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Print edition : Oct 10, 2003 T+T-

The UGC's move to rename Women Studies Centres in universities as Women and Family Studies Centres may undermine their autonomy and alter the content of the subject, which, among other things, critically examines the patriarchal family system.

in New Delhi

IN keeping with the conservative ethos of the Ministry of Human Resource Development under Bharatiya Janata Party leader Murli Manohar Joshi, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has decided to rename the Women Studies Centres in various universities as Women and Family Studies Centres. A careful perusal of the new guidelines framed under the Tenth Plan, a copy of which has been obtained by Frontline, shows that it is not an innocuous move, which constitutes only the renaming of the centres. The guidelines, titled "Tenth Plan Guidelines for the Development of Women and Family Studies in Indian Universities", make it clear that the intention is to alter the very content of women studies.

The UGC supports 34 centres and four cells of women studies in various universities. While the UGC funds these centres, they are run autonomously, with their own names, subject to overall supervision by the university concerned under the broad guidelines of the UGC.

Hence the UGC's unilateral move has at one go divested women studies of the critical component and, in a sense, undermined the autonomy of universities where women studies cells and centres exist. Several academicians, women studies scholars and activists have written to UGC Chairperson Arun Nigavekar protesting against the decision. Ironically, Arun Nigavekar has written the foreword to a comprehensive book on women studies released this year, "Narratives from the Women Studies Family - Recreating Knowledge", edited by Devaki Jain and Pam Rajput. The foreword says: "Women studies as a significant discipline - with ramifications that flow not only into all the disciplines within a university but also into the policy, action and implementation of the Constitution of India - has come of age in India." He did not mention family studies anywhere. As for the letter of protest, it was learnt that the UGC Chairperson, has acknowledged it but passed it on to the Vice-Chairperson.

The letter reminds the UGC Chairperson of the trail-blazing role played by the UGC in promoting women studies within the university system even before the National Policy on Education took cognisance of the subject. The renaming, by implication, had limited the scope of women studies and denied the historical role played by the discipline both globally and nationally. The letter states that visualising these centres primarily as extension agencies of government and international organisations at the cost of knowledge creation and dissemination will marginalise them and hinder the development of critical inquiry. The signatories to the letter include the president of the Indian Association of Women Studies (IAWS) Kumud Sharma, and other office-bearers and members of the IAWS; faculty members from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, University of Pune, Utkal University, Jadavpur University, University of Delhi, Marathwada University and several independent researchers and activists. National women's organisations such as the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and the Joint Women's Programme have expressed their solidarity with the concerns raised in the letter.

THE equation of women studies with family studies is more objectionable. For one, the two are not synonymous with each other, and secondly, as a gender studies expert pointed out, the discipline of sociology was already dealing with family studies. It is significant that one of the critical components of women studies has been the critical study of the patriarchal family system and its debilitating impact on the status of women. Hence the equation of women studies with family studies could very well alter the radical content of women studies in higher education.

Several members of the IAWS said that the communique sent by the UGC addressing the centres as "Women and Family Studies Centres" raised several questions about the purpose of the change of name and the manner in which it was initiated. Women studies, they said, was meant to be a critical inquiry that would seek to expose the structures that upheld the subordination of women. It has been to the credit of women studies that in the last few decades the family was exposed as a major site of oppression and exploitation of women. Women studies scholarship has also sought to make the link between the family and unequal gender relations in society. By linking the family with women, the idea was established that women were primarily to be placed within the family - ignoring the fact that they played a larger role in many sectors as workers, political leaders, artists, mediapersons, social activists and so on.

Significantly, the approach of such scholarship has been not to "destroy" the family, but to uncover its dynamics in order to work for the greater goals of equality in power relations within and outside the family. The UGC guidelines, IAWS scholars said, emphasised that women studies should no longer be giving importance to theoretical engagements as, apparently in its view, enough had already been done. They pointed out that to suggest that women studies should be more concerned with extension activities - the guidelines say that the centres should reach out to the rural women and educate them on women's programmes, rights and laws - was like asking economists to stop analysing poverty and run "soup kitchens" instead.

Another area of concern that the academicians and scholars have raised is the replacement of a UGC steering committee on women studies with a review committee. The steering committee included representatives of women studies centres, independent scholars and members of the National Commission for Women. The president of the IAWS was an ex-officio member of the committee. Not only has this committee been replaced by a review committee, but the representation of women studies scholars in it has been whittled down. The chair of this review committee is a Professor of Sanskrit with no experience or knowledge of the developments in women studies, pointed out the IAWS scholars.

The guidelines envisage a "forceful" role for the UGC review committee in shaping women studies in the country. For instance, the convener of the review committee would undertake the work of publishing books based upon the research studies of the study centres, which raises the question of the UGC's new avatar as a publishing house. The guidelines also advocate the presence of government representatives in the advisory committees of the study centres. There is also the usual homily about women studies research not reflecting local knowledge.

The guidelines note: "There is still a great paucity of good books, reading material and texts for teaching women studies in India. In the absence of local knowledge, we tend to rely on books written by foreign scholars, which are often expensive, not easily available and, in some respects misleading and not relevant to the situation in our country." Ostensibly, it is perhaps to remedy the misleading works of foreign scholarship that the UGC has made women studies coterminous with family studies.

Moreover, it is felt that the guidelines have subverted the basic principles of autonomy of universities, which include their statutory bodies and departments, and the capacity of Women Studies Centres to exercise any influence on research and curriculum development activities of various disciplines. The guidelines empower the UGC to bring out a journal and publish material produced by the centres. This would mean centralisation of decisions concerning research and publications. It would also be contrary to Section 12 of the UGC Act (it deals with the powers and functions of the Commission), which emphasises the need to consult the universities and other bodies in carrying out the UGC's functions. At present there are 34 women studies centres in the country, being funded by the UGC since 1986.

The National Policy on Education (NPE) adopted by Parliament in May 1986 had reiterated the view that women studies involved a three-fold thrust of teaching, research and extension within the university system. The NPE had emphasised the need to gear the entire education system to a positive, interventionist role in the empowerment of women. The target was, obviously, university students. How was this interventionist role to be enacted? In the NPE section "Education for Equality", it is envisaged that "the national education system would foster the development of new values through redesigned curricula, textbooks, the training and orientation of teachers, decision-makers and administrators and the active involvement of educational institutions.... Women studies will be promoted as a part of various courses and educational institutions encouraged to take up active programmes to further women's development."

There are inconsistencies even in the wording of the guidelines. At some places, it refers to women studies centres and on other occasions, women and family studies centres. There are peculiar sounding words like "researches". It appears that the guidelines have been framed with a specific purpose but with no cogent understanding of what women studies is all about. If the drafters of the guidelines studied the genesis of women studies, which is not more than two decades old, they would not have equated it with family studies.