National Convention Highlights Role of Women’s Studies, Urges UGC to Continue Financial Support

The Indian Association for Women’s Studies highlighted the contributions of women’s studies centres over the last three decades and discussed how attempts to dilute them could be stopped.

From left, Padmini Swaminathan, Devika Jain, Maitreyi Krishnaraj, Kumur Sharma and Malini Bhattacharya. Credit: Amanat Khullar/The Wire

From left, Padmini Swaminathan, Devika Jain, Maitreyi Krishnaraj, Kumur Sharma and Malini Bhattacharya. Credit: Amanat Khullar/The Wire

New Delhi: Printed in white, bold letters, the word ‘save’ was hard to miss on the badges worn by several dozens of people inside the brightly-lit Speaker’s Hall of the Constitution Club on August 23. Under ‘save’, the words ‘women’s studies centres’.

The Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) – prompted by a notice by the University Grants Commission (UGC) – held a national convention on Wednesday to discuss the significance and contributions of these centres over the last three decades and talk about how the attempts to dilute the centres could be stopped. Over 200 faculty members, students, research scholars and representatives of women’s organisations from across the country attended the convention.

On June 16, the UGC issued a notice expressing uncertainty about continued funding for 163 women’s studies centres and schools across the country. These centres have run on plan-to-plan budgeting for decades.

“All the on-going schemes of the UGC under the Plan Head would continue up to 30.09.2017 and expenditure therein would be admitted up to 30.09.2017. Their further continuance beyond 30.09.2017 would depend on the outcome of the review by the UGC,” the notice stated.

This notice counters a previous one about the extension of financial support till March 31, 2018, and implies that funding for women’s studies centres may be withdrawn in the middle of the academic year at the end of September.

Amidst the present political climate of “somewhat regression,” growing violence against women and politicising of education, there is an ever increasing need to preserve the women’s studies centres, according to the IAWS president Ritu Dewan. “It is time we all come together, from activities to students. A threat like this will only makes us stronger.”

This, however, is not the first time that an attempt has been made to dilute the autonomy of women’s studies centres. In 2003, the NDA government – under the 10th Five Year Plan – sought to rename the centres in different universities as women and family studies centres. This change would have moved focus of the interdisciplinary courses taught at these centres away from that of gender equality and the questioning of patriarchal gender roles.

History of women’s studies

In 1986, women’s studies was introduced into the National Policy of Education, and as part of the 12th Five Year Plan, women’s centres saw an expansion in India at a time when they were declining globally.

Since then, the students and scholars at these centres have made significant contributions towards eliminating violence against women, highlighting the role of women in various fields and have even managed to penetrate the macro economy. According to Devika Jain, a founding member of IAWS, feminist economists have managed to get their ideas into reading lists, which policymakers have been able to access. “Women’s studies centres have been able to put feminist footprints on the blackboard of macro economic policies,” she said, as part of a panel discussion at the convention. “We researched and that was fed into policy.”

The government turns towards such centres when they seek a gender dimension to the economic policy and the students and scholars, in turn, provide an “endless supply line” to the government.

“The government should encourage dialogue between women’s studies centres and ICMR, ICAR, NITI Aayog etc. for enabling growth in the Indian economy,” Jain added.

Women’s studies, since becoming part of the mainstream, have reflected women’s struggles. According to Maithreyi Krishnaraj, the former director of RCWS, women’s studies have made their mark in exposing comfortable myths about the Indian and Hindu society. “It has exposed black spots and countered ideas of colonial regime, and tries to uncover the selective evidence that is often present.”

Field research done by these centres shed light on the fact that households in India were not a unit, but instead consists of men and women making individual contributions. Research even shed light on the role of women in agriculture and exposed the role of women in various mass movements. “Feminism is not an export,” added Krishnaraj. “It’s an indigenous experience as various studies have shown.”

Role of women’s studies centres

Big movements prompted by episodes in history like the Shah Bano case, Mathura rape case and the Roop Kanwar case further enabled “us to bate into lawmaking as well,” said Malini Bhattacharya, former director of SWS, Jadavpur University. The energy of these movements prompted uncomfortable questions about what was being done in terms of law and policy, debates were being held throughout the country and women’s studies filled that gap. “Women’s studies were energised by these movements. Women’s studies combined activism with studies, and they further interacted with the government.”

The 1974 ‘Towards Equality’ report by the Committee on the Status of Women lay the foundation of women’s movement in India, and uncovered discriminatory socio-cultural practices, political and economic processes. The report assumed the gender lens to talk about democracy and development, highlighting issues of declining sex ratio and condition of girl’s education.

Bhattacharya said that even though government funding was erratic even when the women’s centre began at the Jadavpur in 1989, “state universities were less cash strapped than they have become today.”

“Today, women’s movements need women’s studies just as much as women’s studies need women’s movements.”

At a time when the triple talaq judgement is being hailed by people across the country, there is a need to probe into the inequalities inherent in all personal laws and understand its nuances, according to Bhattacharya. For that, we need data and analysis. “That is where women’s studies comes in.”

Indu Agnihotri, the director of Centre for Women’s Development Studies, agreed. “Women’s studies centres have contributed to academic perspectives in India. The gender lens has enriched all disciplines in India, and contributed critical perspectives while breaking conventional academic boundaries.”

Despite their significant contributions, there is a likelihood that funding for women’s studies centres will seize. “How many universities will then fund the centres out of their own resources?” questioned Samita Sen of Jadhavpur University. Uncertainty in funding has a been a hallmark of women’s studies centres since their inception, she added as part of a panel at the convention. “There has never been a golden age.”

However, according to Zenetta Rosaline, director of the department of women’s studies at Bharathiar University, despite the uncertainty of long-term funding, “we have still managed to move forward.”

Students were also among the panelists at the event, and apart from stressing on the need for strengthening women’s studies centres they also said highlighted on the employability aspect of these disciplines. There should be critical thinking with marketable skills, according to Arpita Anand, a Phd student at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

Crisis in higher education

Several panelists also highlighted the fact that the crisis that women’s studies centres were facing was reflective of the status of higher education in India. Even mainstream disciplines are full of only ad hoc faculty. “Crisis of higher education in the whole country has reverberated in women’s students,” said Bhattacharya. The slash of funding, said Anand, will lead to seat cuts, prompting a rise in cost of education and will likely give these women’s students centres – where presently students from diverse background study – an elite character.

The funding crunch, agreed Sumi Krishna, a former president of IAWS, doesn’t affect women’s studies centres alone. The UGC notice, she said, has cast a shadow over funding for centres for social exclusion and wildlife ecology centres among others.

According to many, in the present scenario, there is a need to seek other sources of funding to keep the centres alive. It a struggle not just for funding, they said, but also for legitimacy and acceptance.

Despite all their contributions, women’s studies centres have remained marginalised due to continuing and entrenched biases in university structures, and have been able to grow largely due to the backing from the UGC.

The IAWS has thus, as part of a memorandum signed by over 17o present at the convention, urged the UGC to continue to support the 163 women’s studies centre’s currently being assisted. “We urge continuation of central grant support for WSCs until they are regularised as permanent departments with adequate faculty and staff positions and support for activities, i.e., until they are incorporate on equal status with other disciplines in the structure and institutions that govern university and college institutions.”

Despite the looming crisis, however, several remained positive. “We have been in a marginalised location since day one. It is the best place to conduct knowledge and politics,” said Mary John of CWDS. “We’ve known what it means to exist under uncertainty. We can use that knowledge.”

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