Women Studies Departments in Indian Universities face threat of closure

Dr Geentanjali Ganjoli, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, School for Policy Studies, discusses the future of Women’s Studies in India.

There are 163 Women’s Studies Centres (WSCs), funded under the University Grants Commission (UGC) in universities and colleges across India, most of which now face the threat of being wound up after September 2017.

Concerns over the future of the Centres were originally raised in March 2017 but were temporarily allayed when the UGC issued a public notice on 29th March stating that all existing schemes would continue for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, on 16th June, the UGC published a revised notice that ongoing schemes under the Plan Head would be funded only up to September 2017.

The women’s studies centres in India are organically allied to feminist movements in India, and are historically linked to the UN international decade for women (1975-85), and the Status of Women Report led by a group of Indian feminists in 1974, which revealed the myriad social and economic hardships and inequalities suffered by Indian women. Women’s Studies was introduced into the National Policy of Education in 1986. The late 1970s and 1980s also saw the rise of women’s movements’ campaigns against forms of violence against women, including rape, sexual harassment in public spaces and the workplace, dowry, domestic violence, representation of women in the media and female infanticide, and is also linked to wider secular movements.

These concerns have always been represented in the teaching and research interests of women’s studies departments in India. For instance, the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT University, which was the first women’s studies department set up in the country in 1974, conducts action research programmes on topics as varied as assessing the extent of sexual harassment in university campuses, research on problems faced by the girl child within the family, and teaches women’s studies at Masters and research PhD levels.

In spite of the intellectual and political insights provided by women’s studies scholars in India, the discipline itself has often been treated as marginal by universities and funding bodies. One suggestion is that the challenges to patriarchy and gender roles posed by the Women’s Studies Centres threaten the inherent misogyny within the academy, and this may the reason why this discipline is under threat now. As observers of Indian society are aware, women students have always been subjected to discriminatory policies. Examples of this include: curfews for women in hostels, women students being evicted from their hostels in the summer break and dress codes imposed on female students in different universities.

Within this context, the threat to women’s studies centres indicates the further shrinkage of secular and feminist spaces within Indian academia, and is concerning particularly within the wider context of the rise of misogyny and right-wing Hindu politics in the country, and indeed internationally.

The Centre for Gender and Violence Research has always had close working and personal connections with women’s studies departments in India, and elsewhere, and this is reflected in our new journal in its scope, editorial board and papers. The first issue of the journal has an interesting paper written by academics from the Women’s Studies Centre in Tata Institute of Social Sciences which showcases the work of women’s studies departments in India in terms of its links to activism and feminist concerns with regard to policy and practice on gender based violence.

To read more articles like this, sign up for a free trial of the Journal for Gender Based Violence.

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