August, 2015

Deconstructing gender stereotypes and fostering equality

A look at how the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) at Ashoka University is working towards a paradigm shift in the study of this domain

By Shiv D. Sharma

The policing of gender and sexuality is key to many of the inequalities perpetrated in society, not only in India but around the world. The attitudinal changes required in this regard must be pioneered by educational institutions that rigorously study these issues and initiate pro-active changes in both policy and mindset.

Gender stereotypes not only concern women but intersect with the idea of masculinity as well. While many leading universities in India have a Centre for Women’s Studies, there is none that caters to the broader spectrum of gender and/or sexuality. “A Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality is a global requirement even as it must be responsive most fully to local needs. We expect Ashoka University to be a pioneer on that front in India”, says Madhavi Menon, Professor of English at Ashoka University and faculty advisor to the Centre that was set up earlier this year.

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Plans for the Centre were developed by a team of Young India Fellows (Class of 2015) under the guidance of Professor Menon, and Shiv D. Sharma, one of the members from the founding team, is now working as Deputy Manager of the Centre. The idea to set up a Centre that addresses the social stigma on issues related to gender and sexuality effectively emerged from recurring discussions between the team members on alarming rates of rapes in India, shocking problems of domestic violence, etc. and their personal stories of experiencing a society that is largely misogynistic and intolerant towards diversity.

The Centre focuses on three prominent areas: scholarly research, social activism, and media representation and consultancy. While such Centres are few and far between in India, they are already a recognisable feature in the West. Talking about the Centre’s mandate, Professor Menon notes that “In order to be most effective and create a name for itself as a Centre of note in South Asia and the world, we need to adopt a multi-pronged approach that encompasses education at all levels suited to Indian context, including but not limited to offering degrees in gender studies, endowing a Chair in the field, organising international conferences, and publishing the proceedings of these conferences.”

The Centre has already been active in hosting events on the campus. The first event was an open discussion on the importance of the “Pride” march in LGBT activism. Moving forward, CSGS hosted a sex-education workshop for students, with a focused discussion on the subject of menstruation and the taboo around women’s sexuality. The Centre is also running a queer support group at the campus that promotes its objective of creating an all-inclusive environment at Ashoka.

With CSGS officially launching its first year of operations, there are plans to host a Speakers’ Series, organise campus-wide workshops through the year, and conduct research projects. All these activities are aimed at initiating a dialogue on some of the most pressing issues related to gender disparity – reproductive health of women, adoption rights for single mothers, and inclusion of transgender people in education and employment, among several others. The onus of championing the cause of equal rights for women lies equally on men. Recognising the importance of the role that men play in deconstructing patriarchal norms, the CSGS aims to engage with men from the very beginning. With this in mind, plans are afoot to organise a national conference on ‘Masculinity’ towards the end of the current academic year.

The Centre aims to become a one-stop resource centre on issues of gender and sexuality for all scholars, activists and media people with its massive archival project launching this year. This will be the first project of its kind in South Asia. The Centre is also planning to host seminars with media representatives, as well as conduct workshops on gender-sensitive media coverage. The ultimate objective of the Centre is to initiate a wave of change in society that promotes a life of dignity and equal rights, not only across gender binaries, but across the wider spectrum of gender and sexuality that it identifies as queer. It is a moment of pride to be a part of this unique Centre at Ashoka that will hopefully revolutionise the narrative of gender and sexuality in India.

(The writer is Deputy Manager for the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, being one of the founding team members of the Centre.)

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