Research in India is an arduous journey. Unlike a ‘9-5’ job, it might not entail a sense of monotony or repetition of a daily routine, but due to its nature, it can often be a deeply unpredictable ride – sleepless nights, long periods of inactivity and writers’ block, difficult field work, the pressures of unkind supervisors, loneliness, the fears of failure, and the nagging feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ from time to time. In addition, due to the standard understanding of what entails a ‘respectable job’ in our society, research, particularly when one reaches the late 20s, is seen as joblessness or an extended period of study without any salary or title.
As one of our interlocutors tells us, the most familiar question is “You are still studying? You are having kids and you are qualified to teach, but you’re still studying?”
Structural and government apathy also means that unlike many other countries where being a researcher is a well-supported and funded position, many researchers in India struggle to even feed themselves or support their families due to the lack of fellowships and stipends. Casteism, Islamophobia, gendered discrimination, exclusion of persons with disabilities – all of these mark the space of academia as well.
Add to this another challenge: motherhood. A truly transcendental experience, but with very material realities of survival, pain and exhaustion. The term ‘academic mothers’ has been used in Western contexts to describe the identity of a woman who is a researcher or an academic while also being a mother. The issues of these academic mothers have been around for decades, but mostly under-addressed. Now, with the pandemic, the term has taken on renewed significance. The pandemic has been the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back (but not quite; women find a way to survive, somehow). Research has shown that the issues of such mothers have been exacerbated beyond belief, with many women dropping out. Academic production and submissions have also dropped with a marked gender gap, as many women are now responsible as care-givers and have returned back to their homes due to continued lockdowns. Academia has dealt them with yet another ‘motherhood penalty’ – a punishment of sorts for pursuing a natural and beautiful experience that sustains humanity. Motherhood penalties are already well-known in many fields, with companies hesitating to hire married women who can potentially enter motherhood for fear of giving them maternity leave or having to accommodate their needs, such as day-cares or crèches.
Over a period of three months, Aura interviewed academic mothers from Kozhikode, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai in order to find out about their experiences, joys, difficulties, and what can be done to make their lives easier and to enable their journeys as both mothers and researchers. These women, studying in colleges as well as central universities, mostly pursuing their PhDs, come from diverse fields and have worked on varied topics. What has their journey looked like?
Beyond the ‘Superwoman’ Trope
A consistent thread that runs through our conversations is the refusal to be labelled ‘superwomen’ or to be congratulated for doing something ‘brave’.
As Basima, a Chennai-based researcher whose work explores reproductive decision-making puts it, it is better to support such mothers substantially rather than offering empty platitudes and needless glorification.
For Najiya PP, a mother of two who did her PhD from the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, the experience was a heady combination of joy, distraction, stress, separation pangs and the relief of reunion. She too echoes the sentiment of ‘survival’ rather than being put on a pedestal, citing a study that stated that “masking up as a superwoman is causing several mental health issues for such women. We hide the troubles within ourselves risking our mental & physical health. We become accustomed to delivering that strongwoman speech to everyone and ourselves, consequently losing the ability to connect to our humanness & weakness.”
For Noorunida, a gender studies academic in Hyderabad who cites the support of her husband who is a fellow researcher in the same department, the burden of the ‘ideal’ image weighs heavy.
For women in India, the pedestal is a familiar place. For mothers, doubly so. But as many have written, pedestals are narrow spaces and falling off is easy, and expected. Instead, lending a helping hand and a listening ear goes a long way.
She says, “I am not an ideal wife, scholar, daughter-in-law, or mother. If we are stuck in this ideal version of ourselves, we cannot move forward.”
Despite the stubborn survival of academic mothers, it is an undeniable reality that for many such women, there have been very harsh experiences to undergo. A lot of hard-work goes into both these ‘labours’ of love. As a physics researcher, Zainab from Jamia Millia Islamia with a newly awarded PhD told us, there were days when she would work 18 hours a day during the two key months of thesis writing, a period when her daughter underwent great separation anxiety.
There are some difficult stories too. As Arunima from Jamia Millia Islamia (name changed upon request) recounted, she was even given an ultimatum by her in-laws to choose her family life or PhD. Supported by her husband and mother, and by taking on a job at the same time, she steeled herself and became determined to never give up on her PhD, come what may. As she says, life is not a fairy-tale. But the bright spot in the otherwise dark tunnel was her supervisor, Dr Mohammad Rafat, who made sure that she was able to continue this journey.
Supervisors are often make-or-break in this difficult path. While some reported having very supportive guides, who would even give them support while they had break-downs or would want to cry, others spoke about the distrust of supervisors towards academic mothers, fearing it would be a distraction from their work.
…But Not Without Its Joys
But the life of the academic mother has some truly beautiful moments. Noushida recounts how, at 3 years old, her son now finally understands that his mother is a student, and sends her off with kisses while awaiting her return (along with some promised chocolates).
As Najiya notes, it is ironic that there are such penalties and roadblocks for mothers, who are essentially fulfilling a very important role: “In a world that is only chasing careers, we are choosing to bring up the next generation. It is an important responsibility. But how much is society ready to accommodate this?
As Najda, who had a long journey of six years to complete her PhD from Calicut (on the intellectual traditions of Muslim women) says, sometimes, time helps. With her second pregnancy, when she started making decisions about herself and her child on her own terms, things got better. She felt she could enjoy and share moments with her children. She also feels that her experience helped to sharpen her academic arguments in a way no theoretical research could have, and hopes to go for a post-doctoral fellowship. As she says, despite all detractors, it is research that keeps her going and it is her passion.
The emotions are mixed and often complex. Shafla from Hyderabad feels her mood shift from exhaustion to joy and sometimes back again, in a cyclical way. But academic mothers find a way to eke out quiet spaces for themselves to work, produce research papers, and even travel for conferences.
As Amal from Calicut believes, “a woman with a family enjoys her research more, because there is variety in life rather than the monotony and loneliness of academia.”
Of Cultural Capital and First-Generation Learners
Noorunida muses, posing a question for all of us in the conversation: is research truly possible for the middle-class Muslim woman researcher? The university space is not devoid of power equations and cultural capital. While many of them are first-generation learners, lacking social capital, they also have a debt they owe to their communities and a responsibility to overcome and be an example for others. As Najiya says, unlike male counterparts and those from well-off and dominant communities, there is an additional responsibility of raising another generation on top of overcoming the educational backwardness of their communities. The ivory towers of higher education have been ably shaken up post-Mandal and in the last two decades, the demographics have shifted. So has the language and politics of these spaces. Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi and OBC women have made their way and many social science researchers are also paving the way for research on their own communities, experiences and histories in a way that was never done before. Their young children are growing witnesses to that.
These women have shown that while it is not an easy road, it is certainly a possibility. Even if the question was left unanswered, there is hope that can be gleaned from their stories and successes.
Re-Shaping the Family
“If we don’t get strong emotional support from our near ones, we fail, we drain. I feel, we cannot move, in the absence of this care…We need to educate our society too, how to care for new-born mothers, not only new-born children.”
The family space is simultaneously challenging and suffused with warmth. Questions aside, there is also a substantial demand emerging from these women’s narratives to re-examine the family structure in order to make the dreams of women not just possible, but also less difficult to pursue.
A familiar phrase that we hear is “you/she can study after marriage.” These academic mothers have heard it too. But as Basima says, she feels that it has a trap built into it if there is no substantial pathway for women to actually study. The only result of this statement is often the double burden of labour, which ought to be fairly shared among family members. She feels that a reconstruction of the familial principles truly based on the concepts of mawaddah (love) and rahma (mercy) that the Qu’ran lays down for the basis of marital happiness, and challenging sexism and cultural constructs within the family structure in order to make it possible for women to pursue their goals.
It is obvious that many of these dreams would be impossible without the continued affection and support of their family members, particularly their husbands and parents. Their families have taken pride in what they do and have done their best to extend their support, sometimes taking over child-care, at other points, resisting the taunts of society to stand by them. This is perhaps what has made it possible for many of them to tolerate the invariable but cruel questions over the quality of their motherhood.
As Noushida recounts, “Many relatives and friends started asking me “are you a good mother?” The reasons behind this question – do you spend enough time with your son, do you give him breast milk properly, he looks thin/lean because of your engagement with academic research…All this led me to think that “am I a deserving mother to my son.” When this question or feeling comes to my mind, I would look at my son with tears in my eyes.”
If their survival was predicated on ‘what people think’, it is evident that they would have given up long ago. They draw their strength instead from their faith and their close-knit loved ones, and from the affection that their children give them. Instead of making academic mothers feel guilty, it is time for society to reflect on the psychological and mental effects of such judgement, and to stand by these women who are trying their best to fulfil their multiple responsibilities.
Solutions and Advice
Apart from the demands for empathy and a renewed understanding of their problems within society and their immediate family, academic mothers also have some concrete demands from their institutions. Najda believes that child-care systems have to be set up in academic spaces.
“I didn’t get any concession or relaxation. It [thesis] had to be given at the same time as my unmarried colleagues. It was a huge task. But I don’t think I have done anything brave…We do not have an affordable healthcare system, or sustained extensions under law for mothers and other such affirmative action. The system fails to accommodate us.”- Najiya PP
Day care facilities in the university Noorunida studies has been closed for over one year now due to the pandemic. Thasneem, a researcher of non-linear physics who returned to academics after a ten year gap in 2019 after having her children, had to travel for 3 hours every day to get to her college. And as Amal says, funding is very important for the survival of a woman researcher. She also advises women to actually plan their course ahead, including choice of supervisor and the institution, rather than merely applying without much thought and then struggling to find a way.
Research is an important task and more than just a ‘career’. For Basima, it is also a responsibility: “As a Muslim woman in India, to study and pursue knowledge is the need of the hour. In this fascist atmosphere particularly, knowledge is being used as a tool to destroy our community. On one side, we have to be sharp academically and responsible to guard our Muslim men from Islamophobic people, and at the same time we have to hold up the Islamic family.”
These women are not complaining, or seeking an escape from these roles. Far from it, they are up for the task, and hope for another generation of women to join the journey as well. The onus is now on the world around them – institutions, society, and their families – to share the burden and make it a little lighter.