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A fascinating perspective on the role of Indian women in science

A fascinating perspective on the role of Indian women in science

Publication: Organiser
Date: October 25, 2009
URL: http://www.organiser.org/dynamic/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=314&page=18

Introduction: Women and Science in India: A Reader, Neelam Kumar (Ed.), Oxford University Press, pp 351, Rs 695.00

Social scientists are engaged in studying the gender bias and unequal position of women in various spheres of social life. The book under review is a compilation of articles on women in the sciences and examines the marginal position of women engaged in science. Taking a look at the careers, participation and attainments of women in the scientific, engineering and medical professions in India, the book draws on concepts from history, sociology and economics. It tries to unravel some of the socio-historical questions related to women in science.

The first section of the book relates the historical background while the second, consisting of contemporary studies, advances sociological explanations while dealing with the economic parameters determining a woman's place in the technical labour sphere.

Geraldine Forbes interrogates the colonial discourse that claimed the credit for the availability of British 'scientific' medicine to Indian women. She examines the gap between the rhetoric and the conditions under which women learned about and practiced Western medicine in the district of Bengal. According to Geraldine Forbes, the identification of science with masculinity and Western culture played a key role in the neglect of both women's education and medical facilities for them.

Antoinette Burton considers how the zenana (separate women's quarters) functioned as one of the pretexts for acceptance and professionalisation of both Western and Indian female doctors. The zenana became the principal space from which Englishwomen could produce new 'knowledge' of the colonised, given their privileged access as women to areas off-limits to the colonising men.

Abha Sur focuses on women scientists who worked in laboratories of India's science legend, CV Raman. Based on autobiographical narrations, this article shows that notwithstanding the sexual dichotomies in the nationalist discourse, women's education and aspirations surged ahead during the freedom struggle. Budding scientists like Anna Mani, Ashima Chaterjee and Sabita Chandrashekhar emerged then, identifying the class, case and gender differences. But due to gender biases, Anna Mani could never earn a doctoral degree. Sunanda Basu, who spent five years in Raman's laboratory, committed suicide for reasons unknown. Their histories, as Sur argues, "embody a quagmire of contradictions - of privilege and penalty, of exaltation and damnation, and of power and subservience."

The second section deals with the contemporary experiences of Indian women studying science, medicine and engineering. Carol C Mukhopadhyay provides conceptual reflections and analyses the applicability of Western theories of gendered science to Indian and other contexts. Using data from India, she tries to evaluate the relevance of prevailing American theories to India.


(Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110 001.)

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