Tremors from Within – Part III

In this excerpt from 'Lab Hopping: Women Scientists in India', meet voices from the caste and gender margins who are working to make the Indian science ecosystem a more welcoming space for Dalit and transgender persons.
By and | Published on Feb 20, 2024

(Read the first and the second parts here.)

For far too long, the WiS movement’s progress has relied on the untiring efforts of women scientists themselves. While there have been small victories along the way, this has largely been because of the presence of influential women among the upper rungs of academia and governance. These victories are of most benefit to upper-caste and cis women. Trans persons in science, scientists from Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi backgrounds and disabled persons remain excluded because there is no one to represent them at the top. And as long as issues pertaining to them continue to be ignored, there is no chance of having more of them at the top. Just another vicious cycle, stagnating our goal of an equal science.

The voices from the caste and gender margins are getting louder. On 29 October 2021, Deepa P. Mohanan, a Dalit research scholar doing her PhD in nanotechnology at MG University in Kerala, began a hunger strike in front of her university to protest the prolonged caste discrimination she had been facing from the director of her institute. The accused professor was removed from his post a week later, in a move that was heralded as a landmark victory in our struggle against institutional casteism.

As one of the very few transgender scientists to hold a faculty position at a university, Bittu K. has been using his position and privileges to improve the situation for the next generation of trans people in science. He is very willing to acknowledge the benefits that his caste and class status have given him.

‘I may not want to take these privileges but I know that I do and that they operate in ways that I cannot fathom. I see how they operate against my friends who are Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi in academia, and they are extremely severe.’

While at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), Bittu was deeply hurt by the suicide of his friend Rohith Vemula. Rohith had suffered persecution and discrimination from the government and the university. He was a student of science who dreamed of becoming a science writer. The tragedy led a group of people at the university to start the Rohith Vemula Science Club. Being part of this community reaffirmed Bittu’s belief in the need to democratize science.

‘Many people from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities came to science for the first time [through the club] and everybody had great perspectives that opened my eyes. Earlier, they used to feel that the humanities and social sciences were the only spaces open for them to participate academically. Now, these are some of the most committed nerds I know. These are people with whom I share science news.’

At the UoH, Bittu was helped by student activists to set up a committee for trans students. The intention for Bittu was that some sort of structure existed to help potential trans students at the university deal with problems even after he left. While Bittu was not institutionally permitted to operate as the gender of his choice at UoH, Ashoka University has been more accommodating. ‘When I joined, they agreed to immediately change my gender and name on record and ensured that I had access to appropriate bathrooms,’ he said. Bittu is pleased to see that since then, gender-neutral bathrooms have come up in multiple spaces on campus. ‘In Ashoka, we have a nice system where trans students experience a gender-affirming environment as soon as they join. We are also trying to draft a trans policy that will, hopefully, serve to be useful,’ he said.

As a professor at Ashoka, Bittu has been able to reach out to several trans students who are in dire need of company. ‘The journey of being a trans person in science has been very lonely,’ he admitted. ‘The perspective of gender and science has been largely reduced to women in science and trans scientists have very little space in this discourse.’ He supports a number of trans students who are struggling and has also established an informal trans mentorship network to help people get in touch with each other. ‘It has helped trans students, who are almost always the only trans person they know in the institution, feel less alone.’

The visible presence of trans scientists like Bittu at Ashoka University and A. Mani at ISI Kolkata is inspiring a slow and steady rise in discussion about transgender people in science, mostly among younger stakeholders. The mention of words like ‘genders’ and ‘transgender’ in policy interventions such as GATI and STIP 2020 suggests that the decision-makers have taken notice, but their approach seems far too tentative to expect radical change. And the status quo is so miserable that anything but radical change is really quite useless.

‘Women in STEM’ has become a trending topic in the 2020s, compared to when we started out on this lab-hopping journey less than a decade ago. Politicians and tech corporations have all appropriated the cause in their manifestos and speeches, as has the popular media. There have been at least two big-budget Bollywood films about women in STEM. While appreciating the progress we have made, it’s also worth reminding ourselves that it’s not the media, corporations or even the government, that have taken great personal risks to move us forward. It’s the relatively little-known women and individuals from various margins who did this. The ones who undertook surveys, built communities, challenged authorities and staged protests to stand up for themselves and others. Every time systemic apathy grinds this movement for equity to a halt, we rely on these tremors from various pockets of Indian STEM for a jumpstart.

[Note: The above text is an excerpt from the chapter named ‘Tremors from Within’ in the book Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science, authored by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, published by Penguin Books in 2023. You can purchase the book here.

Images in the featured graphic sourced from TOI Samayam, Ashoka University, Facebook and from TheLifeofScience.com.]

About the author(s)
aashima
aashima

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded thelifeofscience.com in 2016.

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