Gender, Caste and Higher Education: Pathways and Experiences of Dalit Women in an Elite College in Delhi

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Meenakshi Gautam.

Meenakshi Gautam is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is especially interested in gender and its relation to higher education.

The participation of both men and women in higher education in India has rapidly expanded over the past six decades. There has been steady educational progress among socio-economically disadvantaged and culturally marginalised groups such as SC (Scheduled Caste) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) as well. However, the representation of these groups in higher education is relatively small in comparison to their proportion of population (Rao, 2002; Deshpande, 2006; Chanana, 2012; Weisskopf, 2004). Women belonging to scheduled castes are among the most disadvantaged in relation to their access to higher education (Chanana, 2012; Raju, 2008; Rao, 2002). There is hardly any research on the groups such as SC (or dalit) women who suffer multiple disadvantages resulting from the intersection of caste, class and gender. The intersection of gender with caste and class is likely to lead to diverse pathways and experiences in higher education for dalit women. The present research work aims: a) to map the pathways of dalit women in higher education, b) to explore the pathways of selected women students’ male sibling(s) vis-à-vis participant, and c) to understand the experiences of dalit women within the university.

The study is informed by the intersectionality framework which problematises the intermeshing of structures of inequality (such as caste, race, gender and patriarchy) and analyses them within specific socio-historical contexts (Collins, 2004; Ramirez, 2013). In the Indian context, scholars have observed that the interlocking of class, caste and gender is likely to have a cumulative effect on access to and participation in education (Velaskar, 2007; Chanana, 2007; Paik, 2009). In order to study the experiences of Dalit women, many of whom are first generation in higher education, it becomes important to link their “individual histories” with their “familial habitus” (Reay, et.al. 2005), access to valued “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, 1977) and the challenging and unfamiliar “institutional habitus” of the university (Reay, et.al. 2005).

The methodology is informed by the intersectionality framework and adopts life-history methodology to understand the pathways and experiences of dalit women’s students. It situates the in-depth account of their personal lives within a socio-cultural context (Mwangi, 2009).


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