The evolution of Women’s Studies owes a lot to its synergy with the women’s movement

Feminist theorist and academic, Mary E. John, is former director of the Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies. She has been working in the fields of women’s studies and feminist politics for several years now and her book, Women's Studies in India: A Reader came out in 2008. She talks to Pamela Philipose about the great effort it took to put Women’s Studies on the academic map of the country.

The notion of a gender bias in the Indian academe began to be understood better only after the women’s movement took off. Those were the years after the Emergency in the late 70s, and early 80s. The ‘Toward Equality’ report, which was published 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 felt need of not knowing enough about women’s status was also a call to academics to study the condition of women better. One of the first visible effects of this process was the setting up of the Women’s Studies Centre at the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women's University (SNDT University), Bombay, in 1974.

Interestingly, the position taken at the first national Women’s Studies meeting in 1981 in Bombay was different. What the scholars there had wanted was not more Women’s Studies centres, but the rather more ambitious idea of transforming higher education itself by bringing in the gender dimension into it. The big 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, the rigidities in the existing educational system did not allow the idea to take shape.

Meanwhile, thanks to the pressure applied by women like Dr. Vina Mazumdar on the University Grants Commission, six very small centres of Women’s Studies were set up in 1987 within existing universities at Delhi, Punjab, Varanasi, Thiruvananthapuram, Calcutta and Bombay. The idea was not so much to acknowledge Women’s Studies as a discipline, but to get them to work as catalysts to make change happen. Not much investment was, however, made in these centres, and while some of them did an incredible job despite these constraints, others just muddled along in the face of various hurdles.

My own response to the question whether we should have separate departments of 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, say, the U.S. model, where hand-in-hand with the big movements of the 1960s, you had Women’s Studies programmes being set up. In India, at present we are in a situation where institutionally there has been an expansion of Women’s Studies and, interestingly, we are now beginning to see a generation of students who opt for Women’s Studies as a discipline.

Coming to the actual generation of feminist knowledge, a lot of it has happened outside universities. Look at the work that has been done on, say, Partition, by activists who were not in any formal educational institution. Then 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 emerged from mainstream departments, as the works of scholars like Kumkum Sangari testifies to. The volume, Recasting Women, edited by Ms. Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, and which questioned the notion of culture in the colonial period, came out of an undergraduate English department.

Similarly, there are centres like the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), which, very early on, 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.

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 core in the organising strategies of the women’s movement. There were some notable exceptions to this as well — like the studies on sati in the 1980s. That work became a resource to understanding better what happened in Deorala in 1987. While there was a synergy between the women’s movement and Women’s Studies, there were also instances of the two being on parallel tracks. Questions raised within academe did not find a resonance among the activists and there were complaints that academics lived in ivory towers and were not part of the real world, or that they couched their work in jargon.

(Women's Feature Service)

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