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The Common Thing Missing From Our Textbooks And Colleges: Women

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Gender bias is palpable across many professional fields from politics to education to even creative art. History is testimony to great male leaders and subordinate female leaders, in fact, most female leaders are referred to as intimidating, controlling and conniving but none are known as exemplary leaders. Most often female leadership is not credited to their hard work but to something or someone else, in all likelhood, another man. Cleopatra was said to use her beauty, Indira Gandhi was linked to nepotism and Margaret Thatcher was the ‘Iron’ Lady because it’s so difficult to see a strong woman in charge. Apart from politics, creative fields such as acting too is largely male dominated, where female actors are treated as subordinates, and reduced to their ‘pretty faces’. The number of women in politics across the world too is very less. The only take away from all of these fields is the under representation of women.

One of the least discussed fields in terms of gender bias is that of academia. We have many female scholars in our country and the world but they hardly receive the space they deserve. The area of research and writing scholarly texts, unfortunately, is still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and many other philosophers were men adept in politics, philosophy, mathematics and various other subjects. Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle, however, it was his mother Olympia, who taught Alexander the ways of leadership, ignited in him the thirst for power and built his strong character. Most people would remember Aristotle as his teacher and Philip II as his father but somewhere in the pages of history, the real force behind creating ‘Alexander the Great’ is lost, his mother.

We live in a land where ancient literature is very rich, whether it’s Kalidasa’s beautiful plays or hefty religious texts like the Upanishads, Vedas and epics like Ramayana. We have heard about the play Shakuntala by Kalidasa, we have heard of Valmiki writing the Ramayana, and Ved Vyasa calling Lord Ganesha himself to pen down the Mahabharata. We hardly have any women scholars/philosophers, except maybe Gargi and Maitreyi, but they aren’t very well known.

In the last decade alone, issues like sexual harassment, the wage gap, gender-based discrimination in the workplace are being discussed. Glass ceilings are getting shattered or are they?

While I studied the social sciences, one of the first things we were taught were the classical theories, about the thinkers and philosophers who created social sciences in the very first place. Sociology, for instance, has many dimensions that can be explored for studying the society.

We have the structural-functional approach pioneered by Emile Durkheim; the theory explains the macro aspects of the society and relates them to collective human thought. His work on suicide is considered to be an example of this. The conflict theory pioneered by Karl Marx, where he mostly talks about the class system, the perils of capitalism and how eventually the society will become communist. Along with co-scholar Fredrick Engels, he talks about the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats, and how the capitalist system will see its end just like the feudal system did. The third theory is that of symbolic interactionism, which talks about the micro aspects of society and focuses on subjective experiences. Dramaturgy is one of the major works under this particular study. Key people associated with the theory are Erving Goffman, Howard Garfinkel and Herbert Becker.

It’s important to understand the sheer male dominance in these approaches. One can safely say that the foundation of the subject of sociology is based on the ideas and thoughts of men.

However, there is one approach, the feminist approach that has appeared as late as the 20th century. The feminist approach helps us understand the society in terms of existing power structures and how it contributes to gender inequality. The feminist approach wants us to take a conscious step towards studying society; there are various categories under the approach such as liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, and so on. The feminist approach talks about gender roles, rape culture, gender bias and various other issues. Most of the work on patriarchy is attributed to the feminist approach. Dorothy Smith is a pioneer in the approach.

Hence the status of academia, with regards to representation of gender is extremely poor.

India has various central universities, 47 to be exact, and only five of them have women vice-chancellors. In fact, many of these central universities have never had even one single vice-chancellor in their entire history, including Jawaharlal Nehru University.

According to a study conducted by the British Council in 2010-11, there were 6,66,971 academics in India out of which 64.3% were males and 35.7% females. An analysis and study of the states and union territories showed Kerala, Meghalaya and Chandigarh to have marginally more than 50% women academics in their states. The lowest percentage was recorded in Bihar with only 15% women academics.

The study also did a comparative analysis of the various academic positions in colleges and universities. For professor and equivalent positions, men occupied 74.5% seats while women occupied a mere 25.5%. For the positions of a reader and associate professorship, men occupied 68.9% seats while women occupied a mere 31.1%. Lastly, for the positions of a lecturer and assistant professorship, men occupied 61.6% of all seats.

These statistics show a staggering disparity in the spaces men and women occupy in academia, the representation is poor and in dire need of improvement.

Statistics aside, one should also focus on the curriculum that students have been studying in universities. It is astounding to notice that most of the papers taught under a subject are written by Hindu upper caste men.

M.N Srinivas, Ramachandra Guha, G.S. Ghurye, etc. are some of the well-established and eminent academics of the country. However, they are all high-caste Hindu men. In fact, while studying the paper ‘Sociology of India’ one would come across many articles and academic texts that have been authored and put together by these men. Women don’t have a lot of space in this particular paper except Iravati Karve and Patricia Uberoi, their works on marriage and kinship is noteworthy.

While there are very few women in academia in India, the eminent ones are even fewer. In sociology, all classical thinkers are men except for feminist studies. Indian female academicians are mostly seen in the studies of kinship, marriage, family and gender. Leela Dube, Rajni Palriwala, Bina Agarwal and Chandra Mohanty are a few examples.

Most women in their careers face the glass ceiling and academia is not spared here. There have been instances when women have not been allowed to rise above junior positions, men have been preferred for senior positions, and in general, in a country, like India, high caste Hindu men take away the cake.

Chanana (2003) conducted two small-scale studies and the figures were released by British Council that shed light on how women academics and teachers differed in their positioning with respect to their male counterparts. For example, women are less likely to occupy leadership positions when there’s open selection than when the recruitment procedure functions on nominations (47.4% men, 26.2% women). Women had more frequent job changes; 26% of women started in lower grade positions such as teachers, assistant teachers, demonstrators, and guest lecturers. 26% of women also reported career interruptions. Most women married and the demands of their husbands’ career led to some of these disruptions.

In a later study, Chanana (2012) focussed mainly on female student participation in HE (higher education), where women’s absence in higher education management was also highlighted.

The study by Chanana documented by the British Council is an eye opener about the various hurdles faced by women in institutions of higher education in a non-student capacity. Recent cases of alleged harassment at Jawaharlal Nehru University, namely by Atul Johri and Ganga Sahay Meena are a testimony to how these obstacles threaten a woman’s identity, threaten her to not pursue her career, and to not grow as an academic.

Our patriarchal mindset, as a society is also responsible, for many families even today do not want their daughters to study ‘too much’. There is also an inherent mentality that women should rather be teachers in schools than go for ‘prestigious’ academic positions.

Women have been speaking up in large numbers today. Even though conditions are getting better, but better is not good enough. There needs to be more representation of women in academia besides gender and women’s study, classical theories in various subjects need to be revisited.

There are various women thinkers of all times, maybe it is time they are made popular. It is time we understand a different perspective. Hannah Arendt, Hypatia of Alexandria, Lady Conway and so many more, the list is long and extensive if one tries to dive in.

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Image source: Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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