A Woman Changing Women’s Health. Interview with Shree Mulay


Photo by Owen Egan, courtesy of McGill University.

Dr. Shree Mulay , Professor Emerita of the Department of Medicine of McGill University in Montreal, is currently Associate Dean and Professor of Community Health and Humanities Division,  Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s.  Dr. Mulay served for eleven years as  Director of the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.  She has also held office in different capacities in the Executive Board of SAWCC, the South Asian Women’s Community Centre of Montreal, of which she was one of the founding members. Dr. Mulay also participated in the decision making process of  NAC, National Action Committee for the Status of  Women in Canada. Shree Mulay has received numerous awards and honours for her academic and community work, including the establishment of the endowed “Shree Mulay Graduate Student Award in Women’s Studies” in recognition for her contribution to women’s studies at McGill University, the Humanitarian of the Year Award,  Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and  the Woman of Distinction Award for the Advancement of Women, YWCA, Montreal. Dr. Mulay, who was born in India, has not forgotten her roots – she travels to South Asia  several times a year for  research and community work. And yes, she is also a gourmet cook, a creative gardener and a friend women can count on.

Montreal Serai:  Good morning, Shree. We  first met a long time ago! What happened then?

Shree Mulay: In 1980. That was the start of the South Asian Women’s Community Centre. If you remember, we met over the summer and we were thinking of setting up a South Asian Women’s Organization. Nine women from different countries  met to talk about the issues that South Asian Women faced.

MS: Yes, I remember our first meeting very clearly because you said that you would have very little time for the future centre yet you’ve certainly worked  very hard and were one of the main persons there. What satisfied you the most about your work with SAWCC?

SM: I want to make it clear from the outset that I was not one of the main persons  in SAWCC because it was really a collective effort. To go back to your question:  that which gives me the greatest satisfaction about SAWCC’s work is, first of all, that it was possible to shape and work with other women in what the organization should look like, what issues should be taken up in the organization and the careful placing of that in the context of Canada and what was happening in South Asia itself.

MS:  As an endocrinologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal you must have an understanding of the  dynamics between pharmaceutical companies and their research in Third World countries. How do you think that these new technologies and pharmaceutical products have affected the life of women in South Asia?

SM: Doing research in endocrinology gave me a better opportunity to actually see what kind of research is being done on women and thanks to my understanding of contraceptives  I began to teach about reproductive endocrinology. While doing  some background reading for my undergraduate students  I realized that  it was women from developing countries who were being experimented on with early versions of  oral contraceptives which were quite harmful. These studies were considered unethical and now informed consent is a cornerstone of any research on human subjects.

MS: What is your take on the morning-after pill?

SM: The morning-after pill provides what would be considered emergency contraception. The problem is  that it is easily available here but in developing countries it is not…

MS: Really?

SM: …easily available. It’s good if you’ve had  unprotected sex and  you think you could be pregnant because you can do something about it within 72 hours. But it is a hormonal combination which when misused can have terrible effects on women so it’s a tradeoff. However, the real question is one of access  because the moral conundrum is that many women’s organizations here have suggested that the morning after pill  not be controlled by pharmacists but be freely available like condoms.  Some concern about its misuse might be justified  but at least with proper material accompanying those pills it should be possible to  regulate it much better.

MS: I thought that in some parts of the United States it was already available without a prescription.

SM: I believe that is true. In Canada it is available but you have to have a pharmacist give you information about it. You cannot go and just  pick it up .

MS: What’s your take on in vitro fertilization? And the question of so-called surrogate mothers and the whole debate from an ethical, moral and medical point of view?

SM: You know, it is amazing how women get blamed, dammed if you do and damned if you don’t. Earlier  women were blamed for having too many children  too early and now women who have become part of the work force and have to delay pregnancy  are being blamed for not becoming pregnant earlier. I find that a bit ironical. However, women’s capacity to become pregnant does decline  with age, while so many women seek motherhood at a later age. In earlier years I used to be much more critical about IVF and assisted human reproduction; I am less so now but do think that the industry exploits women. Moreover, there is a  real difference in treating female infertility and subjecting women to IVF treatment to overcome male infertility. This is done by inserting a sperm directly into an egg through intra cytoplasmic sperm insertion (ICSI) to produce embryos. Recent publications suggest that boys born through ICSI have very low fertility.  It perpetuates male infertility which would have been nature’s way of limiting infertility. The real issue is that women have to bear the burden of fertility treatment which is not innocuous. You have to take a drug which stimulates your ovaries which produce the eggs and that can be a big roller coaster because you are producing 8/9 eggs instead of one that you would have in a normal cycle, But let me speak to another issue  which has become much more controversial in this last little while, namely surrogacy where people rent a womb –  perhaps this is the correct nomenclature because it is a monetary transaction and it is done in a third world country such as India …now there is evidence that it is done in some of the Eastern European countries as well where you have women who will accept an embryo and bear the child through that particular process. There are actually no laws at the moment which protect the woman who is the surrogate and the parties in any way. Some very interesting cases have come up – the case of a Japanese man  in India who had hired somebody to bear a child and the couple divorced and the woman did not want the child,  the man could not claim the child because he was not married to the woman who bore the baby and it was a legal mess. There are numerous other cases like that. Surrogacy where the parents know the woman and she does it for altruistic reasons to be able to help the couple; these have also been quite problematic. You also have cases where you have five parents involved in producing one child.

MS: Five parents? How so?

SM: You have the husband and wife who commission the baby to be produced, then the egg donor because the woman is unable to produce eggs and then there is the sperm donor who donates the sperm. It could be the husband or a third person and then the surrogate mother into whose womb the egg is implanted. I am not saying that this happens all the time but theoretically you could have five people involved in the production of this one child, but most of the time it is three people.

MS: Do you think many of these problems could be avoided if women had their children earlier on when they are healthier and provided that the State supported them with child care and so on?

SM:  Women’s groups have felt that appropriate support should be provided to families. But at what stage should  women take time off to have children? And yes, without appropriate State support this is difficult. If  you remember, it was a novel idea that women would get time off to nurse their babies because if you were a working woman and you wanted to breast feed your child  you had no time off. During the Allende government in Chile women got time off to nurse their infants.  Of course now we do have good maternity benefits in Canada but this did not happen without a struggle.  So it is a question of what the State is willing to do and who decides what the State does. There is a direct link between what support is provided and notions about the family. Right-wing ideas have become quite important. Essentially the tax breaks that were provided and the subsidies for each child that the Harper government instituted was that instead of providing day care  women were given a $100 a month to be able to stay at home and be moms. I think that this particular subsidy basically meant that women were not able to benefit from outside employment. It also reinforces the notion that women should really be at home taking care of their kids instead of going out looking for a job and if you look at some of the right wing literature,  they say they also take away the manliness out of manhood because women are competing for the same jobs  and then  men are not able to be  good providers. This ignores the reality that many women have to work to support the family and it also puts a burden on the man to be the sole bread winner.

MS: You  were not only a member of the SAWCC Executive on several occasions but you were also director of the MCRTW, McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women for eleven years.  I understand you were the first scientist to be heading an institution that was part of the humanities section of the university. Is it because you felt that as a scientist you needed to be involved in social issues as well? What were your most important challenges and achievements during your tenure as director?

SM: Yes, at McGill I was the first full-time director who came from the sciences although there was Abby Lippman who was an acting director for a year before that. My  involvement with SAWCC  and with NAC –  National Action Committee for the Status of  Women gave me a greater appreciation of what the social sciences and humanities had to contribute. And I certainly thoroughly enjoyed my term because there were new challenges.  I became director at a time when McGill was cutting back on funding so making the place go was a challenge. At that time women’s studies involved courses from different  departments and had actually no courses other than one seminar course. So getting all that in place – that is having a Women’s Studies Department, with its own status offering its own courses along with courses from other departments stabilized the program. Having a graduate option in women’s studies was also a plus.   But I particularly feel very thrilled about the fact that we were able to open the doors for community participation because women’s studies without their being integrated into the community are meaningless. Academic women’s studies and the debates around feminism, first wave, second wave is one thing,  but opening the doors to the community was an important part of the activities of the centre.  We also benefited tremendously from this vibrant relationship because the Friend’s Committee managed to raise about $250,000 not from contributions of big donors but the small, tiny contributions by women who identified themselves with the MCRTW.

MS: After  you left this post you accepted a more challenging one  at  Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. You did this at an age when most people, if not dreaming of retirement, are  at least dreaming of working in the slow lane. Why?

SM: Because it was a new challenge, something different. In  my work  every ten years or so  I’ve had a career change in spite of a certain continuity. When I came to work in the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1972 I was supervising clinical labs till I left in 2008. But the main change was the eleven years I served as the director of the MCRTW. Then my work with the community,  with NAC and with SAWCC,  was an important part of what I did. What the Memorial University job allowed me to do was to  consolidate my involvement with the community and to incorporate the understanding that I had gained through the work that I had done to be able to bring together  academic issues with community work. Looking back,  I think I cannot sit back and move into the slow lane given the fact that my 89-year old mother just published a major book in 2010 after having worked on it for close to ten years. I also had a grandmother who raised three daughters single handed at a time when she had no education and no money and had to struggle her way  through when education was the most important thing that women needed to have.

MS: And of course that must have been even more difficult in India in those days.

SM: Absolutely. She was an uneducated widow without any means yet she raised these three daughters and inspired them to go on to their own academic careers. Unfortunately one of my aunts died at a young age. But the other two went on to have illustrious careers. There are three women in my life who have had a great influence: my grandmother, my mother Vijaya Mulay in an indirect way and Madeleine Parent. They have inspired me by their work in the public and private sphere. My grandmother’s work has been very much in the private sphere – she was not a public figure, she was not out there organizing people but leading the life that she led it was very clear that she believed that women should be able to do anything that anybody else does.

MS: Your grandmother’s name should be recorded.

SM: Her name is Saraswati Bai Ranade and I’m happy to say  that a school has been opened in her name in Sonale, Maharashtra (India) to which the whole family contributed.  

MS: Her name was well chosen – Saraswati is the Hindu  goddess of learning!

SM: That is true.

MS: Please tell our readers from outside Canada who Madeleine Parent is.

SM: Madeleine has been absolutely instrumental in, first of all, beginning the dialogue about how women of color and immigrant women are part of the Canadian women’s movement and has reached out to them. She has also worked with aboriginal women. Madeleine got me involved with NAC, a direction I would have never taken alone. Growth comes in so many different ways. I only spent four years with the executive of  National Action Committee yet during those four years I met such incredible women from across Canada. It was the first time that I was out of Montreal into a much larger Canadian context. I owe that to Madeleine. Aside from her well-know contributions there is the lesser known fact that through sheer persistence she made francophone organizations more effective at a time they were not,  because they did not see how the  whole question of Quebec nationalism could fit into the Canadian context.  Madeleine opened the path for women and SAWCC, to join hands.  

MS: Well, women have struggled all their lives to get rid of patriarchy but  lately there seems to be a  polarization of attitudes  throughout the world and a resurgence of patriarchy  both in the East as well as in the West. What’s do you say to this?

SM: Patriarchy is lurking all the time. We have to be very vigilant. It can be quite innocuous like subsidies for women to raise children. But in extreme patriarchy people use cultural practices and culture as a way of reasserting patriarchy on women. There is a constant struggle between women asserting their rights and those who wish to push them back.  One can argue that Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to the demonization of Islam. Once can also say that not only Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, but so is Christian and Hindu fundamentalism. We women cannot afford to say that we have won the battle.  We have to be vigilant and respond to those threats and make sure future generations understand those struggles.

MS: What’s your advice to our granddaughters’ generation? 

SM: I hope the world will be different for them, but we have to tell them to understand the world and see what is happening around them, to be critical, not to accept individual benefits as if they benefit the whole world.  We have to ingrain in them the value of social justice. That is one of the most important things that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren.

MS What you are saying Shree, is that equality for women equals social justice.

SM: Absolutely!

MS: Thank you very much.

Maya Khankhoje first met Shree Mulay in 1980 in Montreal during a meeting to establish the South Asian Women’s Community Centre.