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Silences in academia

By Mary E John

We have seen 150 women’s studies centres set up since 1974. But the idea was not so much to introduce women’s studies as an add-on discipline as to bring the gender dimension into all higher education, introducing a perspective that would change existing ways of creating knowledge and work as a catalyst to make change happen

Gender bias in academe began to be understood better only after the women’s movement took off in the years after the Emergency -- the late-1970s and early-’80s. The ‘Toward Equality’ report, which came out in December 1974, came as a shock because it revealed a range of previously unacknowledged biases in society. One of the impacts of that report was the need to create a better knowledge base about women’s lives. This realisation that we did not know enough about women’s status came also as a call to academia to study the condition of women better, whether in the discipline of sociology, economics, demographics or any other.

One of the first visible effects of this process was the setting up in 1974 of a women’s studies centre at the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University (SNDT University). It was precisely this sense of a ‘lack of knowledge’ that made a special centre imperative. Interestingly, the position taken at the first national women’s studies’ meeting in 1981, in Bombay, was rather different. What the scholars there had wanted was not more women’s studies centres but the more ambitious idea of transforming higher education itself by bringing in the gender dimension. The rallying cry was that women’s studies was not a discipline, it was a perspective that should help change existing ways of creating knowledge. However, rigidities in the existing system resulted in a greater push for women’s studies.

There can be no doubt that gender biases did come to be addressed within the existing educational system, but in very uneven ways and sometimes in ways that we have yet to fully understand. Take the issue of development. Much work was done in the area of development, but what impact did it have on, say, the teaching of economics? How did violence -- a major plank of the women’s movement -- find an echo within the academic setting? People didn’t know quite where to study violence. There are other examples: English literature was a discipline in which many feminists were active in the 1980s. They created, as a by-product of their own feminism and activism, something of a revolution in the teaching of English literature. So the picture was mixed.

That is when the pressure that women like Dr Vina Mazumdar put on the University Grants Commission resulted in the setting up of six very small centres of women’s studies in 1987 within mainstream universities -- Delhi, Punjab, Varanasi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata and Mumbai. The idea was not so much to acknowledge women’s studies as a discipline as to get it to work as a catalyst to make change happen. But not much investment was made in these centres. Each had one director, but hardly any faculty and only tiny bits of money. Some of them did an incredible job despite these constraints, bringing together a lot of energy. Others muddled along in the face of various hurdles.

There were other challenges too. For instance, when the BJP-led NDA government came to power in the late-1990s, there was a move to turn women’s studies centres into family studies centres. The proposal created a furore, and the idea had to be dropped. Today, we have 150 women’s studies centres of which 86 are in universities and the remaining in colleges. As a result of the ongoing pressure to give them more institutional weight, there was a move in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to create full-fledged women’s studies departments -- in a few places MPhil courses are being offered, in others, MAs, and so on.

My own response to the question of whether we should have separate departments for women’s studies, or whether we should transform existing disciplines, is that this is a false either/or. We should have both. The idea is to consolidate, create synergy, in order to produce more gender-based knowledge. The Indian experience was rather different from the US model, where hand-in-hand with the big movements of the 1960s, you had women’s studies programmes being set up -- apart of course from the work of those academics in mainstream departments who ushered in a tremendous amount of change in their individual capacities.

We can therefore say that in India, at present, we are in a situation where institutionally there has been an expansion of women’s studies, and interestingly, the student community has responded to the idea of women’s studies. We are now beginning to see a generation of students who have opted for women’s studies as a discipline.

Feminist knowledge outside universities

But a lot of the actual generation of feminist knowledge has happened outside universities. Look at the work that has been done on Partition by activists who were not in any formal educational institution. Or take the volume brought out by the feminist publishing house Kali for Women, We Were Making History. It was done by an organisation, Shree Shakti, some of whose members happened to be academics. At the same time, new work began to emerge from mainstream departments, and the work of scholars like Kumkum Sangari testifies to that. The volume, Recasting Women, edited by Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, questioned the notion of culture in the colonial period. That book came out of an undergraduate English department and its relationship to the women’s movement. Similarly there are centres like the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), which produced new knowledge on poor, rural women, and dealt with issues such as livelihood, even as it reflected on what all this means for women’s capacities to organise or create assets. Several studies on globalisation also came out of the CWDS. At the moment, it is doing a range of work on topics that were deliberately selected because they would not have otherwise found space within academe. For instance, there is a major project on internal migration, a theme that does not figure outside of some very anthropologically oriented work. There is also work on gender and disability and on conflict -- subjects that are generally not reflected upon.

While there has been a growth in women’s studies centres, a lot of the small centres have had very inadequate institutional support to carry out their research. The question therefore arises whether, in the coming years, these centres -- even if they become full-fledged departments -- will have the capacity to generate knowledge. Where is the new generation of feminists from whom we might be seeing a new generation of knowledge? These are questions that many in the movement as well as elsewhere are asking. What is already quite visible is knowledge-generation from professionals who are part of non-governmental organisations, and spaces of that kind which probably did not exist 30 years ago. Then there are students who take on full-fledged topics dealing with women and gender, which might otherwise not have found a place. The earlier generation did not have women’s studies; the new generation will have the benefit of the institutionalisation of women’s studies. We will have to see what difference this might make.

The synergy between women’s studies and the women’s movement is one of the special aspects that marked the evolution of women’s studies. It has been a tremendous, if sometimes tense relationship. For instance, it took a long time to get studies on subjects like violence, which played such a central role in the organising strategies of the women’s movement. There were some notable exceptions to this as well. Take studies on sati. For whatever reason, women academics took up the study of sati in the 1980s, both its historical version and how it plays out in its contemporary manifestations. This work was available as a resource to understand better what happened in Deorala in 1987. So here you can say there was synergy between the women’s movement and women’s studies, but there are also instances of the two being on parallel tracks, with the questions raised within academia not finding a resonance among activists.

There have been complaints that academics live in ivory towers, that they are not part of the real world, or that they couch their work in jargon. From the other side, there have been accusations that not much trouble has been taken to question some of the given assumptions about women and men.

Ascribing these tensions to the activist-academic divide does not capture the scenario fully. There is, for instance, the feeling that activists are associated with non-governmental organisations, which influences the nature of their activism and research. The implicit accusation is that their framework is being dictated by the project, by the donor, and not by the movement, and this compromises their work. 

To understand this better we would need to study the empirical evidence of the kinds of studies that emerged out of another movement which was, clearly, in retrospect, the product of more direct struggles. The work on Partition, for example, was largely unfunded. The concerned researchers had sources of income from elsewhere and were therefore free to carry out this kind of work. There were also a lot of fact-finding groups which produced outstanding reports. And so you tend to feel that in the face of these kinds of efforts and concerns, funded knowledge-generation, where you have to take on board the funders’ terms of reference, is going to be a problem.

That of course is one part of the story. But just to play devil’s advocate, let me say that it may be the case that such work does not address all aspects of a certain problem. Take the declining sex ratio. With all the focus of the movement being on the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, we didn’t have the pulse of what was happening within the family. What were the strategies that families today were adopting, especially in the so-called relatively prosperous areas, in their struggle to match their resources with the number of children they had, and their gender? We keep saying we need to look at this or that, but we find we don’t have the ability to muster the time and the means to do it.

As for mainstream academia, it often looks at the general realm of women’s studies with indifference: okay there are women, there are social issues; it’s your problem, carry on. There is also an undermining of it. We have not been able to negotiate the original question of forcing the mainstream to rethink its basic character. It is not a parallel question; it is a social problem out there. Women’s studies have therefore more or less remained an ‘add-on’. Perhaps the outright hostility to it that one may have once experienced has diminished. There is a certain commonsense view that women in India have problems -- the declining sex ratio, the stripping and parading, and so on. But I don’t think it has led mainstream academics to question the existing development model or the nature of the state, or the structure of the family.

The failures of women’s studies

The other factor is, of course, the failures of those who are working on women’s studies. It is one thing to say that the wider world has not been willing to question beyond a point, but to what extent have we been open to being questioned in turn? There have been attacks on mainstream women’s studies for more or less taking on a false universal and claiming to speak for all women, when actually it is actively excluding groups, although perhaps not intentionally.

The relationship between caste and the women’s movement has been one of the biggest challenges. Think of Mathura. She was an adivasi girl, yet her tribal identity was somehow strangely forgotten when the women’s movement raised her case in its struggle against rape. There was a presumption here that since women were taking up her case, there could be no problem. The specificities of her situation did not require elaboration -- she was an emblem, a symbol for the women’s movement; they did not explore further the relationship of the mainstream to the tribe.

This approach led to a serious crisis. The upper-caste nature of women’s studies in India had dalit women asking: “Where are we in your studies?” The fact that we thought we were ‘casteless’ within the women’s movement came in for severe criticism. We take on rural women’s issues, we take on the informal sector, we take on issues of the landless, we take on labour issues, and we think caste is somewhere out there. But unless and until you actually name it, interrogate it, and capture the voices of dalit women saying what they think are the issues, there is something lacking in our activism and scholarship.

This has been an ongoing challenge and I think the best thing that can be said about it is that we are hearing many more dalit voices today. Are we better at dialoguing? To a degree, yes. I think new knowledge has emerged after the 1990s -- you had histories of the Dravidian movement, the role that Phule and Ambedkar played, all of which was almost invisible earlier. We have also been alerted to the fact -- thanks to the Mandal struggle of the ’90s -- that there was a widespread non-implementation of the reservation policy. This means that there are simply not enough dalit and OBC intellectuals, men and women, in our midst. Men have always been around, and women have emerged -- encountering, no doubt, sexism and all kinds of issues but coming into academia in significant numbers. The same cannot be said of dalit and OBC scholars. So one of the absolute, on-the-ground tasks would be to rectify this in a proactive way. This, I think, will make a huge difference because then you will have representatives in your midst to make change happen.

Disability is another very obvious exclusion; sexuality another. Some of these gaps are now being addressed by new work, but there is not enough of it by any stretch of the imagination if we are talking about genuinely inclusive scholarship.

Still, one has to be optimistic -- both in terms of transforming knowledge and transforming the institutions of knowledge. I am among those who think that it is actually very important to focus on institutions because a lot of the activists have tended to be anti-institution. They believe institutions are part of the problem. I think many institutions -- such as universities -- played a central role even in the day of the ‘autonomous’ women’s movement. In fact, many activists emerged from the university. Today’s world cannot follow the standards set by yesterday’s politics. We need a politics that is adequate to today’s world, and a politics that is adequate to today’s world must take along its institutions.

(Mary E John is former Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and has been working in the fields of women’s studies and feminist politics for several years. Her book, Women’s Studies in India: A Reader, came out in 2008)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012