Saturday, 17 May 2014

Feminism & Feminist Issues in the South- A Critique of “Development” Paradigm

I would like to clarify at the outset that feminism and commitment to strengthening women’s rights in society through concrete, demonstrable actions are not always synonymous in the countries of the South. However, the public domain on women’s issues is dominated by the discourse made fashionable by international development agencies of First World Countries.

For example in India, we have a long tradition of male social reformers dedicating their entire life to battling prejudices against equal participation of women in public life and strengthening their rights within the family. This is how within 19th century social reform movements as well as the 20th century freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi women’s rights issues came to be core issues.

Many of the rights for which valiant feminists in the West fought long drawn battles in the face of hostile attacks from men of their societies, especially those in the political establishment came to Indian women through the efforts of male social reformers and freedom fighters who took the lead in fighting battles along with women. They braved forces of resistance in order to make dignified space for women in public and political life of India. Unlike in the Western democracies, rights of women to education at par with men, to vote, to hold political office, enter male dominated professions came without a lonely and harsh battle. The right to contraception and abortion have never evoked religious opposition or hostility in India as it did in countries where the Church holds the veto power on these issues.

For example, the Indian national Congress elected Annie Besant as party President as early as 1919.  Sarojini Naidu was Gandhi's choice for Congress president in 1925.  As early as 1931, the Congress party passed a resolution at its Karachi annual session committing itself to the political equality of women, regardless of their status and qualifications. It is significant that at that time, women in most European countries had not yet won the right to vote, leave alone the right to hold political office, despite a much longer history of struggle on this issue.
But in India these rights came gracefully. For example, when Montague and Chelmsford came to India in 1917 to work out some reforms towards self-government, Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant led a small delegation of women to demand that the same rights of representation in legislatures be granted to women as well. The British government tried to evade the issue by suggesting that the new legislatures they were creating, which included Indian representatives, should be allowed to decide for themselves on this issue. This was said on the assumption that Indians, being more 'backward', would never be able to accept the idea of equal political rights for women. However, beginning with the Madras legislature, between 1922 and 1929, each one of the legislatures voted to make it possible for women to be represented in them.
The testimony of Margaret Cousins, an Irish feminist who played a major role in women's organizations in India as well as in Britain, brings out this feature very well: 
"Perhaps only women like myself who had suffered from the cruelties, the injustices of the men politicians, the man-controlled Press, the man in the street, in England and Ireland while we waged our militant campaign for eight years there after all peaceful and constitutional means had been tried for fifty previous years, could fully appreciate the wisdom, nobility and the passing of fundamental tests in self-government of these Indian legislators...between the Madras Legislative Council in 1921 and Bihar Council in 1929 all the legislative areas of India had conferred the symbol and instrument of equal citizenship with men…”
However, most present day feminists disown the male social reformers on the ground that they were not “feminist” in their orientation.  However, in society at large, including among women, men like Mahatma Phule, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Lala Devraj, Ranade, Periyar, Mahatma Gandhi etc., are iconic figures who have left a powerful legacy of using the best aspects of Indian tradition to combat the culture of discrimination against women that had accrued over time.

Even in contemporary India, many of radical mass based women’s rights struggles have been led by men. Among the many notable examples are: Shankar Guha Niyogi who organized tribal and working class women in the mining belt of Chattisgarh, Chandi Prasad Bhatt who lent strength to women in Himalayan villages to protect their forests and rivers through the famed Chipko movement, Sharad Joshi who mobilized the impoverished peasantry in Maharashtra not only to fight against the anti- farm policies of the government but also created willingness among farmers  to bestow land rights to women, allow them to assume  a leadership role in the movement and in elected bodies at the village level. Several outstanding women have emerged in leadership roles with such like rural movements. But the development analysts invariably present a uni-dimensional picture of patriarchal oppression as though women in these societies would be crushed but for the efforts of feminist activism sponsored by development agencies. 

Eurocentric View of Development
The terms “Development” as well as its counterpart “Underdevelopment” are politically loaded terms. Most societies termed “underdeveloped” have a colonial past whereby their people and resources were economically exploited and their social, cultural and political institutions wrecked. These terms are designed to create amnesia about the politics of colonialism and convince people in these societies that their poverty is due to their “backwardness”. This is the new avataar of the ideology of “civilizing mission.”
To illustrate the limitations and inbuilt biases of this framework, I would like to use the World Bank report entitled Gender Equality and Development (GED) 2012.  Except for its emphasis on market based solutions to eliminate poverty, its over all framework of analysis is not very different from that of international donor agencies promoting their “development” agenda.

Civilizing Mission in a New Avataar
The very first chapter of GED, A Wave of Progress starts by saying, “Despite the hardships many women endure in their daily lives, things have changed for the better and at a speed that would not have been expected even two decades ago...Improvements that took 100 years in wealthier countries took just 40 years in some low and middle income countries. It then goes on to give us a brief overview of “Equal rights in advanced economies”.

The overall framework is that of linear progress starting with the 18th century Europe. It lists the following events as historic landmarks in women’s rights struggles:
a)   British Parliament enacts  the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857;
b)  The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 in Britain recognizing a husband and a  wife as two separate legal entities, conferring to wives the right to buy, own and sell property separately;
c)  Norway provides full economic rights to women in 1888 and suffrage rights in 1913;
d)  In the US, New York becomes the first state, in 1848, to pass the Married Women’s Property Act. Wives’ rights to earnings and property gradually spread to other states over the following half century.

And so on...
This section ends by reminding us that “Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1985 obliged employers merely to endeavour to treat men and women equally during job recruitment, assignment, and promotion. The mandate for equal treatment came about in 1997. The first domestic violence law was passed in 2001”

This is meant to hammer the point that even a “ developed” Asian Country like Japan is decades behind  Europe and America- what to talk of “ underdeveloped” countries of Africa and Asia!. We are then reminded that it is “the ratification of CEDAW and other international treaties”- all of which emanated from western countries that “established a comprehensive framework to promote equality for women.”

The GED report is supposed to provide us a global overview of the challenges faced by women the world over.  However, there is hardly any mention of the problems faced by women in First World “developed” countries.  The assumption is that they have solved all their problems and have provided bench marks and a road map for countries of the South.
That is why in almost all the charts and graphs presented in the Report, countries of the South are presented as not yet measuring up to “developed” countries. Countries of the North are no doubt ahead of most countries of the South in matters of education and employment opportunities for women. But such reports completely overlook the fact that domestic violence is fairly rampant in developed countries which have very high participation of women in the work force as well as high education level for females.  Sexual violence is also very common in these societies.  What does the flourishing pornographic industry and sex trafficking say about the status of women in first world countries?  Why are these not used as important indicators for evaluating the status of women?

Similarly, there is no discussion on implications of high divorce rate and consequent fragility of the family as an institution in these countries. Is it an unmixed blessing for women?  What are its consequences for children?

In this Eurocentric world view, problems of women in First World countries are erased out of existence and the non-European world projected as politically and culturally backward and, therefore in need of perpetual guidance by the West. This is not the only “development report” that displays total lack of awareness about the fact that many of the “underdeveloped” countries of the South such as India, China and other Asian countries were highly prosperous economies and societies during the period Europe describes as its “Medieval Dark Ages”. Even in the 18th century, India and China were world leaders in trade, manufacturing, architecture, arts and even medicine.

The era of “progress” for Europe was the era of colonization for many of the countries of the South. While Europe prospered, the colonized societies were politically subjugated through brute force and wrecked- economically, socially and culturally.  Apart from their legendary wealth, many of the Asian countries had matrilineal family structures. Even in 18th century India large regions in the South and East followed matrilineal inheritance. In patrilineal family structures too Indian women had inalienable right to family property in the form of stridhan (totally different from modern day dowries)-which passed from mother to daughter.

But because in Britain and US the law began changing in favour of women only in 1857 and 1858 respectively, it is assumed that the world over women had lived like hapless dependents.  This world view wants us to erase memories of colonial rule in the South which disinherited women by enacting laws which transformed community owned assets and joint family owned property into individual property vested only in male hands. For the Victorian minded British, “patriarchal control over property and women was the “natural” God-given order of things.

Matrilineal communities in India were condemned for encouraging “promiscuous and immoral” conduct among women.  Women of matrilineal families were described with disdain reserved for prostitutes because they could change their partners at will and divorce was not an issue in the way it was in the Christian world. They were legally pushed into giving up matrilineal inheritance systems in favour of patriarchal controls.    Today, the same societies are being delivered sermons against sexual repression of women and advised to be more sexually liberated!

Obsession with 50 Percentism.
Another problem with the “Women and Development” framework is its obsession with measuring women’s well- being through the“50 per-cent’ benchmark. The parameters crafted by international development agencies for evaluating women’s status in different societies are all centred on counting the percentage of women in various fields of life such as education, professions, labour force and politics. The march to “equality “means only one thing –how far are women from occupying 50 % of the spaces in all domains including jobs. Wherever they are less than 50% it is assumed that they are deprived and excluded, and therefore oppressed.

“Percentagism” in and of itself makes good sense in some areas such as sex ratio figures since the ratio at birth for males and females is near equal. It is also well established that Mother Nature has made the female of our species sturdier than the male. However, in certain parts of the world, including most of South Asia and China the growing culture of son preference as well as neglect of their health and nutritional needs has resulted in an alarming deficit of females in the overall population of these countries. It is indeed an important and telling indicator of the vulnerable status of women in these regions.  Therefore, “50 percentism” is a valid criterion in this domain.

However, in many other domains, it does not tell the whole story or can lead to erroneous conclusions. For example, there is a great deal of hoopla about equal participation of women in parliaments and state legislatures as a means of political empowerment.  However, feminists and development experts have paid far less attention to the nature of representative democracy in countries of the South as well as North.

When political parties are themselves under the grip of money and muscle power and institutions of governance are steeped in crime and corruption because they lack accountability and transparency can the presence of a certain percentage of women by itself make our polity and governance machinery more citizen friendly?  India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines have seen women rise to the top echelons of power only to outperform the worst of men in crime and corruption. Did American foreign policy become less hegemonic or militarist when Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State? Did they try to curb the arms manufacturing lobby any more than the macho males who assumed those positions of power?

It is not enough to demand that women be given 50% share of the available pie without first examining whether the pie is worth eating at all.  And if it is rotten, women should know how to bake a new and healthy pie which has enough portions for all.

All this is not to undermine the importance of enabling women to have a decisive say in public policy and political affairs but merely to point out that this “ladies compartment” approach to women’s issues which demands that women should have reserved compartments in every train, never mind whether the train is headed for doom and destruction because its engineering is intrinsically faulty and disaster prone.

Similarly, much is made of school enrolment figures for girls as an indicator of high or low status.  But the percentage of girl’s enrolment in school tells a partial story about the future prospects of these girls or for that matter that of boys. The quality of education being imparted to them has far greater implications on what doors open or remain shut for them in life. In countries like India that have adopted English as the language of elite education, administration and access to job opportunities-- quality of education in most government schools meant for the poor is abysmal.

India is producing a large army of young men who come out of school as unskilled, unemployable and lumpenized brigades. They have been uprooted from the traditional occupations of their parents- be it farming, weaving, carpentry, metal work and so on- with the promise of upward mobility through “modern” education.  But they are not provided any worthwhile skills, not even in reading and writing, to equip them for the modern sectors of the economy, except as low paid manual workers. This is something that they are not prepared for because it means lowering of social status, not upward mobility. Indian towns, cities and villages are full of such frustrated young men who have spent years in schools and even colleges but cannot get a job to match their new found aspirations.

When the sons and daughters of highly skilled weavers, goldsmiths, farmers, move away from traditional occupations and join the unskilled labour force despite years spent in poorly run schools, it can’t be called “development”. It is a civilizational tragedy. There is pride associated with being a master crafts woman or man. There is no pride in a man becoming a cycle rickshaw puller, a truck cleaner or a head loader on a construction sites.
The economic and social status of supposedly “illiterate” women in weaver or potter households was far better and respect worthy than that a woman or who has received poor quality high school or even bachelor’s degree which does not equip her for anything better than a lowly clerical or sales girl job involving soul less drudgery. In a traditional weaver or potter household, women were an indispensable part of a very creative production process involving specialized skills. Even if they did not get a separate pay cheque they were not treated as dispensable.  If today women of such households come out low on the Human Development Index, it is primarily on account of state policies aimed at marginalizing and destroying these traditional crafts and technologists despite the fact that these artisanal groups produce high quality aesthetic products which have ready buyers in the national and international markets.  We need policy interventions that enable these traditional home based production units to earn dignified incomes – not necessarily make factory workers or clerks out of them, unless of course they opt to abandon these occupations out of choice.

Ideological Preference for Employment in the Organized Sector
The “development” paradigm has a strong bias against employment in the self organized sector. Any country that shows a higher percentage of people employed in the organized sectors of the economy is considered “developed” and “advanced” and those with a high percentage in the self-organized sectors are considered “backward” and “under developed.” Low percentage of women in the unorganized sector is also held up as an example of discriminatory policies against women.

However, in countries like India, the self organized sectors of the economy have proved to be a boon and provide far greater avenues of economic advancement and upward mobility than most jobs in the organized sectors of the economy.  In most developed economies, over 90% of people are in the organized sector and a relatively small proportion is self employed.  Therefore, the moment there is economic crisis leading to job cuts and retrenchment of workers, people’s lives come crashing own.  However in countries like India where over 92% are in the self organized sectors of the economy (with no more than 3% in corporate sector and 3% in government employment) most people don’t even notice economic downturns.  This is an important reason why the economic crisis that hit Europe and US in the last decade did not produce any cataclysmic changes for countries like India or Bangladesh.  These economies kept growing through the period of economic crash.

People in the self employed sector prosper fast except when government policies are outright hostile to them.  Take the example of street vendors – a woman hawker can easily earn much more than a factory worker or an office clerk because profit margins in retail are usually high and business in street hawking brisk since they sell low value goods.  They experience rapid upward mobility because they get an opportunity to develop entrepreneurial skills and explore new opportunities.  Most of the 1947 Partition refugees in India who started their lives as destitute footpath hawkers developed prosperous businesses in no time – Some even built corporate empires overtime.  By contrast, a bank cashier or an office clerk may have relatively greater security but avenues of upward mobility are limited. 

If street vendors and other self employed groups remain trapped in low income ghettos it is mainly because their occupation is not given due recognition and legal protection by government.  They are forced to survive by seeking protection of political mafias and police who siphon off large parts of their incomes by way of bribes. The routine violence during clearance operations unleashed on vendors makes it doubly risky for women to survive in this occupation.  That is why in countries that have hostile policies towards street vendors far fewer women are found in this trade.  But in vendor-friendly countries like Thailand women thrive and dominate the markets and make good money.  Most important of all, it provides free business training to the younger generation with young boys and girls joining their mothers as helping hands after school.  No organized sector job allows such free hands on training for family members with flexible timings. 

Similarly, women who set up small tailoring shops or beauty parlours at home are able to combine housework with their nano enterprises.  Most expand their businesses and start earning good money within no time minus the guilt of neglecting their family responsibilities.   But they too face problems at the hands of venal inspectors of various government agencies who use ill conceived labour legislation and restrictive municipal laws against use of residential premises for commercial purposes to harass such home based businesses. But “development” experts would rather put all these nano entrepreneurs in regimented 9-5 jobs with bosses breathing down their neck all the time.

Devaluation of Women as Home Makers
Apart from undervaluing the importance of home based enterprises run by women in the unorganized sector, development experts have a strong ideological preference for seeing women “gainfully employed” in paid jobs outside their homes.  The flip side of this ideological position is systematic devaluation of women’s role as mothers and as home makers.

In India and several other countries of the South, traditionally women’s role in the family, especially as mothers has been much glorified.  This often goes hand in hand with oppressive practices that go contrary to the stated ideology.  But the cultural ideal holds powerful sway, not only in real life but also popular media, including Bollywood films and TV serials. A man who treats his mother, aunts, sisters, grandmother and daughters with respect and love is looked up to as a role model.  A man who proudly declares to the world that his mother is like God for him and that her word is sacred is widely respected and admired – not sent to a psychiatrist to get rid of his oedipal complex – as would happen to him in many countries of the western world.

When we devalue women’s role as home makers and as nurturers of future generations, simply because they don’t get a pay cheque for it, we are demeaning the special unique gifts Mother Nature has bestowed on women.  In highly evolved traditional cultures, women have been considered worship worthy for this role.  But the dominant feminist discourse within the “development” framework treats women who focus on this role as “unproductive” work force which is not contributing to national wealth and economic growth.

We need to respect the fact that a lot of women would rather not have dual jobs – as homemakers and wage earners.  For many going out to labour outside the house is a distress response.  Many prefer to devote their full attention to family and children.  For many women withdrawal from wage labour comes as a big relief. Many prefer that their husbands earn enough to support the whole family in comfort because world wide experience shows that the best of paid child care does not compare favourably with parental and family care. If both husband and wife are in high pressure jobs, it is difficult to do justice to children, unless one has the support of extended family-- grandparents, uncles and aunts. But joint family is also an anathema for most feminists. They only see it as the site of restrictions and oppression for women. This despite the fact that there is plentiful evidence in countries like India that women who live in supportive extended families where grandparents and others share large part of the responsibility for child care, rise high in their professions because they do not have to take mid-career breaks and can devote time on their professions without worrying about neglecting family.

It is noteworthy that the early battles waged by the working class were for family wage so that women did not have to work under compulsion.  The job of women’s rights activists should be limited to ensuring that every woman who wishes to take up a paid job or profession outside the house is not prevented from doing so due to lack of opportunities or discriminatory social practices.  But it is presumptuous of feminists to insist that every woman must work for a wage and those who don’t are socially “unproductive” and culturally “backward.”  Feminism should be about respecting women’s choices not imposing a pre set, ideologically determined road map for all.  A society that values human beings only because they bring in hard cash is not a very civilized society.  Tasks such as nurturing new generation or elderly parents are priceless and deserve to be treated with greater respect than the best of paid jobs.

To conclude, one-size sits all approach advocate by development experts doesn’t take into account diverse needs and aspirations of women.

First Published in Companion to Development Studies, 2014

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar
इक उम्र असर होने तक… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …اک عمر اثر ہونے تک

Follow by e-mail