Indian Association for Women’s Studies was the first professional organization I joined as an aspiring feminist sociologist in 1984. The second national conference in Trivandrum. My first encounter with all the greats who I had only heard about or read – I was star gazing through the conference. And there was no turning back, from the time I joined IAWS as a young research scholar two years after it was established.
The four decades that I have been with IAWS have been rich with an array of experiences – exhilarating, good, bad and deeply saddening/disappointing – all contributing to my understanding of movements, academia, formal institutional politics, hierarchies of multiple orders and the immense possibilities for disobedience and insurgent feminist praxis. A period that has spanned my independent life in academia and feminist activism, I gained insights into the politics of organizing and had unparalleled opportunities to work through my ideas in collaboration and partnership with those engaged in women’s and gender studies across social location.
My experience ranged from presenting papers and learning from illustrious scholars-activists to immersing myself in agonistic debates on the relationship between academics and activism, the majoritarian, savarna, and heterosexist thrust of institutionalized women’s studies – both within university systems and in autonomous centres that sprang up across the country – and indeed to organizing sessions and biennial conferences.
As a joint secretary of the IAWS and then the youngest person to date to be elected to the position of general secretary (1998-2000)– I was 36 years at the time – I was part of the organizing of two IAWS conferences – in Pune as a sub-theme coordinator, and in Hyderabad as the organizing secretary. It was far from easy being in a decision-making position in a cohort that is at least twenty years older – and I learnt first-hand that ageism is the bane of radical politics and radical academia, and must be accounted for in our engagements with hierarchy, inequality and domination.
But that, really, is the reason why I treasure my immersive engagement with feminist activism, feminist scholarship and organisations like the IAWS: While of course there are important conversations around theory and scholarship and new and ever-expanding research, there is the underbelly of it all (importantly intersecting orders of community, caste and age that shape research and the nuts and bolts of organizational logistics), that must be negotiated and made to subserve the ethical foundations of why we do women’s studies in the first place. It taught me unforgettable lessons in unapologetic audacity in dissent. It is this that I have learnt; it is this that I believe the IAWS has played an important part in shaping in enabling ways, but also by teaching the art of ethical confrontation to insist on what one shouldn’t do as a feminist scholar or organizational leader. My experience in the IAWS has at all times been intertwined with my experience with feminist collectives and feminist politics in India.
L- R Leela Dube, Neera Desai, K Saradamoni, Lotika Sarkar. Standing Rameshwari Verma. Founders IAWS