my ways of learning at all and so I have had to deal with years of “numerical trauma”. What is key to this realisation is that, if education is going to become meaningful to women and girls’ lived realities, there is a need to feminise the school system and make it work for women and girls so that sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 becomes more of a reality than a mirage.

The SDGs are a welcome strategy for furthering development around the world. Dobriansky (2006), reflecting on the just-ended MDGs, explains that, in spite of the progress made, only one-sixth of the world’s population is literate and more than half of those still in dire need of literacy are women. This causes many challenges as women have, since time immemorial, held major roles in educating society and facilitating the progress of humanity. This article focuses on the critical aspects of education bringing feminist pedagogy to the centre of education. The author considers education from the viewpoint of women and girl’s experiences with feminist pedagogy at the centre of education and learning. The author will explore a definition of what a feminist pedagogy education for women is, and how it has a great influence in not only educating women and girls but also in facilitating agency by having women as key drivers of education and development. This article will also include recommendations on the way forward in developing education systems that include feminist pedagogy and place women at the centre of SDG 4.

Defining feminist pedagogy and its roots

In the early 1990s, I kept questioning the person I was and my intellectual capacity. I achieved high marks in all the arts-related subjects but, when it came to the numerical or scientific subjects, my mind somehow shut down. Today, I know it is because of the lack of feminist pedagogy as part of the principles of education, which should be intended to help me as the learner. But, what is feminist pedagogy? According to Bowker and Dunkin (1992, p. 261), feminist pedagogy is:

a way of being, knowing, and acting that intends empowerment rather than oppression by power; validation of race, class, and gender dynamics that create valued difference but not oppressive hierarchy; and recognition of the meritorious complexities of various ideologies. In addition our feminist perspective honors the personal as a way of knowing, giving credence to thought, feelings, and experience.

Feminist pedagogy is deeply engrained in the learner or community of learners, which is at the centre of redefining what traditional learning or education entails. It is about clearly acknowledging women and girls’ lived realities when it comes to them getting a lasting education. This means that, for today’s classrooms to be meaningful in addressing development and have women and girls at the forefront, they must be part of defining their own learning journey. It is about facilitating the development of alternative models of education that ensure women bring their whole selves into the education space and facilitate their growth as a whole person. This is basically what defines feminist pedagogy. If this had been the case with me as a young learner, it would have been phenomenal indeed! But, before digging deeper into the different aspects of feminist pedagogy principles, where this notion and ideology emanate from, as well as what the key proponents of the ideology, must be discussed. Feminist pedagogy stems from critical theories such the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Pedagogy of Indignation (2004) by Paulo Freire. Freire (2004, p. 15) believed that:

education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing — of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.

Freire (1970, p. 77) is also known for his disdain of what he called the “banking” concept of education – discussed in more detail in Dr Connie Nshemereirwe’s article in this issue – in which a student is viewed as an empty “account” waiting to be filled by the teacher. He said that it “transforms students into receiving objects” and “attempts to control thinking and action, leading men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power” (ibid). Feminist pedagogy, therefore, postulates that no one is an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the “expert” educator, as women can actually make a distinct contribution to their own learning and education. Manicom (1992) argues that the distinctive qualities of feminist pedagogy are the tradition of focusing on gendered subjects, and the opening of taboo topics for discussion. It is, at its core, about the feminist critique. Brown (1992) and Sandell (1991) argue that feminist educators utilise new approaches that replace old paradigms, they focus on personal experiences being brought to the fore as lessons, and they recognise the true learning context. These new methodologies of learning facilitate the learner’s empowerment of the self, build community bonds, and, therefore, also build personal leadership (Brown, 1992; Sandell, 1991). If women and girls are to become part of transforming their own and others’ lived realities, they need an educational experience that will facilitate their critical thinking through building political consciousness at many levels. Giroux (2013) argues that feminist pedagogy shares certain characteristics with critical pedagogy, but that feminist pedagogy has an explicit foundation in feminism. It is argued that, like all forms of critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy aims to help students “develop consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action”(ibid). It can be further argued that the uniqueness of feminist pedagogy is its emphasis on gender and how this plays out in the education system. From the discussion above, based on the work of various scholars who have propounded theories on feminist pedagogy, I have come to better understand my challenges in numerical and science subjects. I was never at the centre of my learning. I was “an empty subject”, and the teachers would bank their knowledge with me. I would simply regurgitate what I had learnt come exam time. I never had the zeal or passion for transforming my life or that of others with the kind of education I received. Neither were other learners a healthy part of this educational journey. I struggled through these subjects, and there was not much support from the other learners whose goal was also, generally, to achieve good marks in their exams. If development is to be sustainable and meaningful to the women’s human rights development discourse propounded by SDG 4, a shift in the way education is viewed and supported is necessary. This includes looking at the various notions of feminist pedagogy and making them a reality in women’s lived experiences and then perpetuating their existence in the different educational arenas.

Feminist pedagogy principles: Their interaction with Zimbabwe’s education system and the SGDs

From a broad analysis of Webb, Walker and Bollis (2004), Shrewsbury (1987) and Walker (2002), it seems that there are six basic principles of feminist pedagogy. These are “reformation of the relationship between professor and student, empowerment, building community, privileging [the individual] voice, respecting the diversity of personal experience, and challenging traditional pedagogical notions” (Walker, 2002). Each one of these principles contributes to the co-creation and collaboration of the learning experience, which is what contemporary feminist pedagogy is all about. If the Zimbabwean educational system and SDG 4 are going to be transformational and revolutionary for women and girls and their developmental course, there is need to urgently implement feminist pedagogy. Each of the principles from Walker (2002) is reviewed below as well as what they mean for, and how they are linked to, women and girl’s learning and development. The main focus is the lived realities of women and girls in Zimbabwe. The principles are also considered relation to other author’s thoughts on them.

1. Reformation of the relationship between teacher and student Christie, (1997, p. 148) argues that:

a classroom based on feminist pedagogy is a community of learners where power is shared and where participatory democratic processes help learners develop independence… an active, collaborative classroom where risk-taking is encouraged; where intellectual excitement abounds; and where power is viewed as energy, capacity, and potential, rather than domination. This means that, if Zimbabwe’s education system is to be relevant to the realities of women, teachers need to understand the notions of sharing power with their students. The notion of the teacher having absolute power does not contribute to the effectiveness of learning and the environment thereof. Imagine transforming classrooms in Zimbabwe and across Africa so that women and girls are able to view the teacher as an equal in that the latter merely holds space for learning and sees the female learners as co-creators in the class, and not as “subjects” that they merely communicate knowledge to. This goes beyond the classroom to transforming the way teachers are trained to teach. If only my teachers had viewed my learning of numerical subjects in this way instead of exerting more power and pressure. If they shared some of their power with me, and better understood my internal battles and my journey, the learning process would have been more effective. This could have been a powerful means of aiding my learning. Teachers ought not to be feared or to exude all the power in their classrooms. They can work with the girls and women by inviting the former to share their insights, views and experiences so that they too become a source of their own power and share the teacher’s power as they learn. Foss and Griffin (1995, p. 10) sum this up beautifully when they explain that the teacher should seek to communicate a relationship of equality, respect, and appreciation that creates three conditions in interactions with learners: safety, value and freedom.

2. Empowerment

Stanton (1996, pp 45-46) argues that teachers should have a “midwife” type of role in the classroom and facilitate women and girls’ subjective learning. Empowerment is about women being able to gain an education that provides them with the necessary tools to transform theirs and others’ lived realities. Walker (2002) notes the following:

"Education either functions as an instrument facilitating students’ integration and conformity into the logic of the present system, or it becomes “the practice of freedom” teaching men and women to deal critically and creatively with reality and to learn to participate in transforming their world."

"Lather (1991) reiterates this point, suggesting that the whole pedagogical situation needs to be recognised for what it is – the teacher is not a neutral transmitter, neither is the student passive, while the knowledge is not immutable material to impart."

Women and girls in Zimbabwe have occupied the periphery of the development discourse for too long. This can be attributed to many factors and patriarchy is at the centre of this. Men, normally old (or aged), lead the development discourse, which started in the education system and can be traced back to the pre-1980 colonial era. Lather (1991) reiterates this point, suggesting that the whole pedagogical situation needs to be recognised for what it is – the teacher is not a neutral transmitter, neither is the student passive, while the knowledge is not immutable material to impart. With feminist pedagogy, women have the opportunity to find redress and experience what an empowering education actually is. The kind of education empowerment advocated for in this article is one where women and girls are at the centre of their learning and are able to gain insight and knowledge as tools to transform the status quo. This is necessary for building a new reality where women question and challenge the status quo and where they can contribute to ensuring a new model of education and learning. This is about the Zimbabwean education system realising that, in order to become empowering, it must facilitate women and girls’ empowerment so that they become thought leaders and implementers in the world. This will be realised through their ways of knowing and facilitating their empowerment in the education sphere. SDG 4 could support this notion by holding countries accountable through measuring its impact on the lived reality of women and girls. Some of the technical jargon utilised in assessing the progress of countries in their educational systems and means of doing things at a global and national level perpetuates abusive and non-transforming institutional structures, as is the current case in point. After all – as noted by UNISA – education is one of the key vehicles of socialisation and, through its formal and non-formal processes; knowledge, habits, attitudes and values are transmitted to create conformity with the status quo. We are not out to enhance, but to transform the status quo and the related systems need to understand this in order to make SDG 4 and education in Zimbabwe more meaningful for both women and men.

3. Building community

Feminist pedagogy is about building community and cooperation within the classroom, as well as between the classroom and its broader environment. Gawelek, Mulqueen and Tarule (1994, p. 182) explain that “Collaborative learning assumes that learning occurs through relationships and dialogue; and collaborative learning assumes the learner to be active in her or his own meaning-making and to be a knower in her or his own right.” This also means that the learner is not an empty vessel or a blank slate, but that they have something to give, to gift, to offer to fellow learners and the teacher as well. This knowledge is essential outside the classroom and may also be obtained outside the classroom. Treichler and Kramarae (1983, p. 126) substantiate the need for community building by highlighting that “A collaborative floor gives an individual speaker some power over the meaning of words, not usually available to those in a hierarchy who are least powerful and typically muted.” This means that bringing experiential learning to the fore in a learning environment aids in women and girls’ deconstruction of the knowledge and in their ability to grasp concepts, new ideas and notions that they will utilise as individuals. Shrewsbury (1987, p. 9) supports the feminist pedagogy principle of building community through collaboration in which “students integrate the skills of critical thinking with respect for and ability to work with others.” Women and girls will understand the notion of building community and this is very useful in their role as caregivers and agents of socialisation at many levels. This will also be useful if role-play and practical aspects of schooling are utilised. Bright (1993, cited in Walker, 2002) explains that the “philosophy of education is that people learn by doing” and Walker (ibid) supports this idea by adding that “Indeed, collaborating on tasks and projects helps create a learning community.” This is a critical insight for developing a community of learning in educational systems that will help women and girls support each other and build a community of learning and knowledge support base even outside the classroom. This is important if we are to walk together in a progressive and coherent Zimbabwean society and in other African societies equally. The Zimbabwean education system is quite competitive, and this has proven to be negative in as far as building a healthy learning and broader community. Christian leaders in Zimbabwe have argued that stable and progressive nations are built on healthy families and healthy socialisation at the family level. Women and girls, from time immemorial, have been known to be very active agents in socialising the community and, in order to build healthy communities, a healthy education that promotes the building of the community is critical. Walker (2002) states that “Developing a community of growth and caring is key in critical/feminist education” for this enables the development of individuals who will, in turn, build healthy communities. The Holistic Educator (n.d.) argues that:

Feminist pedagogy emphasizes the importance of respect for the differences among all people... [It] is based on principles of collective liberation and humanization as the basis for social justice. As a truly “innovative” method and pedagogy of “non-traditional”

education, feminist pedagogy has the effect of liberating the learner from the authoritarian role of the teacher, the curriculum and the institution. It encourages the learner to have the freedom to develop self-discipline, engage in self-directed learning, and achieve spiritual maturity or “self-actualisation”. As an innovative pedagogy of liberation in education, feminist pedagogy can lead to the person’s full humanization and to the humanization of society. As this is the aim of education, then it can be considered as valuable pedagogy for the education of children.

In light of this, it is essential to remember that education in Zimbabwe (and in line with SGD 4) can only be transformative when integrated into the evaluation of progress in education. Unless and until this happens for women and girls, enhancing societies through their participation, agency and education will not be possible.

4. Privileging the individual voice

I remember a reflective conversation I had with one of my friends who assumed that those who participated in class were “teacher’s pets” while those, like herself, who had to be drawn out to participate, were “cool” but often felt left out. This conversation came to mind as a learning point when unpacking the principle of “privileging the voice” in feminist pedagogy. Walker (2002) explains that:

Voice need not be reserved for oral performance courses; rather, the unique voice of each student in any classroom affords a path to knowledge and a methodology for instruction. Students can be encouraged to emerge into the public space, speak for themselves, and bring their own questions and issues to the material they are studying.

Barr (1999, p. 115) notes that feminist pedagogy seeks to help women speak in their different individual voices, and to create spaces for listening to what women’s silence has to say. So it is about understanding that, even in their silence in education spaces, women are speaking, and it is the role of the educator to understand silence as a voice and work with the very individual to deconstruct that voice as a form of enhancing women and girls’ education. In classrooms this notion of how women utilise their voice needs to be politicised for it to be meaningful. Belenky (1986, pp 23-34) states that many women who fit into this category of silence have been, or continue to be, abused, and they have not yet had an opportunity to work through these experiences. Often, their silence may be the closest they can come to a cry for help. For example, other learners seemed surprised that I would be an active participant in arts classes and yet silent in science subject classes. I was struggling internally with my own learning journey, but that was never unpacked with the educator’s help. As I was writing this article, I had the privilege to sit in one of the schools and observe this notion of voice. I asked a young sister why she had been so quiet and even failed to participate despite the teacher trying to draw her out. She confided in me that she was actually pre-occupied at that time because her menstruation had suddenly taken onset and she was concerned she might soil her school uniform and be ridiculed for it. I understood right then how women and girls lived

"I asked a young sister why she had been so quiet and even failed to participate despite the teacher trying to draw her out. She confided in me that she was actually pre-occupied at that time because her menstruation had suddenly taken onset and she was concerned she might soil her school uniform and be ridiculed for it."

realities become a source of their inner conflict and affect their voice in a classroom set up. Unless an educator can facilitate by making the space safe enough for women to explore their innermost realities, then the classroom may even become a place of violation. There is nothing wrong with physiological responses as far as women’s bodies are concerned. It is, however, important to make the spaces for education safe enough for women and girls to voice their realities without fear because, after all, “the personal is political” (Siegal, 2001). Learning is more than interaction with learning materials, but also how a woman or girl’s lived reality interacts with the materials as well as how her voice is utilised in relation to this notion of education. In as much as it might not be related to the education material, it is very important to a woman or girl’s learning and how her voice is used in the learning process. Gawelek et al. (1994, p. 181) explain that “Thinking about voice in teaching leads one to be concerned with how students feel about speaking up in class, about sharing their thinking out loud.” They further note that “Voice is the ‘currency’ of the academy – in lectures, writing, discussions, doctoral committees, and in faculty meetings. If the only voice heard is the instructor’s, the students are deprived of a primary and critical way of knowing” (ibid). This goes further than merely hearing the voice, but it also entails understanding the voice, especially and including the silence. It entails considerations of how best to support women and girls so as to aid learning and education, as Barr (1999) also discusses. On this feminist pedagogy principle on voice, it is essential for authorities in the education system of Zimbabwe and beyond, and those spearheading SDG 4 across the globe, to understand what Belenky (1986, pp 23-34) says on women’s voices and education:

Women perceive themselves as mindless and voiceless – their voice is replaced by the voice of whichever external authority is present. For them, authorities are all-powerful, and in order to survive they blindly obey and allow the “other” to shape their choices. They are isolated from others and do not seek nor find opportunities for dialogue with others. There is little awareness of the power of language for sharing thoughts and insights.

It is, therefore, essential to formulate new models of education that understand these realities of women and girls’ and seek to redress them for the betterment of education and women’s development discourse. This also means taking into account how women’s personal issues become political in the learning environments.

5. Respect for diversity of personal experience

Learners are not a homogenous group, and each member of the learning community brings to the classroom a set of experiences and lived realities that they harness in their learning process and also in sharing learning with others. Parry (1996, p. 47) explains that feminist pedagogy affirms the value of personal experience as a central component of learning. The Holistic Educator (n.d.) website says the following of women’s lived realities and experiences:

Women of the early consciousness raising groups were aware that their perceptions were devalued. They explored their own experiences  and feelings as sources of “true” knowledge. They claimed that people can come to an understanding of their own power to make social change if they first understand their own experiences and their feelings which are the source of the knowledge of one’s humanness. The human capacity to feel is the basis of the vision of a humanized society.

Under the feminist pedagogy principle of building community, the above assertion would also ring true. With regard to the principle of respect for the diversity of personal experiences, it is critical to emphasise that women’s lives are actually part of aiding their learning. These personal experiences may be directly or indirectly linked to the actual educational experience. However, what is of paramount importance is that although these personal experiences are diverse, they are, nevertheless, very real to each learner and ways to make them part of a syllabus can be explored. I recall during my A Levels in Zimbabwe, one of my teachers used to come into class and rant about menstrual cramps (Dysmenorrhea), saying it is nothing serious. She said that whoever did experience such pains should kick a ball around instead of missing class. I was shocked because, as a young girl, I used to faint each month and wake up in bed as a result of menstrual pain. This happened each month consistently, and it was the most excruciating pain I ever experienced up to this day. I am sure my reality is common to many other women and girls. I have been witness to this reality as women and girls share their stories of pain and suffering. The diversity of women’s experiences implicates that the teacher not impose a certain reality, whether personal or otherwise, on the learner, but allow the learner to define her own reality and link it to the learning experience. The same notion applies to the girl whose voice was silent in the above example. An educator could assume it is a personality trait and that she is shy. However, on further inquiry, the educator may discover it is not really the case. I have just used these two examples, but there are many which could be mentioned. I am sure, dear reader, you have come across your very own. In her analysis of this principle, Schoeman (2015, p. 5) emphasises that:

Feminist theory also privileges personal lived experiences as the basis for analysis, theory generation, activism, and research, and which results in positive outcomes such as increased respect, enhanced empathy, improved critical thinking skills, and a broader understanding of truths.

The example above of a personal lived experience is worth taking into account if a learner is to be comfortable and achieve actualisation in the classroom and the world at large. This is critical for enhancing the success of SDG 4 and also for transforming how education is attained in a context like Zimbabwe. At the SDG 4 level, the powers that be, which include the Zimbabwean governments and various UN monitoring bodies, could explore how best to track women and girls’ education to ensure that it is both qualitatively and quantitatively fair. It is not merely about the classroom experience, but also about the personal becoming highly political. It is about the girls and women bringing to the fore of their learning whatever personal experiences they are or have had and using these experiences to aid in their learning.

6. Challenging traditional views

Webb et al. (2004) postulate that this feminist pedagogy principle is about revealing the social and political origins of theory. This entails questioning the ways information is generated and how meaning is drawn for women. It is not just about respecting the authority, but unpacking them at many levels so as to understand why individuals think the way they do. This feminist pedagogy principle is premised on the previous five principles. Walker (2002) argues that, in this principle, “feminist teachers challenge the origins of ideas and theories, the positions of their promoters, and the factors influencing how knowledge comes to exist in its present form.” Moreover, feminist pedagogy challenges the notion that knowledge and teaching methods can be value free. Scering (1997) adds that “Schools reproduce and reinforce the social construction of gender through the dichotomization of nurturance and autonomy, public and private, and masculine and feminine.” It is critical to follow a process in which the women and girls can question, contest and challenge the societal norms and values. This facilitates the learning of women and girls and also the development and establishment of new models of education and ways of knowing. Education in Zimbabwe has always followed a model in which authority is centralised on the teacher who is the expert and treats learners as empty vessels. For too long, only minor transformation has happened in the Zimbabwe education sector, which has inherited the colonial syllabi as an anchor for learning. Despite the many changes the current Minister of Education has sought to effect, feminist pedagogy remains a pipe dream. Education is in the hands of a structural government and, in order for there to be transformation, insight into feminist poststructuralist theories in as far as feminist pedagogy is concerned is urgently needed. Weedon (1987, cited in Schoeman, 2015, p. 3) argues that the two cannot be separated and explains that feminist poststructuralism:

uses poststructuralist theories of language, subjectivity, social processes and institutions to understand existing power relations and identify areas and strategies for change. The fundamental aspects of feminist post-structuralism(s) that are applicable to this study are the poststructuralism theories of language, subjectivity, power and agency.1

Unless this principle of challenging traditional views is incorporated into education in contemporary Zimbabwe, women and girls education will perpetuate the same rhetoric and fall short of meeting essential learner needs. Without doing so, education in Zimbabwe and beyond will fail to enhance the development discourse propounded by SDG 4. Traditional views need to be challenged so that women and girls harness their energy to develop a new education model.

Going forward: Ideas for a new model of education for women and girls

Having defined feminist pedagogy and unpacked how it is linked to the current realities of women and girls in Zimbabwe and SDG 4, we will now consider how best to move forward to see the current reality transformed for women and girls. I suggest a few key steps be followed and that the six highlighted principles underpinning feminist pedagogy be fully adopted. The UN needs to monitor the implementation of SDG 4 by governments, and how feminist pedagogy as a tool of measurement is being implemented. This will ensure that this development track is both quantitative and qualitative. The process must delve into what education is and means for women and girls. The above will help make it more robust and holistic, and more likely to transform women and girls’ lives for the betterment of the development discourse. Nothing stays the same forever. Education systems need to be overhauled to include principles of feminist pedagogy if they are to be meaningful to women and girls’ agency as thought leaders. Governments and the UN system, especially as they pertain to SDG 4, have to consider feminist pedagogy in their structural realities so that the tracking and implementation of education infuse these principles and a fair assessment of women and girls’ education can be given. You and I can begin that journey by doing whatever we can to lobby and advocate for this.


1. To unpack these notions further, see Schoeman’s (2015) original research on “Feminist pedagogy as a new initiative in the education of South African teachers” (more details in the reference list).


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About the author(s)

Grace Chirenje is a growing feminist leader from Harare, Zimbabwe. Her background is in the humanities. She holds an Honours degree in African Languages and Culture, and a Masters in Leadership and Management. She is currently studying towards her PhD in Gender, Feminism and Sexualities with a minor in Leadership. Grace’s passion is working with women and girls and helping them reach their full potential. Grace is known for her magnanimity, energy and strong dedication to life and her work in all its facets. She is also a writer, mother, wife, sister and talk-show host. She works hard to juggle her athletic and relaxation activities with her work, research and role as a black African feminist leader. Twitter handle:


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