Women's Studies and Women's Movement in India Since The 1970s: An Overview

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Item Code: IDK215
Author: Kusum Datta
Publisher: The Asiatic Society
Language: English
Edition: 2007
Pages: 368
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.7" X 5.6"
Weight 490 gm
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Book Description
Form the Jacket

The present book is an attempt to plug an important lacuna in the rich literature on Women's Studies in India by providing a panoramic view of the Women's Studies Movement, its challenges and achievements since the 1970s. Juxtaposed against this are the minutiae of the work of some Women's Studies Centres that operate within a constrained and often hostile environment. A meticulous use of documents and interviews with some renowned pioneers enables the author to recreate the so far little known history of the institutionalization of Women's Studies in the last thirty Years.

The book highlights the hurdles Indian women face as feminist scholars and activists in the context of cultural nationalism (s), especially of the fundamentalist kind, and global extension of Western capitalism.

The study tries to dispel some myths concerning women, particularly that of women beings helpless victims of male supremacy and of lacking any agency. As this book argues, the agency of women is clearly seen in the lives of all women, whatever their location or identity. At the same time, it warns against the dangers emanating from the internal fissures among feminist scholars and activists.

Another important contribution of the study lies in its argument that Indian Women's Studies scholars have never been blind followers of their Western counterparts. This is reflected in their balancing of theory with praxis and a context specific use of the methodologies of postcolonialism and postmodernism. In fact, Indian feminists in Diaspora have reshaped these methodologies for the scholarship of the third world. This book will be an essential tool for both students and researches in understanding Women's Studies Movement in India.


About the Author

Kusum Datta, a freelance researcher, has a Ph.D in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She taught African history at the University of Zambia, Lusaka and the University of Botswana, Gaborone. Her articles on Zambian and Botswana's history have appeared in international journal and in anthologies. Under the aegis of SEPHIS (the Netherlands), she has written a report on the women's studies movement in South Africa. She has used her research fellowship at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, from 1999 to 2002 to write the present book. As an honorary research fellow at the School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University, she participates in the M. Phil programme of the SWS. Her interests include African history, gender issues, especially the political position of women and men, and violence against women.


It is a singular privilege to be associated with a book that is the first of its kind to hit the readers. Writing a Preface amounts to a celebration not only of the dedication commitment and hard work of the scholar Kusum Datta whom I had the good fortune to support from a close proximity, but also of the spirit of adventure that she displayed in launching into this vast project.

The terrain was not smooth. The Asiatic Society that displayed the good sense to select both the scholar and the project, did not have the minimum availability of books on Women's Studies. In a library founded by Sir William Jones in the eighteenth century, rich in Indological rare books and MSS, if one is ready to adjust one's lens a little, undertaking this work and completing it was a form of storming the Bastille!

Undertaking and completing this work was a model in strategizing. Originally, the idea was to do a comparative study of Women's Studies in India and South Africa. Despite enormous support from the librarian of the Asiatic Society, African material remained a trickle. I feel thankful for it because Women's Studies in India, on its own, was a subject of enormous proportion. For me (and perhaps, even for the author) the enormity of the proportion was yet to be gauged. It was a matter of her meticulousness of search that prompted her seek my assistance in looking for archival materials. By a happy serendipity I happened to be a member of the IAWS Executive Committee. With the help of the fighting President Dr. Zarina Bhatty and Secretary Dr Lakshmi Lingam I could negotiate a small grant for Kusum Datta so that she could, while doing her own work, prepare an entry for the IAWS website. One can see the admirable use to which she has put her access to the materials stored in RCWS and also in CWDS. Her long interviews with the foremothers of the movement, Prof. Neera Desai and Prof. Vina Mazumdar, and the stalwarts like Prof. Maithreyi Krishna Raj and Prof. Kumud Sharma were also a happy by product of this sojourn.

Not only in negotiating the archives but also in finding a viable route through the plethora of materials that Women Studies have generated in India, this pioneering work will leave an indelible mark on scholarship relating to Women's Studies, not only in India but in the world. Materials have been juxtaposed, connection have been made, different types of approaches have been juggled with, that have, so far, not been attempted.

One of the ever-present myths that this book should demolish is that Women's Studies in India is a mimicry of the West. The book has taken up the challenge of writing an internal history of the institutionalization of Women's Studies in the higher education system in India. The oldest Research Centre in Women's Studies had, for its motto, 'Change and challenge'. The challenge was going to be in the realm of both social praxis and theoretical conceptualization. It meant that Women's Studies in a developing country like India had to negotiate Women's Movement in order to confront the subordinate position of women. The Women's Movement in India has a long history of women's agency and victimization coming sown from colonial times. With occasional, but very telling glances at the African Women's Movement, the author has really taken a great deal of pain to bring out the dialectic of Women's Studies the often proceeds in tandem with the actual Women's Movement in the society.

What is very impressive about the book is the attempt to capture the complexity of this dialectical relationship between Women's Studies and Women's Movement particularly the intense commitment that was built into it by the two pioneers of Women's Studies in India viz. Prof. Neera Desai and Prof. Vina Mazumdar. The 'critical perspective' that both of them wanted women's Studies to provide, could be sustained by the Women's Movement to a significant extent.

Kusum Datta has opened the archives of the formation of Women's Studies in Indian and has written a rare account of how this 'critical perspective' came to be adopted. The creativity and energy of scholarship sharpened by criticality that was in evidence from the beginning, with the publication Recasting Women and the two volumes Women Writing in India 600 B.C. to the Present has been brought out, to give a focus to the challenges that were taken up by the early practitioners of Women's Studies. I am personally thankful to the author for not letting the sense of discovery, excitement and camaraderie that we experienced in the eighties and through the nineties get lost in the nitty gritty of documents and archives.

There have been more than one Scylla and Charibdya that Women's Studies has had to negotiate and the author has spared herself no pains to map such intricate negotiations. Even when one does not fully endorse her reading, one is left marveling at the grit with which she has taken on each issue.

In conclusion I will take pride in recommending the book to scholars of Women's Studies, old and new, and the scholar activists of the future who hope to enter the terrain. Kusum Datta has not promised easy entry, nor false hopes of a comfortable journey. But she has given out enough signals of challenges for it to be an exercise worth undertaking. The publication of the book links up a rich past with an exciting future.



So far as the General Secretary of the Asiatic Society is concerned, writing Foreword is an inescapable ritual. But I write a foreword for this book with great pleasure, because it is lucid, comprehensive, and based on impeccable research, which were not affected by a painful tragedy in the author's family and other severe circumstantial limitations. The Indian woman, consigned to the status of scullery-maids by the patriarchs and patricians, gradually grew conscious of their human rights, and in some areas, waged a relentless struggle for self-assertion in modem times. Kusum Datta has delineated the details of this transformation in ten chapters with admirable competence. The work is an excellent combination of History and Sociology. Women's Studies, once considered recondite by the old-fashioned pedagogues, have, in such works as this book, attained a real pedagogical status, which can hardly be overlooked.


The present study began rather ambitiously as A Cross-Cultural Study of Women's Studies and Women's Movement in India and Southern Africa from 1975 to 1995. Constraints of accessing any data on Africa from Kolkata soon forced African comparison to be left out, albeit regretfully. Hoping to make up the loss of the African section by covering the work of all the 34 Women's Studies Research Centres, my search for material on the issue started in earnest. Soon another setback appeared when I found that not only the Asiatic Society library, but practically no other repository of what I needed was available in Kolkata except for the library of the School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University. Even the latter has more of printed material than primary documents required to building my theses on.

Apart from the Research Centre for Women's Studies, at SNDT Women's University, Mumbai, and the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, no other Women's Studies Centre had an electronic mail address, let alone a web site. The Indian Association of Women's Studies has just launched its website in 2002-2003. Some others are now trying to join the cyber world.

Ultimately, I settled for concentrating on the Women's Studies work in West Bengal, which practically means the two centres in Kolkata, all the time hoping for some miracle to happen. Using my monthly fellowship and part of the contingency fund I undertook a trip to Mumbai and collected from the Research Centre for Women's Studies some basic data to set the ball rolling. A small grant from the Indian Association of Women Studies came in at a strategic time for me to spend a fortnight in Delhi and glean more crucial material from the library of the Centre for Women's Development Studies. This enabled me to extend the contours of my research to an all India level. I would like to presume that some justice has been done in this work to the original idea of mapping out the terrain and to chart the progress graph of the intersection between Women's Studies and the contemporary Women's Movement in India.

These stints in Mumbai and Delhi had to be kept short for reasons of limited funds and personal compulsions. However, I am grateful to the Asiatic Society and the Indian Association for Women's Studies for partly funding my research trips to Mumbai and Delhi. It was Prof. Maithreyi Krishnaraj who not only was generous with her time for an interview with her but also mooted the idea of appealing to the Indian Association for Women's Studies for financial assistance. My sincere thanks go out to her and to the Executive Committee of the Association for sanctioning the grant.

During these trips and in Kolkata I talked to some of the stalwarts of the Women's Studies movement in India. Among those interviewed are such feminist scholars and activists as Profs. Neera Desai, Vina Mazumdar, Jasodhara Bagchi, Malini Bhattacharya, Uma Chakravarti, Shanti Chakravarty, Tanika Sarkar, Kumud Sharma, Veena Poonacha, and Diviya Pandey, as well as a few second generation feminists, Sarbani Goswami, Lakshmi Lingam and Indu Agnihotri. It was a rare privilege to talk to these luminaries of the feminist movement, as it provided me insights into how Women's Studies movement had emerged out of individual feminist scholars' dedication and has been shaped by its interface with feminist activism. My gratitude and appreciation of their willingness to share their experiences and thoughts with me cannot be expressed in so many words.

Needless to say, my main debt of gratitude remains to the Asiatic Society. By awarding me the research fellowship the Society registered its trust in me. I do hope in a small way this work would recompense their faith in me. Further, the Society gave me an opportunity to finish this research by extending my fellowship by six months. Nursing my suffering mother and her passing away late in 2001 had admittedly slowed down my work and I badly needed this extra time to complete the report. The Society was equally considerate enough to allow me to work mostly from home where I had all the collected data and my computer to work on. All this has not gone unregistered on me.

During the initial phase much of my time was spent at the library of the School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University, which put all its resources at my disposal and accepted me as one of the family. In addition to the Director, Prof. Malini Bhattacharya, the Research Officer Sarbani Goswami, and Abhijit Sen and the librarian Srabani Majumdar went out of their way to secure and lend me the material and information not readily available. Their support, given in good grace helped this project to take off the ground in time. I am most particularly indebted to Sarbani whose knowledge, memory and grasp of what happened when and whose ready willingness to share her thoughts with me, often on the phone, helped me at crucial junctures. Hopefully, some justice has been done to their trust.

The assistance I received from the staff and the libraries of the Research Centre for Women's Studies, Mumbai and the Center for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi and their printing personnel who gave up their normal work to promptly locate and copy thousands of pages for me cannot go without appreciative recording. I was equally overwhelmed by the enthusiastic support received from the Women's Studies Research Centre, Calcutta University. Its director and research officer gave me free access to their resources and time. I really appreciate all their assistance.

Last but not the least, this work has benefitted immensely from the unstinted support, valuable insights and suggestions made by Prof. Jasodhara Bagchi. At each crossroad, she was there to provide direction and pull up my flagging spirits. But for her readily available advice, this work would never have come to completion so easily. I am ever so grateful to Prof. Ansu Datta, for goading me on to undertake and for encouraging me to continue with this project in ways too numerous to be named. It is not their fault that the present work still has many lacunae. I bear full responsibility for all that.

All through the two years of her excruciating pain, my mother willingly endured my absence from her side without any complaint. The regret is all mine-I should have been a better daughter.

A few clarifications are required to guide the reader of this work. I have used the term adivasi for those communities who are labelled as 'tribals', a term with derogatory implications. Similarly, dalit and bahujan are used interchangeably in referring to the so-called lower castes although bahujan refers to the Shudra caste that is inclusive of dalits. Secondly, while I am aware of the basic nuances that set Women's Studies apart from feminist studies, and women's movement from feminist movement, in this study I have used the two terms synonymously. No attempt has been made to discuss different ideological streaks discernible in the movement or to locate them within the global development of feminisms. This study is not about semantics or theories. It is simply a record of how Women's Studies emerged and grew in India.

Terms such as the 'third world' and 'the South/Southern', as used in this study, are interchangeable as are 'the West/Western ' and 'the North/ Northern', even though in a un i-polar world, 'third world' is a misnomer. This is done to break the monotony of repeating the same term.

Regarding the use of lower or upper case, 'Centre/s' when used with Women's Studies is spelt with a capital 'C' since that is the UGC practice. But it remains in lower case when used by itself. Place names that keep changing are difficult to accommodate. In the text, I have made a conscious effort to use the new names, such as Kolkata for Calcutta, Mumbai for Bombay or Vadodara for Baroda, although it is jarring for historians to reconcile the long standing aura of a city with a new name so quickly. However, under References the name that appears on the book has been kept.

The most serious reservation about this study emerges from the gap between the time of its inception and that of its publication. When in 1998 a proposal for this research was submitted to the Asiatic Society, there were hardly any surveys of the Women's Studies movement in India. Some audit accounts that had appeared by 2002 were not yet available to the writer before the report was submitted to the Asiatic Society in September 2002. Today there are at least half a dozen such studies, the most important being the volume edited by Devaki Jain and Pam Rajput, Narratives from the Women s Studies Family (2003). The Indian Association for Women's Studies had a session devoted to such an exercise at its 2002 National Conference in addition to holding some regional seminars on assessing the work of Women's Studies. Besides the papers presented at a national workshop on Gender and Critical Pedagogies organised by Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, there have also been surveys of Women's Studies as they are taught in Tamil Nadu universities and colleges, in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in 2004. Mary John too has written extensively on this issue. These reports were not accessible nor was there time for this study to benefit from them.



  Foreword vii
  Preface ix
  Introduction xiii
  Abbreviations xxi
Chapter 1. The Genesis of Women's Studies in India 1
Chapter 2. Women's Studies Centres: A Close Shave with the Axe 35
Chapter 3. The Indian Association of Women's Studies and its Contribution to Women's Studies 50
Chapter 4. Two Pillars of Women's Studies in India 78
Chapter 5. Women's Studies Centres in West Bengal: An in-depth Study 101
Chapter 6. The Contemporary Women's Movement and Its interface with Women's Studies 131
Chapter 7. Women's Studies in the 1980s: Search for Identity and Goals 174
Chapter 8. Women's Studies at the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century 205
Chapter 9. Feminist Scholarship and Activism since the 1990s: An Impasse and Rethinking 239
Chapter 10. Conclusion: Whither the Feminist Movement in India? 289
  References 301
  Index 329

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