Are Indian Women Failing Science or Is Science Failing Indian Women?

This is a question troubling many young minds, inside as well as outside the scientific space. Scientific institutions in India claim to have made policies as well as programmes to encourage the participation of women in Science. However, despite such efforts, female scientists are still raising issues of gender inequality in science. Why, you ask? Simply because scientific institutions in this country have closed their doors to people on the margins, and opened it only for the powerful minorities.

This ‘gated-ness’ of science is precisely the issue feminists are tackling today.

An individual’s access to science is highly dependent on their social location in society. Needless to say, for a woman, her gender determines her accessibility to science. From being pushed into careers such as nursing, social working, women are advised to get into professions which have ‘feminine attributes’. Today women are breaking the culturally ascribed timetables for them, and entering the world of science which has been monopolized by men. Even though women are entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, the real question to ask is — are they treated as equals in practise? Are they given the same opportunities as men to lead and to control?

The above image, one of a team of women celebrating the success of India’s Mars Mission in 2014 swiftly went viral on the Internet. And it started a conversation about the gender inequality within the scientific community, one that has been pertinent over generations.

Women in science are visible as the ‘second sex’, but not as scientists.

Gender bias has permeated at a graduate level, promotional and performance levels, not giving proper credits where its due, salary and funding events. In fact, starting from school itself to professional occupations in science, Indian women have lagged behind in the race to become scientists.

The under-representation of women in the field of science is reflective of the obvious gender imbalance in science in India. Numerous scientific institutions in our country provide evidence for stark gender disparity by pointing towards marriage, child care, and family responsibilities. Interestingly, such duties are not expected out of male scientists as they are of female scientists. As a result, this implicit understanding implies that women are not suitable to advance in their scientific careers compared to their male counterparts.

Upon a closer look, a pyramidical structure is visible when it comes to the entry of women into science. That is, we see a lot of women entering the scientific domain, however, lesser and lesser women make it to the top. Why so? Simply because a lot of young women are forced to opt for ‘soft’ scientific professions such as teaching, so that they are ‘less pressurized’ and can easily balance work and family life. In fact, many women in science are not taken as seriously as men in terms of career advancement as they might drop out in order to cater to their ‘future roles’ as wives and mothers.

Apart from such implicit biases, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields mainly because of the lack of female role models to look up to. The reasons for this may be two fold — the lack of women in scientific careers or, the lack of recognition (and therefore, visibility) for women who are already pursuing these careers. For women, the road towards science is a bit foggy. If many women have not taken up the road to science, how are young women supposed to visualize their future path to science? How can women be something that they simply cannot see?

Many parents as well as educators inculcate the idea that males are expected to major in sciences or economics in higher studies, while women should study humanities or ‘arts’.

Such shared assumptions, and sexist exclusionary behaviour classifies males as ‘systematisers’ and women as ‘empathizers’, thus demoralising a lot of women who are yet to make their career choice.

Or for that matter, even while parents explain science to their children, the usage of the term ‘he’ is used instead of ‘she’, thereby indirectly informing their children that science is an activity pursued by males. Such gendered stereotypical language acts as mechanism making a distinction between who ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do science. Unfortunately, this can diminish not only children’s interest in science, but also compromise the diversity of future scientific workplaces.

The topic of women in science unfolds the complex ways by which the scientific space is shaped by hidden power, privilege, and exclusion. Only if we start viewing science as a personal and social activity, instead of an impersonal one, can we decolonize science. That is, to uncover the implicit gender bias that exists within it.

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Where Does The Identity Of Female Ascetics Lie In Hinduism?

The phenomenon of asceticism in Hinduism is often regarded as the essential feature of the religious doctrine. Contrary to popular belief asceticism and religion are not synonymous with each other. The ascetic tradition is an embodiment in a person rather than a doctrine. Interestingly, this embodiment is understood as a manifestation solely in males and not in females. The discourse on asceticism in Hinduism allows both sexes to follow the path to attain Moksha or liberation. However, the difference becomes obvious when a female ascetic is given the status of an ‘outsider’ and the male that of an ‘insider’.

The non-conforming, non-familial, non-normative female ascetic thus, remains an invisible being in an overwhelming masculine world of asceticism, where women fight taboos to create a space for the woman as an ascetic.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been debates amongst scholars on the topic of alternative subjectivities regarding which are the notion of revolutionary identities in mainstream discourse. Female asceticism is one such ‘rebel’ identity. However, the question which may arise in many ascetics as well as non-ascetics is — ‘Can a woman be a legitimate ascetic?‘ Yes, she can, but in terms of orthodox religious doctrine, she can become an ascetic only if her renunciation of the domestic realm is accomplished.

In simpler words, Hinduism has always been focused around the upper castes, the Brahmins, and to some extent on the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The contradictory nature of Hinduism reveals its misogynous inclinations by limiting renunciation to the Dwij or the twice born man. It is important to note, that the twice born man has the freedom of choice between two modes of life — the householder, and the renouncer. But, for women, only a single mode of life has been prescribed — marital life.

Such a mechanism of exclusion in Brahmanic orthodoxy operates on the principle of menstruation — perceived as ‘impure’ and ‘sickly’ by Vedic literature. As a result, women are believed to be innately lacking the ‘natural’ tendency towards achieving Dharma(religious duty), and so they must follow a series of rituals and ceremonies in order to gravitate towards a ‘state of purity’. Such notions of purity and pollution form the foundations of gender relations in the ascetic tradition, thereby making the female ascetic invisible in society.


With so much patriarchal discrimination in the ascetic tradition, I wonder, why do women become ascetics in the first place? Or what kind of women may become ascetics? Sociology and Anthropology suggests that women adopt an ascetic lifestyle upon becoming widows, in order to escape the social stigma attached to widowhood imposed by sectarian chauvinism. Others believe asceticism is a path adopted by these women to escape the inevitable condition of beggary after the death of their immediate family members, most importantly, their husbands.

There are some young renouncers who are submitted the responsibility of the care of a group of pious women since their families cannot afford dowries. In such situations, young girls meet their gurus in ashrams, who then initiate unmarried young girls into their sect and take them under her/his service.

For a woman to become an ascetic, is to question the ascribed cultural norms laid out for them. Attempting to step outside this normative structure gives the female ascetic the status of an ‘outsider’. This is because she has not only chosen to adopt a certain way of life, a life which is primarily prescribed for males, but has also chosen to be critical of, and to question the existing social order. This ‘deviance’ in ascribed gender norms (as Brahmanical orthodoxy would call it), is perceived as a threat to the existing power structure which gives privilege to male ascetics. As a result, there is no surprise that male ascetics would protest against women being ascetics at all.

When it comes to asceticism, the initiation ceremonies mark the separation of a woman from her householder duties. These initiation rituals release women from their previous social identity, which at times can involve shedding of various identity markers that help people to identify one’s social role and status. Feminist artist and activist Sheba Chhachhi in her work ‘Ganga’s Daughters’ (1990) traces the transformation of ordinary women into ascetics as they part with their clothes, hair, name, caste, and familial relations. In search of Moksha, these women embrace their new ascetic identity. An identity, in which they are no longer anybody’s parents, sisters, or wives.


That being said, the life of a woman ascetic in Hinduism is under appreciated, and holds a complicated position. As they step out of the orthodox Brahmanical system of surveillance into newly formed identities as ascetics, women are perceived as beings who have conquered their right to be granted individual freedom. It’s almost as if women have been reincarnated into different beings after performing the last sacrifice of their prior identities.

As a result of these women’s sense of self, their new found identity can be understood as a way of creating a new space within the folds of the Hindu religious doctrine. It is truly extraordinary to see how these women courageously defy traditional gender norms, and carry a will force to raise themselves to the level of their male ascetic counterparts.

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