Coming of age
Rumina Sethi

Women’s Studies in India—A Reader
Ed. Mary E. John. Penguin. Pages 657. Rs 599.

THE focus of this book is women’s studies movement rather than the women’s movement. In many ways, this anthology is akin to Tharu and Lalitha’s two volume collection of women’s writings in India, and complements it, except that the editor has put together excerpts from official documents and reports, research papers and commentaries, on issues relating to women rather than creative writing issuing from women.

Women’s studies in India began in the 1970s when the existing food shortages and unemployment made it clear that both the Nehruvian era and Indira Gandhi’s subsequent play at politics had not been complete successes. When SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) was set up in 1974, it marked the beginning of some form of organised protest engineered by women. Again, the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI), which was formed in 1971, sought to study women’s roles in the making of the nation. The ensuing study, entitled Towards Equality, that has since then become a sort of manifesto for the women’s movement, gave out shocking facts and data reporting the steady decline and exclusion of women from all processes of progress and development. Evidently, this was a period when research relating to women was spurred and information was avidly collected, some of which is brought together in this anthology.

Women’s Studies in India intends to trace the link between women’s studies, the women’s movement and education. Not many in India are interested in setting up departments of women’s studies or change their syllabi radically. But to bring transformation in education itself would give impetus to the movement through a radical ideology. It was in the 1980s that conferences and forums were organised to discuss and debate women’s participation in local struggles and their relationship with the rigidity of custom. Some essays included here are thus about the protests against the existing sexual division of labour, the campaigns against dowry and rape, and the brutal forms of violence against women which can be linked to the culture that rationalises and justifies such oppression. It is a testament to the relationship between women’s studies and the women’s movement that these years witnessed the emergence of publishing houses like Kali for Women and journals about serious women’s issues like Manushi. The Economic and Political Weekly began publishing special issues on women’s studies regularly; indeed, our first Indian Journal of Gender Studies grew from the CWDS (Centre for Women’s Development Studies) home publication Samya Shakti. The enormous literature in women’s studies departments about the Shah Bano case, to take an example, is proof of the overlap between education and activism.

The 1990s saw the coming-of-age of the "long struggle for legitimacy" pioneered by stalwarts like Vina Mazumdar and Neera Desai. With the UGC setting up centres of women’s studies in several universities, the "interventionary role" of education was recognised and reinforced although there was a corresponding withdrawal in state sponsoring of a "discipline" which seemed marginal and fraught with problems when compared which science and technology that are hierarchically strong. This has led to the stepping in of NGOs and international funding.

All the contributors show an awareness of the difficulties facing the locator as they traverse through the familiar yet unfamiliar territory of the feminist movement in India from the late 19th century to the present. With the understanding that women’s "politics" have moved from needs to rights, from the restricted right to parity in selected areas to the larger right of self-determination, Mary John, in this timely anthology, brings together writers, lawyers, journalists and doctors, women from NGOs and women’s groups, political parties and trade unions, to reveal the layered and complex nature of women’s issues as reflected in these writings. The writings themselves come from both men and women—among them are Bina Aggarwal, Madhu Kishwar, Partha Chatterjee, Brinda Karat, Susie Tharu, Vandana Shiva, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon—on a diverse spectrum of issues involving violence, law, sexualities, health, communalism and caste.

This volume hopes to bridge the inadequacy of conventional women’s literature to include aspects that deal not simply with the intellectual history of women but also their very site of enunciation, their location and their audience.