New Delhi: “I should have saved the money that I spent on my daughter’s education for dowry,” said the teary eyed Manoj Kumar Devat, father of Manjula, the PhD scholar who was found dead in the IIT-Delhi campus earlier this week.
In a 21st century India, when girls are outsmarting boys in schools and colleges, Manjula’s alleged suicide came as a brutal reminder of how patriarchal social norms were pulling down women who were choosing to continue higher education after marriage.
“She was a brilliant student and was about to complete her thesis next month. But her in-laws wanted her to come back to Bhopal and do household chores. Her husband, Rajesh Virha, had also been demanding Rs 25 lakh as dowry. Was my daughter supposed to do the dishes with her doctorate?” said the angry father. Angry because he wishes his daughter had walked out of the ‘bad marriage’ without fearing social stigma.
The 28-year-old young woman was found hanging from the ceiling of her room in Nalanda Hostel. Authorities said prima facie it looked like a suicide.
Manjula’s death brings home the gloomy reality of women in higher education. “I know she was facing a lot of problems. As a woman, I could completely empathise with her,” said Dhanya, Manjula’s supervisor in civil engineering. She was pursuing her PhD in water resources.
Manjula’s case, sadly, isn’t the only one. Even in this day and age, many women scholars in India either have to drop out to get married or right after it, or pursue higher education as a side career. Those who choose to study have to manage a stressful schedule as there is so much that goes into completing a thesis. Managing marital life, particularly in an orthodox setup, makes it tougher.
Manjula’s family says it had made it clear to the Virhas that their daughter would return to her in-laws’ house only after completing PhD. “They had agreed earlier, but their attitude changed after marriage. They started asking money from her and often forced her to quit PhD,” said Manjula’s mother Seema.
Such stress, experts and fellow scholars say, is too much for one to bear. “Manjula’s case came up because she allegedly took her own life. She succumbed, and unfortunately it’s not surprising. There are so many other women, brilliant in their area of work, who deal with this pressure every day. The societal norms of what a woman should do post marriage are the biggest problem,” said Professor Sucheta Mahajan from Center of Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, adding that the number of women scholars who suffer mental illness and attempt suicide is staggering high in India.
“You have to step in — as a professor, as a senior, as a woman and as a friend. You never know who’s going through what and to what degree. The pressure can be from the in-laws and even from their own parents too,” said Mahajan.
Nandita Narain of St Stephen’s College in Delhi University says her encounter with bright female students has been worrisome. “They are so smart and intelligent. But then the pressure of marriage gets to them. The onus of handling them, since they’re away from their families, falls on supervisors and their fellow batch mates,” said Narain.
Narain’s views were voiced by Vijaya Venkataraman, an associate professor in Delhi University’s Center of Germanic and Romance Studies. “There are group counselling sessions but many don’t open up in such sessions. Earlier, supervisors and students used to get time to talk and discuss one on one, but now with administrative work, it’s getting more and more difficult. At times, we don’t know what students are going through. It’s sad to see such cases cropping up when girls are trying to build their future,” said Venkataraman.
Speaking to News18, noted psychiatrist Achal Bhagat said that mental stress among women scholars often leads to clinical depression and a change in attitude. “It’s a sad state of affairs when it comes to women and higher education,” he said.
Is there a way out of such social pressure and the ensuing mental stress that women in academia go through? Orientation programs for family members, Narain says, may help in developing a better understanding of how things work for a woman. “Universities must conduct programs and interactive sessions where the woman’s family, husband and in-laws can come and see for themselves how much work goes into her area of expertise. That will, maybe, give them a better understanding of how hard it is for a woman to manage her studies with family life,” said Narain, adding that the UGC extending the PhD deadline for women is a welcome move.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done. The problem is deep rooted in patriarchal attitudes and in the gap that exists between the families and the women pursuing higher studies,” said Narain, adding that she has often advised scholars to take up teaching jobs so that they can earn some money to send back to their families.
It still looks like a long way to go for women in India. And education, which is considered to be a parameter for development, is not helping their case.