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Renaming 'Women's Studies Center'

By Rochona Majumdar
06 September, 2003

In the wake of the textbook controversy that is still roiling
academic circles countrywide, comes another significant intervention
into national academia by the Union minister for Human Resource
Development, Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi. Recently Mr. Joshi renamed the
Women's Studies Center at the University of Pune as the "Women's and
Family Studies Center." The renaming of the Pune center, according to
the UGC, which comes under Mr. Joshi's sphere of influence, will be
followed by the same move for the twenty or so centers across the

This latest move by one of more visible faces of the BJP leadership
has evoked strong protests from feminist academics all over the
country. Petitions have been sent to the University Grants Commission
urging for a reversal of the decision and feminist scholars have been
extremely vocal in expressing consternation about the said proposal.
Yet, in a country torn apart by bomb blasts, natural disasters and
terrorist threats, such disquiet over the mere renaming of a handful
of women's studies units may well seem to the ordinary citizen as an
exercise in academic vanity.

Before we write off the significance of this seemingly
inconsequential gesture by the state, let us take a moment's pause
and ask ourselves a few questions. Why, for instance, was it
important for the government to introduce the words 'family studies'
into the nomenclature of the women's studies units? Assuming that no
such decision is made without the back up of a professional thinking
machinery, we may well wonder as to who/what will henceforth be
excluded from the arena of scholarship when the site where this
scholarship is conducted has been renamed through a rather
restrictive qualifier. And finally what are the implications of such

At the risk of being accused of idealistic mind reading or, worse
still, of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist who smells disaster at
small gestures made by the government, let me say that my fear about
actions such as Mr. Joshi's are confirmed as I look back into the
present government's records on gender issues. It is crucial that we
contextualize the renaming of the women's studies units countrywide.
For only then will the regressive implications of Joshi's maneuver
become clear and it will be apparent that what at the outset seemed
insignificant is actually a deed with boundless ideological
potential. But, first a background on what constitutes women's
studies and a brief history of this kind of institution building in

Women's Studies

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade in the history of human rights
that globally inspired a series of social movements. From this period
onward, social scientists and humanists became interested in the role
played by socially marginalized groups in the histories of nation
building and sought to incorporate peoples that had hitherto been
excluded from the realm of social science research into the ambit of
their studies. The legacy of these movements and the awareness they
generated may be found in the "histories from below" written by
historians like E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm who turned the focus
of historical research on industrial workers, urban laborers, and

In a similar move there were efforts made in the United States to
understand the historical causes behind the inferior social position
accorded to African Americans in social and political life. And it
was as part of this general awareness and questioning about human
rights that feminists all over the world became vocal in what came to
be known as "second wave" feminism. They queried the reasons behind
women's absence from most histories written about the formation of
nation-states and their subjugation to men in both the private and
public spheres.
In a report published by the Government of India in 1975 entitled
Towards Equality, feminist social scientists laid down the results of
their investigation on the position of women in Indian society. The
report prepared by a committee chaired by Phulrenu Guha was part of a
project undertaken by the ministry of education and social welfare.
It documented in detail the slights and humiliation that are part and
parcel of a woman's everyday existence in this country.

Between the 1970s - 90s a number of research units were established
all over India, which devoted their energies into studying the
condition of Indian women, inquiring into the historical roots of
their subservient position in society and devising programs for
improving the status and condition of women. Collectively, one of the
most significant outcomes of research by women's studies units has
been to demonstrate that not only were women significant actors in
national history, but their roles spanned as widely as men's.

Even recognizing these facts entailed throwing a certain challenge to
male power. Power became an extremely important category in
understanding and eventually ameliorating women's conditions in
various arenas of social life. Since the 1970s, there have been
innumerable studies on the condition of women workers in the jute and
cotton textile industries from the colonial period onward, into the
role played by female labor in the unorganized agricultural sector,
in politics, medicine, the performing arts, the birth control
movement, and sports.

Clearly then, the scope of women's studies spilled over from the
domain of the family into the world at large.

The Family

The family no doubt remained, and still remains, an important unit of
study. Comprehending the dynamic of the family is essential to any
project that seeks to understand not only women but men too. To
imagine otherwise would be both naïve and ahistorical. This awareness
has led to scholarly inquiries into the study and constitution of
"masculinity" and "childhood." Feminist historians, sociologists and
anthropologists have written and debated extensively on why certain
familial norms in this country have endured/ changed and what
implications these have had for the social position of men and women.

The joint family system, polygamy, female feticide, sati, widow
remarriage, child marriage, dowry have been the subject of numerous
historical monographs all of which have focused on the comparative
position of both sexes within the family. But to say that these
studies have been concerned with the family and family alone is
ridiculous. In fact the point behind most of these studies have been
to demonstrate the ways in which larger social forces alter or are
themselves shaped by the family and to point in directions of
progressive social change.

So Why This Move?

Against this background it remains puzzling as to why a man of Mr.
Joshi's perspicacity would resort to renaming "Women's Studies"
centers as "Women's and Family Studies". Especially when feminists
themselves are now questioning the categorizing of their discipline
as "women's" studies and are increasingly resorting to terms such as
"gender" or "queer" studies to designate their disciplinary

Their reason for doing so was adumbrated above - for how can women be
studied in isolation from men? Many have questioned the efficacy of
the label woman arguing that womanhood itself is a variegated entity
where sexual preference, social factors and finally biology play a

Given the complexity of the subject matter of what constitutes the
field of "women's studies" what then are the ramifications of Mr.
Joshi's pronouncement? As the feminist historian Tanika Sarkar
succinctly put it, "it re-embeds women within the family," ignoring
their role in vast web of complex social relations.

Eunuchs and Sex-Workers

Let us close this discussion by considering the impact of such
renaming upon studies that are conducted on two important social
groups in India - eunuchs and sex-workers. In what University
department do we now shift ongoing research on eunuchs in India?
Surely there is no doubt that socially and politically they
constitute an important section of the country's population. And I am
sure it would be irresponsible and unethical to subsume this
important social group under the category "women" for that would be
simplifying the complexities of the gender experiences of this varied
social group.

Second, what do we do with women whose professional identity as sex
workers is at odds with the norm of a family? It is unclear what
vision of family was envisaged in the renaming decision. Unless we
seek to radically redefine the scope of what we mean by family, such
renaming, as the above examples demonstrate, runs the risk of
becoming an exclusionary move.

To take a few examples, we have to acknowledge single mothers/fathers
bringing up children as family, our notion of family cannot remain
heteronormative, nor can marriage be the sole basis of a familial
unit. While such redefining can be undertaken under the aegis of the
numerous women's studies units countrywide, it will require a degree
of autonomy.

One of the preconditions of good research is an atmosphere of
openness and debate. Will the decision to rename be accompanied or
followed by a solid guarantee of such autonomy? Can the renaming be
debated? Will women's studies centers have the right to reject the
new name?

Rochona Majumdar is Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper Fellow,
University of Chicago.