It is the preserve of sombre-looking, humourless gender activists who give you dirty looks every time you cross their path. And create a ruckus whenever issues like the Women's Bill or female foeticide come up for debate. More than a course, it is a forum to get even with male chauvinists. Or so you thought' But women's studies is changing, even though the transformation has been slow.
First, it is no longer out of bounds for men. Officially, it has never been so, but the course has failed to attract men. The percentage of male students at Jadavpur University (JU), for instance, has never been higher than 18 ever since the MPhil programme was launched in 2000.
But it's a man's world, after all. So why would a women's studies course be spared the male influx' The south is showing the way and there's more to the trend than just a rising interest in gender issues. A masters programme in women's studies, which was started in Bangalore University this academic year has nine boys in a class of 29.
Dr K.G. Uma, head of the department of women's studies, Bangalore University, says the rising popularity of NGO jobs is getting the men interested in studying about women's issues. 'Working with NGOs has become a promising career option. Since a lot of NGOs work with women, women's studies has become popular,' says Uma.
Shefali Moitra, director of the School of Women's Studies at JU, agrees, 'Career opportunities are gradually improving with NGOs providing an avenue.' But she admits that at JU men have been shying away from the course even though there's nothing in the content that might put them off. It is their general disinterest in humanities that is to be blamed, she adds.
At Bangalore University, most boys enrolled for the MA course have already worked with women-centric NGOs and have opted for the course to enhance their knowledge base. 'They are looking for a formal degree so as to get a stronger foothold in their profession,' says Uma, adding that men planning a profession in media and civil services have also opted for the course.
The MA programme in women's studies comprises four semesters. The subjects are all women centric and include feminism, feminist theory, women and reproductive health, sociology of women, status of women in India and women's movements. To get admission you need a graduation degree with over 50 per cent marks.
The course focuses on practical training as much as theory, says Dr K.G. Uma, 'An internship with an NGO or a women's organisation, regular interface with NGOs working for women is an integral part of the course.' Mahanand Kumar, a student of the women's studies programme, says that anti-women social norms in his home town, Bellary, drove him to take up a women-oriented course. Syeda Akhtar, another student, points out that the male students have been outperforming the women in the course. 'Last month our batch held a rally against women who are forced to become sex workers. The male students of the class were more actively involved in the rally than us.'
At JU, however, men are yet to outperform their female counterparts. 'We have just two male students, which is a pity. It is an anti-patriarchal course which is bound to attract more women but we need more men to have a real impact on society,' says Rupa Aich, a student.
The course, too, is more text-oriented than hands-on, unlike the Bangalore one. But the authorities are not ruling out an NGO-collaboration in the near future. 'Our only aim is not to help students land jobs but to build a platform and sensitise governments, academia and activists on women's issues,' says Moitra.
Akhtar feels that it's good news that men are queuing up to join the women's studies course. 'In a patriarchal society like ours, men can change social norms more effectively. So they need to be sensitised.'
(With reports from Varuna Verma in Bangalore)