Institutionalising Feminist Agenda(s)

Abstract: The practices of Women’s Movement are continually being transformed to meet new challenges. Yet feminist politics is constantly confronted with a scepticism against institutionalised politics, it displays an uneasiness with the forms of power that dominate political processes. Similarly the politics of mainstreaming Women’s Studies implies that feminist scholarship has had to cope with the complex web of relationships within academia dominated by a patriarchal academy and knowledge hierarchy. But as this paper explains, while institutional locations may also form their own sites of contest, the need for a renewed and sustained struggle from such locations, employing new interventions in the hope of transforming institutions, remains of crucial importance for the Women’s Movement.

Keywords: women’s studies, women’s movement, women’s socio-political issues, feminist practice, institutional politics, feminist agenda, sustained struggle, feminist scholarship, patriarchy

Taking into account a vast array of impressive work, discussions and debates which have taken place across multiple differences and borders during the last two and a half decades, I wondered how to address the issue. One of the problems was my semantic shakiness to clearly state what is meant by `feminist agenda’, who delineates it and how is it determined as it is continuously shifting and expanding. The second problem was what is meant by ‘institutionalisation’ and what are the presuppositions underlying it? Is institutionalisation seen as an opportunity for serious politics or is it seen as a constraint? Are feminists ambivalent about institutionalisation of feminist practice? Is it perceived as deradicalisation of feminist political practice by becoming part of larger systems and not being able to take ideological positions? Does academic feminism silence or ignore non-academic forms of knowledge?

The term ‘feminism agenda’ assumes some identity of interests and ‘strategies. However, there is a remarkable variety in political and intellectual approaches and strategies within feminist theory and practice. There is no single agenda or mode of discourse as feminism is not a unified ideology despite commonalities in feminist goals and political perspectives. Feminism itself is a contested term. It is not an ideological monolith but a site of contestation, which is shaped by perspectives and strategies of heterogeneous groups and competing constructions of multiple meanings and agendas that different actors bring to bear on it.

Building feminist agenda was not an addition of a few issues or a constituency or an interest group to the politics. The women’s movement informed the questions and strategies for change by expanding and building gender differentiated meanings and positions on a variety of issues. Women who raised their voices and organised against violence and atrocities on women, mobilised public opinion on women’s rights, confronted the state policies and laws discriminatory and oppressive to women, struggled and mobilised basic resources and livelihood issues and those who grappled with day-to-day realities of women from different sections and locations, have all contributed to building of the agenda. Feminist agenda is not a homogeneous set of ideas though there are common concerns offered by feminist critiques of institutions and ideologies pith emphasis on historic specificity and socio-cultural context.

A distinguishing feature of contemporary women’s movement is that it derives its resources from the experiences of diverse groups of women. Using women’s experiences for analysis and agenda building, feminist inquiry joins other subaltern studies to examine women’s daily experiences and sources of power and powerlessness.

Grass Roots Activism and Institutionalised Feminism?

Feminism as a history of women’s struggle is politically and ideologically diverse. Organisationally women’s movement consists of hundreds of groups. Some are located in small communities, some are autonomous urban-based groups, others are large umbrella organisations, research and development organisations and some are located within large institutions. The inspiration for a decentralised multi-polar growth of contemporary women’s movement came from the democratic traditions and challenges from new forces opposed to the ideas of gender equality. The assumed universalism within the movement is the by-product of liberal rights based discourse, which perceived women’s question in terms of gender equality and gender justice. These concepts cannot be dropped from political arguments but their limitations have to be used strategically. As the number of organisations grew so did the range of issues that women addressed. To some, it was splintering of the women’s movement; to others it represented a healthy a diversification. The diversity and political heterogeneity is further complicated by the fact that practices of women’s movement are continuously being transformed by new challenges. The diversity of women’s movement is more evident in grass roots politics, which means that many histories of the movement need to be told.

In the 1970s, the report of the CSWI with a focus on issues of livelihood, survival and economic well-being of the majority of women and examples of poor, rural and urban women’s organisations (SEWA, WWF, Annapurna Mahila Mandal, etc), forced a reconceptualisation of the discourse on gender and poverty issues. Emergence of a few women’s studies centres in the 1970s, appointment of government committees and working groups on women’s work, adult education and rural women’s organisations, and international debates influenced the public debate on women’s issues as well as governmental responses. Empirical data collected by women’s studies researchers on women’s work burden (time budget studies), division of labour, impact of development planning on diverse groups of women and so on, contributed to a common understanding and a collective consciousness. The early studies were definitely fuelled by an emancipatory agenda of making ‘invisible’ women visible and in the process many assumptions relating to data, concepts, methodologies and theories were challenged. The mid-1910s also saw the beginning of the institutionalisation of research on women and academic recognition of women’s studies.

It was in the late 1970s that the Mathura rape case catalysed Institutionalising Feminist Agenda(s), The practices of women’s are continually being transformed to meet new challenges. Yet feminist politics is constantly confronted with a scepticism against institutionalised politics; it displays an uneasiness with the forms of power that dominate political processes. Similarly the politics of mainstreaming women’s studies implies that feminist scholarship has had to cope with the complex web of relationships within academia dominated by a patriarchal academy and knowledge hierarchy. But as this paper explains, while institutional locations may also form their own sites of contest, the need for a renewed and sustained struggle from such locations, employing new interventions in the hope of transforming institutions, remains of crucial importance for the women’s movement Political mobilisation around the issue marked a shift in the politics of agenda building. Katzenstein argues that in contrast to the agenda-building history of women’s welfare issue, it was violence against women, which politicised issues about body politics (rape, dowry deaths, domestic violence, sati). Women’s organisations mounted a major critique of sexual violence and the complicity of state institutions and ideologies that perpetuated it. As struggles over these issues intensified, the terms of political action were altered. The declaration of Emergency in 1975 and the struggle for democratic rights and civil liberties also changed the political climate. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminist discourse was dominated by the metaphor of state.

Important ideological positions from the grass roots movements on issues of ecology, livelihood and poverty, access to resources, caste violence and so on clearly showed that existing relations of power and institutional and ideological practices are structured and building organisational base was a strategic response to fight institutionalised inequalities. Women increasingly asserted their rights to define their issues and organise around their own interests. However, emphasising women’s common oppression as a fundamental basis for unity in struggle did not address the realities and interests of different groups of women. The inability to accommodate different sets of power relations among women and differences along class, caste, ethnicity and religious lines in organisation building created tensions and divisions. Feminist pluralism threatened the dream of a common language and creating uniform categories out of a multiplicity of identities and meanings. Many critical debates on violence and communalism spoke in different languages. Two sets of critical issues emerged: (i) internal processes within organisations and larger political goals; (ii) coalition building across differences in ideologies and practices. Institutional tocation of feminist practices itself became sites of contest.

Economic downturn and rise of conservative ideologies in the 1990s, global pressures and the changing nature of the nation state, the limitations of representative democracy created pressure for continued engagement with state institutions and structures. Women’s movement had to respond to contradictory pulls and pressures between vision and concrete realities, between theory and practice, between the macro view and the specific. The politics of engagement with existing political and social institutions does not necessarily mean compromising one’s goal. The expanding knowledge base was expected to provide building blocks for more gender sensitive policies and programmes and at the same time provide pedagogical empowerment by restructuring educational spaces through production of counter-ideologies and criticism of social science theory and practice.

The strategic dilemma of feminist politics has been the scepticism against institutionalised politics or the need for mainstreaming gender issues. One should not confuse mainstreaming with the problems of institutionalisation. Institutional structures are important as they both facilitate and limit feminist practice (political parties, trade unions, work places, educational institutions, state structures and so on). We need to use institutions and structures but at the same time engage and confront them.

Women’s movement continues to have an ambivalent position relating to institutions of family and state. We want to have a share in power and resources but are uneasy with the forms of power that dominate political processes. Cynicism against institutionalised politics resulted in the emergence of autonomous women’s groups, which gave rise to interest group politics. The movement in early stages opened up the political terrain but the focus on creating feminist alternatives took it outside the mainstream politics. These groups rejected the notion of hierarchy and power play and were seen as democratic forum for development of feminist theory and practice and creating political spaces for feminist issues.

The late 1970s and 1980s were the turning point for women’s groups as campaigns against rape, dowry murders. Violence Against Women (VAW) action was taken up widely and attempts also made to set up new structures of support. In all these battles women’s groups ran up against the power of state and institutions like family, caste, community, criminal justice system and so on. It necessitated active engagement with state structures and ideologies and patterns of patriarchy embedded in social and cultural institutions. The question remains that while maintaining its autonomy from the state, what are the conditions under which the movement can still use the political spaces for engaging the state in order to change its policies and programmes?

After a lot of criticism and scepticism against institutionalised politics, it was realised that electoral politics is important to our struggle. It can be used to educate, to provide a platform to mobilise women as a lever to attain feminist goals through political pressures.

The relative absence of women in elected bodies and decision making structures forced the movement to demand reservation of seats in elected bodies. Though there is no consensus about reservation of seats in elected bodies not withstanding the tremendous political resistance to political quotas in parliament and state assemblies, the recognition that political struggle does not take place only in what is traditionally understood as political sphere means the scope for political activism needs to be altered and enlarged. Remaining outside and critiquing these institutions is not an alternative. Disengagement also means the risk of marginalisation and the inability to get adequate support for change within the institutions. Can we afford the luxury of disengagement?

Feminists find it problematic to work for change through governmental structures. By presenting the state as a monolithic structure of power rather than a structure vulnerable to pressures can leave this machinery unrelenting. Using existing institutions to push for greater representation and mainstreaming of gender issues has created tensions and splits within the movement. Those working with state structures are often looked at with suspicion and branded as establishment oriented.

In a western regional consultation on women’s movement the common thread running through the discussion was the need to re-examine the movements’ relationship with politics and political movements. Ideological standpoints and differences were reflected not only in numerous groups but also in the area of defining women’s issues. The failure of women’s movement to establish links with mass of women and in finding a language to build necessary rapport has forced many such women to join right wing organisations using caste and religion. The absence of a powerful secular democratic women’s movement is a big handicap [CWDS 1994].

Politics of Mainstreaming Women’s Studies within Institutions of Higher Education

The 1970s and 1980s were important for feminist research and practice by establishing women as a category of analysis that had been rendered invisible in universal concepts and categories. Right from the beginning, women’s studies underscored the necessary and integral connection between feminist scholarship and feminist practice in the shaping of issues and agenda. This relationship constructed the discourse on women’s studies and shaped its political ambition. By mid-1980s, the political identity of women’s movement and the academic identity of women’s studies were established. It was also recognised that the educational system can play and should play a key role in expanding concerns about women’s oppression and women’s studies has to play a role in transforming academic agendas and dominant ideologies. What distinguishes women’s studies from other traditions of intellectual inquiry is its deliberate focus on gender inequalities and an emphasis on an emancipatory agenda. The question is that in the diverse landscape of institutions which have given muscle and bone to the women’s studies, how have the larger debates within the movement created an impact on the political ambition of feminist studies? What kind of knowledge has been produced in these institutions through the interaction between women’s studies and women’s movement? Should women’s studies be accountable to the needs of women’s movement?

Did institutionalisation of women’s studies allow the feminist agenda to influence concepts and methodologies of different disciplines or the value-neutrality of professions? Did it provide a space for contesting knowledge claims and making institutions more responsive to women’s concerns and issues or did the institutional structures reinforce patterns of marginality?

The politics of mainstreaming women’s studies within institutions of higher education had to confront the power of patriarchal academy and knowledge hierarchy as the feminist scholarship was placed within a web of complex relationships. “Situated within the inflexible structures of universities, women’s studies is either pushed out into the periphery or becomes the site of a power struggle with scholars vying for academic accolades and staking territorial claims over areas of study”. [CWDS 1994]. Besides the often discussed tensions in the relationship between women’s studies and women’s movement due to contradictory pulls and pressures, the word academisation of women’s studies’ is often used in a pejorative sense and often clouds our understanding of the struggles as to how we got there. Now, we have an institutional space howsoever restrictive, how do we want to use it? Did women’s movement’s campaign on legal reforms make a difference to the teaching of law within the universities? The dilemma of women’s studies scholars is always to find ways of working within the same disciplinary tradition while trying to transform it. Women’s studies courses represent an area with an ideological position but often do not have a methodological coherence.

Is women’s studies trapped within institutional and conceptual spaces? Accommodating the demands of the profession and at the same time resisting the disciplinary tyranny and responding to movement’s concerns are difficult balancing tasks. As these debates become institutionalised within academia through women’s studies programmes, will it help in developing its own critical traditions?

Often academic feminists are accused of ‘ivory tower’ scholarship or diluting the radicalism to gain academic respectability. Since women’s studies was envisioned as ‘the intellectual arm of the women’s movement’, some analysts feel that ‘the transformative role of women’s studies has often remained elusive as the gatekeepers within the academy question the credentials, quality and relevance of women’s studies’ [N Desai 2002]. Others argue that women’s studies organisationally exists ‘as a semi-separate space’ with ‘zones of exclusion and inclusion’ where women’s studies allows greater expression of feminist ideas and practice while in relation to the disciplines remaining as an outsider [Rege 2000]. Concerns have also been expressed regarding pedagogical dimension of women’s studies and inter generational transfer of knowledge and insights gained over decades [John 2002].

University centres have little clarity about the action component of women’s studies. Building links with the community poses a real challenge. The developments in the 1990s and the changes in the higher educational system also generate anxiety.’ We face a whole set of new questions which demand engagement such as issues of fundamentalism, identity politics, economic restructuring and so on. Women’s studies faces contradictory institutional pulls and pressures — e g, not to develop as a separate discipline and yet intervene within the higher education, respond to agendas of international agencies (gender sensitisation, training programmes, income generation activities, issue-based campaigns, etc), but have the autonomy to determine the direction of research and action.

Changing priorities of funding agencies have also impacted the agenda and visibility of women’s issues. Development aid and activities of NGO groups have created competition, schism and bitterness. During the last two decades, the availability of huge finances for the NGO sector has created a market for short-term policy and action-oriented projects (what is termed as NGOisation of the development sector). The new professional class that has emerged (development consultants, gender experts) claim universal validity for their methodologies and best practices. The traditions of liberal democracy, welfare state and uneven levels of development provide the context within which these groups emerge. NGOs themselves are faced with ideological dilemmas in their operational strategies as well as in development intervention. There is a remarkable variety in issues addressed and in the political and intellectual approaches of these organisations.

Institutional locations may themselves become sites of contest. However, the need for a renewed and sustained struggle from our institutional locations cannot be overlooked. The risk of institutionalising does not mean that the role should be abandoned. We must engage the political and social institutions. The term institutionalisation refers to the way feminists demand change, confront and push the limits. One cannot, however, ignore the fact that the gains women make may not be intrinsic to the structure and can be taken away when it becomes too threatening. Sometimes women’s demands get reconstructed, couched in terms of existing institutions and ideologies. Hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of the institutions adds to the risk of co-optation (women’s units within governmental structures, political parties and trade unions).

There are multiple agendas and multiple discourses as attempts arc made to re-appropriate and redefine women’s spaces. The process is reflective of changes in the context in which institutions function and through which women’s lives are organised. The paper presents only a partial account of processes and ideological perspectives generated by feminism and the contradictions within which it works. Mazumdar feels that ‘the real feminist dilemma is balancing the politics of protest with the politics of construction and reform and keeping feminist demands per se narrow and constant if the women’s movement is to survive the rising tide of fundamentalism and reactionary politics’ [Mazumdar 1999].

The questions we are left with are important. The debates continue but for developing critical perspectives, we cannot avoid the challenge of examining the role of women studies in a global, economic and political framework for framing, presenting and interpreting issues. We also need to debate the process of our own interventions and their potential for transforming institutions.


Centre for Women’s Development Studies.(1994), Confronting Myriad Oppressions — Report of a western regional workshop on ‘Voices from the Women’s Movement in India’, Delhi.

Desai, Neera. (2002), ‘Reflecting Back: Forging Ahead — Issues before Women’s Studies’ in Lotika Sarkar, Kumud Sharma and Leela Kasturi (eds). Between Tradition, Counter Tradition and Heresy Contributions in Honour of Vina Mazumdar Rainbow Publishers, Delhi.

John, Mary (2002): `Women’s Studies: Legacies and Futures’ in Lotika Sarkar, Kumud Sharma and Leela Kasturi (eds). op cit.

Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod. ‘Getting Women’s Issues onto the Public Agenda: Body Politics in India’ in Samya Shakti —A Journalof Women’s Studies, 1991-92, Vol VI, CWDS, Delhi.

Mazumdar, Mina. (1999), ‘Political Ideology of Women’s Movement’s Engagement with Law’ in Engendering Law Essay in Honour of Lotika Sarkar. Eastern Book Company, Delhi.

Rege, Sharmila. ‘Histories from the Borderlands’, Seminar, 2000, 495.

Sarkar, Lotika, Kumud Sharma and Leela Kasturi (ed). (2002), Between Tradition, Counter-Tradition and Heresy — Contributions in Honour of Tina Mazumdar, Rainbow Publishers, Delhi.

This article was earlier published in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 25, 2003.


KUMUD SHARMA. Former Director, Center for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. A distinguished feminist scholar, she has published widely. Her publications include Women in Focus, National Specialised Agencies and Women’s Equality: A case Study of Central Social Welfare Board. Her main areas of interest include Sociology of Development, Women and Work, Women’s Movement and Women in the Political Process. She is currently working on issues related to gender and poverty; gender and environment and women in local self-government.

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Former Director, Center for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. A distinguished feminist scholar, she has published widely. Her publications include Women in Focus, National Specialised Agencies and Women’s Equality: A case Study of Central Social Welfare Board. Her main areas of interest include Sociology of Development, Women and Work, Women’s Movement and Women in the Political Process. She is currently working on issues related to gender and poverty; gender and environment and women in local self-government

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