As for mainstream academe, it often looks at the general realm of Women’s Studies with indifference. It is as if — okay, there are women, there are social issues, great, it’s their problem, carry on. This indicates that we have not been able to negotiate that original question: can the mainstream be forced to re-think its basic character? It is not a parallel question, it is a social problem. Women’s Studies have, therefore, more or less remained an “add-on”. Perhaps the outright hostility to it that had once existed has diminished. There is a certain common sense view that India is bad for women — the declining sex ratio, all this 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 other factor, of course, is the failures of those 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 they been open to being questioned? There have been attacks on mainstream Women’s Studies for more or less taking on a false universal approach and claiming to speak for all women, when actually it was actively excluding groups although perhaps not intentionally. 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.
This approach came into severe crisis. The upper caste nature of women’s studies in India had Dalit women asking: “Where are we in your studies?” This has been an on-going challenge and I think the best thing that can be said about it is that we are hearing many more Dalit voices today. Then take issues like disability — it is a very obvious exclusion. Sexuality is another. Some of these gaps are now being addressed by new work, but there is not enough of it.
Role of institutions
Yet, one has to be optimistic — both in terms of transforming knowledge and in terms of 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-institutions. They believe institutions are part of the problem. I think that many institutions — such as universities — played a central role even in the day of the “autonomous” women’s movement. In fact, many activists came out of 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.