As someone who grew up watching Discovery Channel or National Geographic shows exploring science and wildlife, I grew up seeing everything from a lens of socionormativity. I internalised objective notions about nature, wildlife, and about science in general. However, my perspective shifted drastically in 2020, after attending a course on Feminist Science Studies (FSS) taught by Asha Achuthan. The course was part of the Masters in Women’s Studies program at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Within these FSS classrooms, I learned about the dovetailing of feminism and primatology, the gendered (and, at times, sexist) language of science, the question of women’s access and retention in science, among other nuanced interesting themes.
Prior to attending the course, it had never occurred to me how ‘science’ is understood as the indisputable source of knowledge of the world, with no scope of asking critical questions about how it is practised. As a discipline, FSS draws upon historiography (the different methods and ways in which history is understood and written down), philosophy, and sociology of science. It is a critique of science, scientific practices, scientific institutions, and the language of scientific texts. In this article, I trace Asha’s journey in FSS as a discipline and that she has been teaching since 2011.
Today, Asha teaches at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, TISS, and is Chair of Women and Gender Development Cell there. Her current work explores the contexts of gender and biomedicine, focusing on feminist epistemological critiques of the same. Interestingly, Asha did not start her career as a scholar of feminist science studies. She pursued medicine, completing her MBBS in the 90s, followed by a diploma in ophthalmology from Calcutta University. She continued to practice medicine until 2002 when a training program for Dais (traditional midwives) inspired a change in course of her career.
In 2002, after running a clinic in Murshidabad, West Bengal, and facilitating the training workshops for Dais, Asha came to confront questions of power, authority, language and collaborative knowledge. She recalls one incident when she asked the Dais what they would do if the baby did not cry at birth. She has written in detail about this experience in the book Feminists and Science. Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India.
An excerpt from Asha’s chapter ‘Feminism and science: Present-day notes for a feminist standpoint epistemology’:
As critical courier of scientific knowledge, I thought I was trying to weave myself into the discourse of the dais with minimum damage to their framework, and to that end I had decided to keep the question marks alive throughout, directing them towards science as well. But as I sat down to look at the assessment sheets on the afternoon of the first day’s session, ‘I’ was fairly stunned. Of the ten questions put the dais, one was as follows : If the child does not cry soon after birth, we must – (a) say prayers over the baby; (b) perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; (c) rush the baby to the nearest health centre; (d) warm the placenta in a separate vessel. Almost all 46 dais had affirmed the last answer. I remember the asphyxiated babies that used to be rushed to the nursery in Medical College from the labour room that was on another floor. I remembered the bitter debates as to why the nursery was not stationed near the labour ward so that we could lose less time resuscitation. I decided this could not be allowed to pass. And I conducted the class accordingly. When we repealed the written examination at the end, none had ticked the last answer, and I was both relieved and vindicated.
Of her formative experiences with the Dais she says: “In six days of training, I realised reducing power and authority was not just about being nice to them, it would require something else – a series of complex manoeuvres.” It required thinking about sharing power and knowledge and being co-collaborators in the meaning-making process. For Asha, this confrontation was not abrupt. As a doctor, it was vital for her to understand what entails good healthcare for everyone involved; since only when one is equipped with this understanding can one work towards the reasons behind the inaccessibility of healthcare.
A host of black and white questions around reducing power and authority with women who did not speak her language and vice versa stayed with her. Questions like, how to tell someone what is right and what is wrong about their practice while being in a position of power?
Since then, Asha’s work on Dais has come a long way, as Asha was recently Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow at the King’s India Institute, London, working on research related to the status of the Dai in colonial contexts. She is presently writing a book on this work.
A plunge into the void
Now a member of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies, Asha says came to Women’s Studies through a complicated route. To answer her questions that came up during her experience with Dais, Asha first read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, a highly relevant work about the formation of nation-states and their identities. Answers and more questions led her to read Emily Martin, a sinologist, anthropologist, and feminist whose seminal work centers around the analysis of science on human reproduction from a feminist perspective; and Evelyn Fox Keller, an American physicist, author, and feminist whose research has focused on the history and philosophy of modern biology and gender and science. Having read their work, Asha was ready to move on from medicine. Even though she knew no one in social sciences, she, in her own words, “took a plunge into the void”.
Asha soon afterwards joined the M.Phil. programme in Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University before pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies from the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore. At Jadavpur University, she met her guide, Shefali Moitra. Asha refers to Shefali as her goddess. She did tremendous work on feminist epistemology and introduced Asha to Helen Longino, a central figure in feminist epistemology, who has written about women’s role in science and argued for the significance of values and social interactions towards scientific inquiry. Reading Longino helped Asha make sense of her experience with Dais in addressing questions related to power, authority and knowledge.
Asha was a regular contributor to From the Margins, an editorial collective that Shefali had helped start. The collective published a bi-annual critical theory journal in a postcolonial setting. Asha recounted that the collective were perceived as arrogant and jargonistic within the women’s movement spaces. This was happening in the backdrop of difficult times – post the demolition of the Babri Masjid – which brought crucial considerations within how one accesses healthcare. The considerations included the question of access to healthcare as it wasn’t simply about medical understanding anymore. The social factors also played a significant part. Shortly after this, she met Gita Chadha, a sociology professor who has been working on ‘Feminism and Science’ since decades. Asha recognises this meeting as her formal entry into Feminist Science Studies.
According to Asha, her transition from medicine to sociology was mediated by many of these experiences, serendipitous meetings and and her connection with the women’s movement. She fondly remembers meeting one of her icons, Nivedita Menon, who encouraged her to go forward in gender and science. At that time, she looked at institutional connections – between medicine, orientalist representations, mythology, and the need to look outside the gender binary. Further, after becoming associated with the women’s movement, she looked at the questions around social justice and access even though there were hurdles as Women’s Studies was not considered a possible professional space. Moreover, organised and sustained mentorship was missing. When only a few people were visibly doing work within, Asha felt grateful to have around other scholars such as Gita Chadha, Chayanika Shah, and Sumi Krishna.
Designing an FSS course
Asha designed her course keeping in mind how gender influences our understanding of knowledge; examining how the subjects, the speakers, of scientific and technological sentences are gendered. And understanding in general how the production of knowledge through scientific means has been influenced by notions of gender and gender roles in society. She has also done work in queer and sexuality studies, disciplines that she describes as the “soul of [her] life’s work.”
She has published on gender diversity in science institutions, feminist standpoint methodologies, interdisciplinarity in higher education, sexuality and the nation. Asha recently concluded a multi-sited study on the appearance of gender-sexuality as a metaphor in medical text and practice. It also explored changing terms of legibility and entry of persons of gender-marginal lives into contemporary healthcare spaces in India. Her current work explores the contexts of gender and biomedicine, focusing on feminist epistemological critiques of the same.
Asha cites a variety of reasons behind curating the course itself that I was taught. Rae Langton, an Austrian-British Professor who has worked on feminist philosophy and G.E.R. Lloyd, a historian of ancient science and medicine, was the foremost reason. Their critiques of objectivity, and the possibility of alternative models of knowledge, were the first gains for Asha. She says:
“FSS for me is not about criticism, but about critique, which means alternative knowledge models. As I (re)designed the course over the years, this has become more and more visible – asking different questions, reflecting on disciplinary histories and practices, looking at how feminists have transformed some of this from within their disciplinary domains. They have shown how it can be done in the here and now. Alternative knowledge models, then, are no longer utopia, and transformation is no longer a social justice issue in the narrow sense; knowledge and politics go together.”
Asha says that there is a change in our broader understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality today, but she’s unsure if it can be solely attributed to FSS, which is still considered a niche area. When she started working in FSS, the perception was that only “crazy people” do this kind of work, and today, it has shifted to something new and exciting. The conversations about women in science spaces are also more visible now.
She is concerned that as part and parcel of the diversity and inclusion agenda, this change might not recognise the historical marginalisation or exclusion of women and people in gender marginal locations, as it is steered towards optics – a fundamentally politically unaware position. Therefore, we need to question if it translates to critical questioning of science via gender lens or voices on gender, which is the work of FSS. For instance, the work on the question of women’s and gender minorities’ access to science uses this framework.
Within future trajectories of FSS, Asha discusses the relevance of Donna Haraway, a prominent scholar within the field of science and technology studies. Donna has important raised conversations surrounding questions of the human-machine interface, the human-environment interface, the interspecies interfaces and the emerging space of Feminist Technology Studies.
Within the Indian context, there is work to be done on alternative knowledge systems. Asha also informs that we need better ways to understand Ayurveda (not the canonical, corporatised version) but remaking spaces for those who have been pushed out, for instance, the movie Have you seen the Arana by filmmaker Sunanda Bhat does that, Asha says. Even in the context of Dais, where some work has been done, it’s not just about simply making space for them in healthcare but recognition of what they tell us in other criteria of knowledge building.
Further Reading and Works of Asha Achuthan:
Achuthan, A. (2021). Gender-affirmative technologies and the contemporary making of gender in India. Economy and Society, 1-25.
Klein, E., Mills, C., Achuthan, A., & Hilberg, E. (2021). Human technologies, affect and the global psy-complex. Economy and Society, 1-12.
An Exploratory Study of Discriminations Based on Non-Normative Genders and Sexualities by Advanced Center for Women’s Studies, TISS (2019), where Dr Asha Achuthan was the principal investigator
Chadha, G., & Achuthan, A. (2017). Feminist Science Studies. Economic and Political Weekly, 52(17), 7-8.
Achuthan, A. (2017). Feminism and science: Present-day notes for a feminist standpoint epistemology. Feminists and Science: Critiques and changing perspectives in India (1st ed., Vol. 2, pp. 147–174). New Delhi: SAGE Publications.
Achuthan, A. (2011). Re: wiring bodies. Bangalore: The Centre for Internet & Society.
Achuthan, A., Biswas, R., & Dhar, A. K. (2007). Lesbian standpoint. Kolkata: Sanhati.
Achuthan, A., Niranjana, T., & Gadagkar, R. (2007). Case study of a course taught to Ph. D students at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Achuthan, A. (2005). Whither Feminism… wither Marxism?: Some Questions on Standpoint. 이화여자대학교 아시아여성학센터 학술대회자료집, 63-81.
Achuthan, A. (2002). Darmiyaan… search for an in-between. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 3(3), 419-436.
Acknowledgements: TheLifeofScience.com Season 6 is supported by contributors to our crowdfunding campaign, STEMpeers, and also by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage. The featured image for this piece has been illustrated by TLoS season 6 artist, Ayesha Punjabi.