The first women’s studies research center was established in 1974 in Mumbai, which was also the site of the first National Conference on Women’s Studies in 1981. Women’s Studies centers were set up in 33 universities as a result of an important 1975 government Committee on the Status of Women report “Towards Equality.” It reported that despite two decades of planned development, women lagged behind men. An Indian Association for Women’s Studies formed in 1982 with participation from activists as well as academics following the first national conference the previous year.
Their site includes resources, including a summary of women’s issues in 2017 written for the 15th conference titled “Women in a Changing World: Restructured Inequalities, Countercurrents, and Sites of Resistance.”[i] The paper defined current issues as the crisis of women’s unemployment caused by a quarter of a century of privatization and neoliberal policies; reduced government services; fewer agricultural jobs and less “self-cultivation” on farms; ongoing discrimination against Dalits, LGBT and disabled people; attacks on inter-caste and inter-religion marriages; the politicization of religion (referring to Modi’s Hindu nationalism); and militarization.
By 2017, the Indian Association for Women’s Studies listed 46 institutional members and claimed 150 Women’s Studies Centres. Alliances formed with other feminists in the five countries in the South Asian region. Menon sees an active link between activists and academics and although feminist methodologies have influenced academics in various disciplines, but “full academic recognition eludes women’s studies.”[ii] Lawyer Abhiraj Kumar observed that feminists are more prominent in women’s organizations than in academia and that feminists are still portrayed as angry women who hate men and marriage.[iii] In Hyderabad, the Progressive Women’s Organization, based at Osmania University, was galvanized by price increases, need for jobs, dowry abuses, eve teasing, sexism in advertising, and safety of women students.
Manushi, a feminist journal designed to bridge activism and research, began in 1978. Another English language journal founded in the same era was Feminist Network. A publishing house called Kali [a goddess] For Women was co-founded by Menon in 1984. As a result of her feminism, she lost friends and family, but is appreciative of her feminist husband.[iv] Menon wrote in 2012 that the exhilarating 1980s to 1990s were about consciousness raising, while the 2000s are about creating changes in laws and in society.[v] Violence against women remains a major theme of the women’s movement, but in such a large country there cannot be a single movement. Menon explained, “To all those who feel the women’s movement in India is on the wane, perhaps a more accurate assessment is that it is more dispersed, has deeper root, and has shifted from being urban and middle class to more hinterland, and often, even more rural.”
Yamini Rameshh, 24, lives in Mumbai. She wrote on the blog website Medium about being an independent woman:
In India, we can appreciate and idolize women of strength at a distance, but those around us better be docile and obedient. We don’t know how to applaud a woman with a successful career without tch-tch-ing a bit about how she’s not married yet. We may educate our girls and “allow” them to work, but at the end of the day, if she’s not a good chef and a maid, she’s not the girl we want.
Of course, most Indian grownups and men hate a woman like me. It’s actually fear disguised as hatred, but shh, lest their sense of self-importance be hurt. They’re mighty afraid of a woman who’s perfectly okay all by herself — as they should be. Nothing threatens a mass hollow authority like an individual with substance who doesn’t rely on it.
Vaishnavi and her friend Roshni are 16-year-olds in Chennai. As feminists, they write a thoughtful blog about gender roles.[vi] I asked the former about what led to her being a feminist. As is often the case (think of Malala), she has an encouraging father and traditional mother.
My family defines me more than anything else in the world. I would say they’re typically Indian. My father was an engineer but now he has set up his own business. My mother is a housewife. My brother is a college student. We are also very close to our grandparents and immediate cousins so we all gather frequently for dinner and lunch and of course festivals and occasions. I am so fortunate and blessed to have such encouraging parents who allow me to do what I want. They never force me to do anything (except maybe household chores). Of course they know when to draw the line and even though I may not approve of some decisions they make, deep down I know that whatever they do is for my good.
My father is the wisest person I have ever known. Whether it’s about current affairs, general knowledge or even study-related topics, he is just full of knowledge. He is so open-minded and I am so proud to be his daughter, not only because of how successful he is, but also because of how down-to-earth he is. He isn’t impressed easily (like most Indian parents) so that drives me to do my best at school. My mom is quite conservative and traditional. She is always there to assure me its okay to slow down sometimes. She is also the one that reminds me of my rich culture, roots and traditions. I think my parents are the perfect balance and together they help keep me grounded.
[ii] Menon, Making a Difference, p. xx.
[iii] Abhiraj Kumar, “Feminist Concept of Right,” September 29, 2009.
[iv] Menon, Making a Difference, p. 216.
[v] Ritu Menon, “Feminism’s Unfinished Business,” FeministIndia, March 9, 2012.