Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Our girl in Oxford

Kuldip Dhiman

Meena Dhanda
Meena Dhanda
— Photo by Diwan Manna

MEENA Dhanda is the Punjabi Indian woman to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, and then to head the department of philosophy at the University of Wolverhampton.

Meena's political awareness goes back to her Panjab University days, where she did her Master's degree in philosophy about 15 years ago. She then won a Commonwealth scholarship that took her to Britain. While she was still doing her doctorate there, she was offered a job, and so she stayed on.

"One of the first things that I learnt was that before the 1980s colleges in Oxford were not mixed institutions." Does that make much of a difference? "Yes," says Meena, "studies show that some women may perform better in all woman institutions where there is a culture of mutual support and a less competitive environment"

"Doing philosophy taught me to think independently. Philosophy makes concepts clear, it helps you see things more objectively. With time, I realised that philosophy is a male-dominated field. There are only three women who are subject leaders in the departments that teach philosophy in the U.K., I am one of them."

Meena, for the first time, got a chance to interact with Asian girls of Muslim background. "With time, I learnt more about them. I found that they were not as docile as they have been projected. They are often in conflict with the older generation."

The reason for this conflict, Meena argues, is the nature of migration that took place in the 60s. "Since the migrants were from a rural background, they failed to integrate in the new country; they got stagnated. The second generation is more complex, but they tend to lead a double life. They are one person at home, and another on the campus."

"There is a very subtle kind of racism on the campus, and there is a very complex relationship between non-White teachers and students. And the fact that I am not White sometimes does matter; people often take it for granted that I must be one of the non-teaching staff. I am forced at times to assert my identity as a lecturer." Some issues are no longer being raised in the U.K., for example, women are fighting for better positions and control over their lives but they are not too worried about the problem of objectification of women in terms of how they should dress. In India feminist activism seems to be rather symbolic and remains concerned with gestural politics such as not wearing makeup, jewellery etc. Most feminists here want to be seen as feminists. Over there sometimes there is a problem of overconfidence, as if there isn't a problem about women's equal status with men any more."

No comments: