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Gender Studies: Why Future Tense For Women In India

Fund cuts, scarcity of guides and death of literature are making gender studies increasingly difficult in India. This at a time when international organisations and MNCs have gender sensitivity in their programmes

Gender Studies: Why Future Tense For Women In India
Photograph by Apoorva Salkade
Gender Studies: Why Future Tense For Women In India

Scientists are quietly working to unlock the secrets of gender identity, as are sociologists, trying to solve the conflict between conservative and liberal values over gender inequalities. It’s a subject that goes back in time—an argument that started when the first humans decided to raise a family, live in a clan and delegate work in a male-female way. It’s worth studying even in this so-called laissez-faire world, although equality remains a long shot for women in most workplaces. Nevertheless, the subject can be a good career choice too. So thought Priyam Sinha, graduate in sociology from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, and postgraduate in women’s studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad.

All through her college years, Sinha had studied ­social stratification and gender inequalities, ­especially in Indian ­societies. She had learnt that the career choice of students of women’s ­studies had expanded over the years. They are getting jobs in research centres that not only addressed women’s issues, but also other subjects of social ­importance. That’s a welcome break from the “only NGO jobs” they were ­restricted to. Sinha recalls how spreading wings raised hopes of a budding career.

But that was to change soon. On March 12, 2019, the University Grants Commission (UGC) ­ann­ounced drastic cuts in its budget for gender study centres, triggering ­countrywide protests led by the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS).

As the issue hogged media limelight, the UGC said a week later that its ­guidelines were just a draft; it also invi­ted feedback from stakeholders till April 5, 2019. Scholars and ­professors are, however, not convinced by the UGC’s clarification and feel that the future of gender studies in India is on shaky ground. “Rigorous coursework that emphasised both theory and field work is what ­app­ealed to me the most. The UGC guidelines have only led to perpetuating anxiety and disillusionment regarding this course,” says Sinha.

Women’s studies—an offshoot of the feminist movement of the 1970s in the West—was introduced in India in 1986 at Savitribai Phule University in Pune. UGC defines women’s studies as “a body of literature that embodies the concern for women’s equality and development, and seeks to find ­explanations and remedies for the unequal position of women in society”. The IAWS was formed in 1981 as a platform for academics, activists and policymakers associated with women’s development. According to a study, the IAWS says the fund cuts would be drastic. The est­ablished centres are divi­ded into three phase—one, two and advanced. The salary budget was between Rs 40 lakh and Rs 60 lakh for the two phases, and Rs 75 lakh for the advanced centres. In the new UGC draft guideline, the phases rec­eive no mention. The bud­get will be fixed at Rs 35 lakh for each centre and Rs 25 lakh for each college.

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Since the UGC’s decision made gender studies an iffy subject, people like Sinha are forced to explore ­alternatives because of the lack of job opportunities and bleak academic prospects in this field. There are also reports of several students pursuing a PhD in gender studies being dumped by their guides.

Women studies centres at universities are shutting down. For her part, Sinha contemplated applying for a course in media and ­communications research at the London School of Economics. “In the absence of any incentives such as funding and political awareness regarding the importance of a course on studying gender in this country, many of us are seeking different avenues,” she says.

“Rigorous coursework that ­emphasises both theory and field work is what appealed to me the most,” says Priyam Sinha, a ­postgraduate in women’s studies.

The neglect towards ­gender studies is not a ­welcome sign for a progressive, modern society ­because it helps youngsters to question regressive acts such as dowry, polygamy, incest, custodial rape and many such harassment and atrocities women face. As a college course, it is not just about studying the lives of women, but also about hierarchies dominating the social realm. “More than the scarcity of guides or ­instructors and professors, there is a definite dearth of even literature on gender studies specific to the Indian socio-political and cultural environment,” says Aarti K. Singh. She recently completed her PhD in ‘Space as a Metaphor in Mainstream Hindi Cinema: A Study of the Female Protagonist’ from Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Development of any ­society is possible when there is equality among sexes. Rajyalakshmi, ­assistant professor of ­sociology at Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi, believes that “under­standing gender studies takes a lot of time”. Social sciences and gender studies allow people to debate on ­issues that they confront every day. Unfortunately, the market value of social sciences is low, and it is ­lowest for gender studies, she says. And hence, the scholar stresses that ­funding agencies are not willing to look at any ­research proposal. Some­times the response from them is quite sexist as well.

All’s not lost yet. There are people who hold out hope. Leena Pujari, head of the department of gender studies, Kishinchand Chelaram College, Mumbai, says the future of gender studies students is not bleak. “On the contrary, quite a few of my students in the recent past have opted for gender studies at the postgraduate level. In fact, it is more relevant today than ever. The ­onslaught of social media and the uninformed opinions that circulate have ­necessitated more nuanced and robust approaches to gender studies, which can only happen in classrooms.”

Agrees Vibhuti Patel, executive committee member of IAWS and professor at TISS, Mumbai. She says: “Gender studies is much in demand globally as all international organisations and multinational corporations need to have gender sensitivity in their projects, programmes and institutional ethos.” The Mumbai-based TISS gets hundreds of applications for women’s studies.

“Gender studies is much in demand as international organisations and MNCs have gender sensitivity in their programmes,” says Vibhuti Patel, TISS.

Women’s studies courses focus on a variety of topics such as media literacy, sexuality, race and ethnicity, history involving women, queer theory and multiculturalism. Students analyse identity markers such as gender, race, class, and ­sexuality. This often results in dissecting institutionalised structures of power. The subject is often ­misunderstood and people think gender studies leads to ­activism. Although it talks of deep-seated ­patriarchal mores such as the Indian obsession for a male child, or looking at a girl child as a burden for parents—or ‘paraya dhan’—it helps ­demolish stereotypes ­surrounding women. It helps people become moral gatekeepers of Indian values.

The subject is popular among students because it relates directly to lived ­experience. “In my college, the certificate course in gender studies has been hugely successful and a large number of students across disciplines opt for it. This course has been ­instrumental in enabling conversations around gender and sexuality, in initiating feminist conversations among students across courses and in fostering a gender-just space on ­campus,” Pujari says.

Gender studies programmes encourage ­students and academia to get involved in social ­justice work. “Since its ­inception and connection with the women’s movement, activism has been a foundation of gender studies, especially its feminist approach. But I feel the ­approach should be ­humanist and not skewed towards either of the ­genders…neither feminist nor masculinist,” Aarti K. Singh says. Social justice should be the bedrock of gender studies courses, program­mes, and departments, she suggests.

So how much does it ­appeal to a male student? Varun Tiwari, pursuing his masters in philosophy from Delhi University, walked out of women’s studies even after completing his MA from TISS, Hyderabad. He felt the scope both ­academically as well as in terms of professional ­career is “very little” for a male student. Tiwari stresses that there is a systematic and a structural ­attack on women’s studies by the UGC. “There is ­deduction of funds, deduction of seats of UGC students. So, it was risky for me to pick up a career in academia and in the development sector too people don’t understand the interdisciplinary nature of women studies,” he says.

Photograph by Sanjay Rawat

Students feel that Indian universities praise interdisciplinary courses, but don’t have an ecosystem that ­allows such courses to flourish. Tiwari says, “Not just women studies, but it is with most disciplines that are interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, which do not adhere to any disciplinary boundary. That is the reason why I felt that it will not be a secure thing to continue women’s studies. On a personal level too, I felt it is a very difficult stuff to constantly perform yourself as a feminist bec­ause to do woman studies is to perform feminist all the time and that I found to be very exhausting for me. I felt that I couldn’t make my life a political project.”

Funding decisions are generally made by men. Scholars allege that poor funding of gender studies is not restricted to India; it’s bad abroad too.

Tiwari feels it is still okay for a woman to pursue gender studies as 80 per cent of NGOs that had come to his college for placement were looking for female students. “How I wish I hadn’t taken up women’s studies…it was a sheer waste of time. I wish I could go back in time and undo it.” His frustration is not one-off or unfounded. “First of all, the funding committees are cutting down funds for gender studies. And when you enroll for MPhil or PhD, you are expected to finance your own expenses for the next five years…asking your parents for support,” says Priyam Sinha.

According to Vibhuti Patel, the IAWS executive committee member, women’s studies in India evolved as a result of state patronage. But then, it is true that the bells and whistles surrounding gender studies are ‘male’. Funding decisions are made mostly by men in a committee. Scholars allege that poor funding is not restricted to India; the situation is bad abroad too. Mangala Subramaniam, professor of sociology and director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center Leadership Excellence, Purdue University, says some US universities are facing a fund crunch and, thus, are taking steps to shut programmes and degrees in humanities. “This requires us to consider funding sources, government and private sources. It seems some private educational institutions in India like Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana, are ­recognising the importance of social sciences and gender studies.”

The Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) at Ashoka Uni­versity was set up in August 2015. It is a first in the country to study the nuances of gender and ­sexuality.

Madhavi Menon, professor of English and ­director of the centre, says: “With its emphasis on ­research combined with ­activism, CSGS hopes to revolutionise the narrative of gender and sexuality in India.”


Women’s Studies: Areas In Focus

  • Build new knowledge on women in national and global perspectives
  • Build curriculum in women’s studies to meet the diverse needs of Indian women with a focus on inclusivity
  • Suggest methods to build a conducive environment for women to take up positions of leadership in diverse sectors
  • Conduct evidence-based ­research on ‘Women and Economic Development’
  • Strengthen existing ­knowledge and build new knowledge on ‘Women in Indian Perspective’ (to ­address current and future challenges)
  • Conduct research on ­women’s contribution to Science and Technology and suggest methodology to ­enhance it
  • Suggest methods to ­promote inclusion of women, including ­disadvantaged women, women with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, in the development of all ­sectors
  • Measures to strengthen urban and rural linkages, besides slum development
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