Read Here how the women’s studies centres have become a vibrant face of neo-colonialism

By Dr Firdous Azmat Siddiqui

Let me begin with one main commandment of animalism from George Orwell’s Novel ‘Animal Farm’ that ‘All animals are equal.’ The concept behind women’s movement was a fight for gender equality, a fight for justice that resulted into an academic discipline. Women Studies as an academic discipline in India offered new dawn to activists. However, women studies have evolved in the last three decades of our achievement of establishing it as a discipline. As a discipline, it sprang globally during 1960s which helped in women’s movement in India. The two-pioneer Vina Majumdar and Neera Desai built a foundation for both academics and activism. Women studies as a discipline is unique and dynamic. Its interdisciplinary framework gave impetus to analysis, to question the hierarchies. The women’s centre had been introduced in Higher Education under UGC Plan to Plan  Guideline. There is always ambiguity about the support from the government because of financial instability and this threat increased with the replacement of Planning Commission by Niti Aayog that reduced the five-year plan to annual mode. It is estimated that around 157 centres have been established under UGC Plan position since its initiation in SNDT.

History of women’s studies

The history of these centres is heavily drawn from the women’s movement in India. The first course was started in SNDT Colleges, Bombay in 1974. This happened due to the ‘towards equality report’ which threw light on extremely poor status of women due to lack of proper education and wide-spread socio-cultural violence against them. At the turn of the 20th Century, three oldest Women’s Studies Centre have been placed under Advanced Study Centre, University of Pune (1987), Jadavpur University (1988) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (1982) while SNDT, JMI (2000), AMU (2001), JNU (2000), Punjab University (1987) and Kurukchetra University (1989) have been placed under 3rd phase and other new emerging centres have been opened under either phase I or phase II category. This motivated government and researchers to emancipate political and social transformation of women. These initiatives made a way for the discipline and courses of women studies. Hence IXth Plan Guideline has been a turning point in history of Women’s Studies Centre in India, as maximum centres of Women’s Studies came into existence during this Plan with the aim of making it permanent Department. Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women Studies has been sanctioned by the UGC in 1999 and became functional in the year 2000. The UGC granted approval for the establishment of a Centre for Women’s Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia on the following terms and conditions: a full-time Director (Professor/Reader’s Scale) will be appointed for the smooth functioning of the Centre, a statutory status will be given to the Centre and sufficient core faculty and supporting staff be appointed in the Centre. Since then the Centre is running under the UGC Plan. It offers an interdisciplinary approach in teaching, contributing to an understanding of changes in gender relations and gender-specific experiences.

Growth and Development

If we locate the tremendous growth of women studies, we could note that feminism was a part of a big discipline. Moreover, it evolved as independent and interdisciplinary which teaches, trains, dismantle and advocate about flaws of the society. Women studies as a discipline is not against the idea of development. 

Also, it helps policymakers and institutions in facilitating development through lens of intersection. The onto effect on tribal, Dalit, minority and sexual minority taking broader context of class, caste, gender and ethnicity. But with the passing of time, there is a paradigm shift in gender studies considering gender is more neutral, where it involves men, trans, queer, masculinity and intersectionality. Though ‘gender’ is a political term which gained recognition as a discipline plus it is an effect of globalization where conference is being looked into WID and WAD, GID and GAD. 

Gender studies as a discipline talks about oppression, subordination, theories of patriarchy and deconstruction etc. which itself challenges the status quo. But at the same time ambiguity of funds and privatization is always on line. Very strikingly the base of the subject is to advocate gender justice, to challenge inequality on the name of gender, caste, class, region, religion, ethnicity and race. But, at the other end, it became a centre of all kind of atrocities. 

The discipline taught about the legacy of colonialism and unfortunately, itself became a vibrant face of neo-colonialism. Indeed, problem lies beneath its understanding and perception of the administration that women study centre is about women and hence, should necessarily be run only by the women. The myth became an origin point of colonialism as many of the centres are opened in Indian Universities with the Directorial position of Honorary and very few of them got liberation from colonial legacy but not completely, instead, they occupied neo-colonialism.

Women studies as a disciple is unique and dynamic. In theory, it challenges various biases of society, culture and focusses on minor aspects of gender discrimination, but in practice, it exercises all kinds of feudalism and hierarchy. The objective behind this discipline was to incorporate gender component to higher education, to dismantle traditional form of learning, to understand subject not only from an interdisciplinary approach but also from a multidisciplinary perspective. Decades-long colonialism and New-Colonialism has attacked very basic concept of thirst for democratic space, right to equality, right to live with dignity by promoting bossism and masculine atmosphere in disguise of women empowerment. It is good to criticise government failure to address issues of women’s studies centre but at the same time, it is also pertinent to analyse the drawback at university level administration. I feel the main challenge of women studies/gender studies are three-fold-

1. Government’s understanding of women’s/gender issues

2. University Administration attitude 

3. Internal Crisis

UGC and Government: Under the influence of First World Conference on Women (1975) for Gender Justice, Government of India constituted a committee to look into status of Women in India that paved the way for beginning of new issues. India as a country under a woman Prime Minister, Ms Indira Gandhi was committed to pay attention to women’s issues, hence, concept of Women’s Studies Centre started taking shape with publication of Towards Equality Report. It was included in Five Year Plan and Gender Budget also got space in our Parliamentary Budget. At the end of 1990s Women’s Studies became an important component of all the debates, seminars/conferences/workshops and it was realised that it should be included in all the other disciplines, thus, it came into existence as a subsidiary paper in many Indian Universities. UGC sanctioned to establish women studies centre with the aim of shaping it in an interdisciplinary subject. They gave a clear instruction of making it an academic faculty with a statute body. Unfortunately, its reverse has been done as instead of making it a statute body of University system, it has been left on the mercy of incompetent masculine feminist to run it like a colony, which gave rise to a new war amongst the women’s group of academicians for the Honorary position. Instead of starting a serious academic discourse many centres became hot cake for female imperialist. This has been true almost for many centres. Staff working under this UGC Plan have been often discriminated from other regular staff of the University. Indeed, they have been double victims of oppression. They have tolerated all ordeal in hope of getting statute status under the University Development which actually remained a dream for many. However, few centres have safeguarded themselves from this threat as they were administered under the true champions of academics/women’s issues yet their number is less.

In past three years, women’s studies centre has confronted biggest challenge since its inception with closure of Planning Commission, a sword is hanging on those who have not taken lessons from history. A notice has been issued to them to transform the positions from 5-year plan to annual mode. Then they started making hue and cry by organising conferences and workshops that higher learning centres are under threat. 

Yes, it’s true that the higher learning centre is persistently under threat but can these centres explain why they were overlooking UGCs direction and Guideline for Women’s Studies Centre starting from IXth five-year plan to XIIth five-year plan. Does only Government/UGC be held responsible for these crises? 

What was the responsibility of University Administration? What was the responsibility of the centre’s Director?  Do the women studies centre’s administration has only one duty of making networks and doing gender sensitization programmes along with seminars and conferences where they can demonstrate their visibility, can use these platforms to have ‘give and take’ and utilise centres resources for enhancing their personal curriculum vitae?

Role of Universities in shaping women’s study centre

Since its inception, the evolution of women’s studies centre has been in a very confronting situation. It has been seen as an issue of women hence it should be dealt through women. History of women studies centre in India has failed to transform women studies into gender studies. Even those centres which tried to make a distinction between women issues and gender issues have been failed to place it in a platform where a social construction of gender can be debated in contrast to biological construction of women as a category and men as another category.  

In this environment, most of these centres have identified a politically conscious strong woman academician who have the ability to organise women centred programmes, the ability to demonstrate women’s visibility and have the ability to speak colonial language enough to prove their eligibility as a head or UCC along with additional qualification of having the ability to make men sure that they can benefit whenever the need arises. 

They can launch their programmes without invoking any radical demand. This phenomenon has increased particularly when universities were asked to establish a strong ICC to implement sexual harassment policy measurement strictly. In recent years, increasing cases of sexual violence at workplace and campus show how the apex body is merely a show off of elite women who have even never gone through the sexual harassment policies and legal measures related to sexual violence against women before joining this apex body as a chairperson or any other capacity. 

The second reason for failure to understand the issues of women studies centre is high handiness approach of administration and widespread misconception and myth about the origin and functioning of the centre. Centres in University system have been established with the aim of contributing research on most marginalised issues and it was expected to organise seminars/conferences and conducting research on policy-making issues. 

Hence, centres have been mainly perceived as a kind of separate college within University system that needs a permanent full-time Administrator as a Director overlooking all Guidelines of UGCs and even University’s Ordinances regarding functioning of the centre. This has very often resulted in a despotic environment which never encourages the academic vibrancy. In many cases, Directors assumed their power as an administrator rather than academicians in pretext of sanctioned post which is another misconception about higher learning centres. It often leads confrontation of interest not only amongst faculties but also brings in confronting position to other academic and scientific staff. It starts a new kind of hierarchical structure among Professors, Associate Professors, Assistant Professors and other academic Staffs who consider themselves equally potential as faculty. 

As a faculty of Women’s Studies since past twelve years, I strongly feel, no imperialist can understand the pain of staff working in these so-called higher learning centres who are under a very vulnerable situation of uncertainty from UGC, discriminatory attitude of administration and hierarchical structure of the centres. 

It has made a very messy picture of women’s studies centre both for Administration as well as other centres. For many, it is like a telly soap, and forces others to perceive it as ‘wherever women work together, they create nuisance’. Another misconception about women administrators which I came across is that women cannot be good administrators. This needs to be dismantled, as we cannot make judgements on a few exceptional cases. 

Thirdly, women studies centres under university system has been alienated from administration by perceiving it as a UGC body, hence, they do not consider themselves liable to address Centre’s issues. Hence, Universities pay no attention whether they are receiving equal pay equal wage or not, they do not bother whether 7th pay has been equally implemented to all staff or not. 

It feels as if Women’s Studies Centres have no fundamental rights to raise their voices since they are not an integral part of the system. It has even been communicated time to time that, ‘they should be concerned about their position instead of raising fundamental issues of equality and justice’. If this is the attitude of people at supreme positions then rest is not to discuss. Notably, in many places there is a very strong nexus between central administration and centre’s administration to demonstrate power, to discourage any kind of resentment, to make people understand that discontent and disagreement with traditional norms can only make you more marginalised, it will only sideline you. 

Hence Women studies centre became a place for demonstrating ambitions for many failed administrators/academicians. I strongly feel that no true academician can overlook the very basic concept of democratic norms in an academic institution, only the pseudo-feminist and pseudo academician can encourage this kind of non-democratic atmosphere.

Internal Crisis: Despite many efforts done by UGC and Government of India to encourage Women’s Studies subject as an established and popular subject in Universities and College, women studies remained incapable to cope with many circumstantial issues. 

First: Job opportunity and considering it as a career option have been the driving force of turning towards this subject and domain knowledge for many, instead of taking it seriously as an emerging subject and paying special attention to it. It became a kind of bridge for many ambitious women. 

Second: a non-traditional faculty composition of women studies centre is another challenge for many who do not understand the logic behind its composition. XIth Plan of UGC has sanctioned many positions under academic umbrella which does not sound similar to established departments that created a kind of confusion in many centres. Indeed, centre seems to fail in exploiting expertise of this sanctioned position.  For example, many Directors and head of the centres and even faculties, themselves do not understand how to involve Research assistants, Data Entry Operator and Professional assistants. 

They have taken these posts as extra positions and had negotiated with University Administration transferring these posts to them. Interestingly, University has never accepted claim and legitimacy of staff of women’s studies centre in their main academic set up but on the other hand they are grasping these positions depriving centres, which may have done many potential activities by doing in-house research and documentation involving Research assistants and data entry operator, they may have enriched their library into a digital library.

One can also find a visible frustration from the staff due to negligence towards them. Also, many have to face various derogatory remarks like the staff are sitting idle in their rooms, instead of commenting on the staff the centres can try to involve them with gender sensitization workshop or other activities which have been the main bone of contention for many of them, who are as eligible as any other junior staff member of an academic body. They wish to have involvement as academic staff and not as clerical staff, they are fed up of listening to people addressing them as non-teaching staff. Another technical issue is that they have to face insecurity of promotion, which results in further building up the frustration in them, which may eventually invite systematic discrimination from their side too. 

One can understand this with a very simple example, a clerk can raise their status to Assistant Register position under career advancement scheme and an assistant professor can rise up to Professor, but a Research Assistant and Professional assistant have to be on the same grade for their whole life. If promotion is a fundamental right for all, then why a certain section of people being systematically discriminated. Interesting part of the dilemma is that there is no clear guidelines which can address their issues, neither in University’s Ordinances nor in UGC Guidelines, which urgently needs to address their concern. There is an urgent need to make them involve in mainstream academics so that the aims and objectives of higher learning centres may be obtained by exploiting/exploring their research expertise. 

Faculty of women’s studies centre needs to re-evaluate themselves in light of the feminist movement and not to satisfy their personal ego. 

They need to work at grass root level to understand basic concept of gender justice and not just to preach only the theory. Faculty needs to get gender oriented as well as get trained in Refresher Course specially done on Women’s Studies instead of reading/preparing curriculum part for teaching as these new emerging centres require emotional attachment with the subject along with the domain knowledge. 

Last, but a very important aspect of challenges before women’s studies centre is its inefficient pedagogical approach. Classroom teaching faces problem in the interest of one of the last backbenchers, who cannot speak or write in English. It does not mean that he is not eligible for obtaining a degree in Women’s Studies. This approach is especially making a big hurdle in making this subject popular since all the reading material is available only in English, therefore, many potential students do not opt this subject due to unavailability of reading material, even if they opt they will very often drop out. 

Drop out rate is very high in this subject which should also be a concern. Of course, language is not the only reason but it is one of the main reasons why students graduate from traditional subjects and do not apply for women’s studies, particularly those who have been taught in vernacular medium. Even teachers are not aware of our Ordinance which gives them the right to ask their classroom teaching in vernacular medium instead of English which has been compulsory for Science and technical subject not for Humanities and Social Science. 

Thus, Women’s Studies Centre needs complete overhauling, not from internal administrative attitude but it urgently requires administrative intervention both at University level as well as from UGC and MHRD which can make a proper and feasible approach to make this subject popular rather than an elite course. Also, women Studies Centre needs to pay specific attention in election manifesto too, as it is subject which has been introduced in almost 157 centre’s which are hanging in a very uncertain situation. 

Not only women’s studies centre but also an equally important discipline, i.e., social exclusion and inclusion centre opened under UGC Schemes is under severe threat that needed special attention from all sphere be it students, faculty, University Administration as well as Government to help academicians to fight for gender justice and ensuring women’s studies centre should not be overlooked in the University system unlike earlier. 

There is an urgent need to incorporate Women’s Studies/ Gender Studies compulsory for Under Graduate students like compulsory language papers then only George Orwell’s mission for equality can be achieved. Then only Marry Wollstonecraft concept for equality be achieved that if all humans are equal then to believe women are also human until they may be considered a beast. My only suggestion is women’s studies centre urgently needs to leave the bureaucratic approach.

(Author is Associate Professor at Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)


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