Enhancing of women's strength and self-confidence through women empowerment

Enhancing of women’s strength and self-confidence through women empowerment

Though a popular buzzword since the 1980s, there has been little informed discussion on the term ’empowerment’. As the eminent sociologist Andre Beteille wrote, most analyses around the term so far have been more context-driven than theory-driven. It is important then to look at the context in which discussions over women empowerment and indeed women empowerment have arisen. On the whole, the context is one where there is a contradiction between ‘a hierarchical social order and a democratic political system’ (Beteille, 1999: 589), where the rights of citizenship and a democratic constitution founder against entrenched tradition and prejudice. The process of women empowerment—which can be understood in many ways—aims at overcoming these disabilities through a range of strategies. This website encourage the reader to view the concept in the very many ways in which Indian women have become empowered. Some point to what remains unfinished if not ignored.

Though a popular buzzword since the 1980s, there has been little informed discussion on the term ’empowerment’. As the eminent sociologist Andre Beteille wrote, most analyses around the term so far have been more context-driven than theory-driven. It is important then to look at the context in which discussions over women empowerment and indeed women empowerment have arisen. On the whole, the context is one where there is a contradiction between ‘a hierarchical social order and a democratic political system’ (Beteille, 1999: 589), where the rights of citizenship and a democratic constitution founder against entrenched tradition and prejudice. The process of women empowerment—which can be understood in many ways—aims at overcoming these disabilities through a range of strategies. This website encourage the reader to view the concept in the very many ways in which Indian women have become empowered. Some point to what remains unfinished if not ignored.

While women empowerment ‘may be invoked in virtually any context’, be it human rights, basic needs, capacity-building, skill formation or overall economic security’ (Beteille, 1999: 590), the meaning of this holdall term has nonetheless to be narrowed down. At a macro-political level, it can mean political participation and sharing in power. If one limits the discussion to the work space, it means a process of participation, awareness of rights and obligations as well as the growth of a sense of self-confidence and self-worth (Sreelakshmamma, 2008). Intra-familial dynamics point to yet other configurations of entitlements, negotiation and power sharing-Amartya Sen’s impressive work over the past three decades being a case in point. Now, his classic theory of entitlements has ensured that the South Asian family can never be viewed as a democratiс space, but one of cooperative conflict, bargaining and stress (Sen, 1981, 1990).

Historically, in India, ideas about the women empowerment of women gained credence after 1975, known as the International Year of Women; more specifically, this year had a particular salience in India as it coincided with the publication of the path-breaking Towards Equality, the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India. This report not only highlighted women’s position in a range of fields but also quite pointedly asserted the need to strengthen their political, social and economic bases. In other words, it was essential to empower them and provide them with the means of gaining control over their lives. It meant a shift away from the welfarist model of growth that treated women as objects of munificence, doled out by the family, society and indeed government. Women needed to take charge of their lives, and this meant challenging the development from the above approach. Naila Kabeer has argued that women empowerment questions the notions of selfhood into which girls and women are socialised; by bringing about a change in the ‘distribution in material and symbolic resources and opportunities between women and men in the development process’, it is possible to give women agency and the power to question accepted notions of selfhood (Kabeer, 1999). This can often mean something as quotidian as asserting the right to come out of the home, into mixed company. It becomes particularly relevant in the context of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution that brought thousands of women into the political process through Panchayati Raj (Baviskar and Mathew, 2009). Women who had not known the outside world have overnight become the repositories of power and authority.

Thus, the women empowerment entails their visibility and ability to make choices; such choices may challenge the established power hierarchy not only within the home, but in society as well (Kabeer, 2010). This means the agency of a positive kind that can be transformative. Given women’s overall subordinate position, they can also have what Kabeer calls ‘passive agency’, where they take action in a situation where there is little choice. An example of this would be organising a daughter’s marriage when the decision of who the bridegroom should be is taken by the men in family. It is, however, the positive aspects of agency that constitute women empowerment. This necessarily means self-awareness, commitment to change and to involve oneself in participatory endeavours through building on one’s latent talents as well as developing new skills, both in the sphere of personality and in the areas of work and employment.

Based on his extensive field work in rural West Bengal, Banerjee (1997) argued that this capacity-building places a heavy dependence on the self. In some senses, it is this meaning of women empowerment which is the most relevant in the present context. The notion of capacity-building stresses individual growth as much, if not more than, as an external adjustment in the sharing of power and authority. Nonetheless, as enhancing individual capacity involves new skills as well as new ways of viewing oneself, the process may cause a woman to reflect on her situation, including a sense of autonomy or lack of it; it may also help her to work towards a better adjustment to domestic power relations as well as her attitude to a wider environment.

At the same time, at the interpersonal level, the women empowerment of some may lead to the disempowerment of others or at any rate, a perception that they are being disempowered. This is particularly true of men within families who often feel threatened when women organise. Women empowerment clearly leads to a better sense of self-worth, often through collective action that aims at, among other things, economic betterment. For women empowerment is largely about ‘ordinary, common people, rather than politicians, experts and other socially or culturally advantaged persons’, an improvement in the quality of life is integral to an understanding of the term (Beteille, 1999: 590). Banerjee argues that there are indications that ‘women exposed to some amount of mobilisation show great potentialities, receptiveness and defining capacities once the direction is appropriately conveyed’ (Banerjee, 1993: 7). Often, the so-called illiterate women who are exposed to some amount of mobilisation show great potential and capacity for leadership. Women’s organisations, Panchayati Raj institutions and even the State have facilitated the women empowerment; various case studies on this website bear testimony to this overarching fact.

There is enough evidence to show that the role of the Indian State has not been insignificant in the evolution of women’s organisations and their differing goals. The relationship between the two, however, tends to be ambivalent, and the government has often been challenged by women’s organisations. Contentious issues range from policy to specific situations where the State is held responsible, for example, for not protecting women from crime or violence. While the Indian government cannot be characterised as a monolithic entity, which always speaks in a single voice on every issue concerning women, nonetheless, its efforts at addressing women’s questions have had a long history. There are numerous and notable instances of the government’s receptivity to voices, not only from the contemporary women’s movement, but also from the ‘welfare’ agendas of the older women’s organisations. On occasion, the State has been instrumental in raising women’s issues and accordingly creating policies and programmes and setting up special organs within its administration for their implementation. All of these can be construed as measures taken by the State for the benefit of women empowerment.

Issues such as the relationship between organisations and the State acquire a particular salience in the age of global economies. The State and its apparatus are in the process of being ‘discursively transformed through neoliberal rhetoric and strategies and through grassroots praxis’. In this situation of flux, women empowerment results in ‘reconfiguring the relationships between the state and local actors, transforming development, and reshaping citizenship and popular politics…’ (Sharma, 2010: xvi-vii). Sharma reiterated the well-known view that the neoliberal Indian State has little to offer to those at the margins of society; the middle classes and elites have been the gainers in a world where consumerism has grown exponentially.

It is against this backdrop of growing inequalities where fallacious arguments on how much is needed for a poor family to keep the wolf from the door sound particularly hollow that issues of women empowerment become increasingly significant. As Satish Agnihotri points out on this website, there is a need for gender-sensitive versus gender-blind governance. It is not enough to carry out multitudinous surveys without disaggregating the data. Known for his work on the declining female sex ratio, Agnihotri regrets that those in charge of collecting and analysing statistics whether it be for the Integrated Child Development Scheme or on the health of young children often do not keep in mind the need to determine differences based on gender in nutritional status or in access to services. Official myopia often works against attempts to facilitate the women empowerment. And in situations of ethnic conflict such as in Nagaland, women and children are often innocent victims; on the basis of a study in the Dhemaji district of Assam, Sanjoy Hazarika found that combatants were not security forces or organised militant groups but ethnic groups which ‘saw threats from “the other” to their identity and control of land’; in such contexts, where survival is at stake, the women empowerment becomes but a remote chimera. In fact, it becomes all the more necessary to look not only at conflict-management processes but also at legal reform as essential for an atmosphere where women will feel secure. Feminist lawyer Kirti Singh points out that while it was the gang rape of December 2013 ‘which forced a reluctant government to bring about change’, the women’s movement, various organisations and individuals have been agitating for gender-sensitive laws from the 1980s onwards. However, as her brief history of sexual assault laws shows, there is still a long way to go. While the notion of struggle is not absent in many accounts of women’s quest for women empowerment, a number of essays on this website are success stories often moving out of the usual paradigm of power-sharing to other fields where women have become icons of success in a difficult environment.

The philosophical concept of women empowerment and its practical implications has matured and developed considerably over the years; while political participation, economic self-reliance and social awareness would be the obvious parameters to judge ‘levels’ of women empowerment, going back occasionally in time, this collection introduces us to women as craftspersons, dancers, singers, actors, litterateurs, businesswomen and doctors. These are, to use a cliché, symbols of emancipated Indian womanhood. But there are others too, those recently empowered by grassroots’ organisations and State intervention. Some contributions paint with broad strokes, providing a macro-picture, while others introduce us to individual women and their genius or to institutions that became path-breakers. Familiar and somewhat conventional terms are used by most Authors while a few introduce us to the world of gender budgeting and gender mainstreaming. From the 1980s onwards, discussions around women’s status in the South have relied on the well-known Women in Development (WID) theories. These have gradually been superseded by the more inclusive Gender and Development (GAD) approach that tackles the question of inequalities in power and looks to women empowerment in all fields (Kabeer, 1995; Razavi and Miller, 1995). No matter which approach is adopted and by whom, this website introduces us to empowered women in many fields, ranging from the political sphere where sharing in leadership remains a major issue to the delicate tracery of the Madhubani artist, imbued with a sense of inequality and the consequent search for self-expression.

The changing parameters of women’s leadership are skilfully etched by Devaki Jain and Padmini Swaminathan, both significant actors in the theory and practice of the Indian women’s movement. Jain (assisted by Deepshika Batheja) points out that the nature of women’s leadership challenges existing notions of power and ‘the concept of representation and leadership’. Women’s study centres (‘powerhouses and catalysts’) and the recently anointed Internet age have expanded the parameters of debate and discourse while, as Swaminathan argues, certain organisations (in this case, the MV Foundation in Andhra Pradesh) have introduced gender mainstreaming where ‘economic transformation [comes] with social emancipation’. Renana Jhabvala’s insider account of the functioning of Self-employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) and case studies of individual women only goes to strengthen the belief that power-sharing is not alien to women. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India which reserves a third of seats for women in all elected local government bodies has been a historic step, bringing over a million women into the political sphere. It has interrogated the private-public dichotomy and forced discussion on issues such as women’s traditional roles, familial expectations and changing responsibilities. J. Devika’s study of women Panchayat members in Kerala gives a lie to the notion that it is governance by proxy. In fact, a new model of authority, that of ‘gentle power’, has emerged, one that has the full approval of men. Women get their way at the micro-political level by subtle, non-threatening strategies in keeping with established and acceptable notions of feminine behaviour. However, as Sudha Pai points out, when at the top, women politicians are as adept as men in the language and methods of negotiation and power-brokering. At the margins, the problems are different and there are not many Mayawatis on the political stage. When it comes to participation in the public sphere, Dalit women, writes Gopal Guru in an insightful essay, have very specific problems: the stigma of caste has to contend with the patriarchal worldview of their men which attempts to keep them at the margins. Self-expression in the form of Godna paintings from the Madhubani district of Bihar and their distinct form of poetry such as the ovie of Maharashtra are powerful release mechanisms. The collective nature of labour is carried over to the field of creativity. There are exceptions though, such as the dictated biography of Viramma or Kumud Pawade’s 1981 memoir. Feminist historian Uma Chakravarti discusses both, underlining the inherent violence of such lives described so well by Bama in Karukku.

Unlike most other collections on women empowerment, contributions to this article go well beyond conventional understandings of enhancing women’s strength and self-confidence through socio-political and economic means: a quick look at the history of a couple of centuries brings into focus early doctors, singers, dancers, actors and, of course, craftspersons. Paid and unpaid labour in agriculture and agriculture-related activities accounts for the time and energy of the largest number of Indian women. A close second is the crafts sector. It is only in recent years that there has been an awareness of the need to hone existing skills of craftspersons as well as train them in new designs and techniques. Though as early as 1919, Rabindranath Tagore introduced crafts into the curriculum at Kala Bhawana, it is only less than a decade ago that Kala Raksha Vidyalaya in Kutch and the Handloom Weaving School in Maheshwar were set up to teach traditional artisans the use of alternate dyes, innovative weaving techniques and so on. If middle-class imaginations have rarely stretched to the benefits of training craftspeople, there was no lack of interest and indeed initiatives in training girls of their own background. In 1886, Kadambini Basu and Anandibai Joshi became the first women doctors of the British Indian Empire only because their husbands took advantage of the facilities available to young women. Such facilities had taken firm root by the end of the 19th century, first in the three Presidencies and then in other parts of the country.

As well-known historian of education Aparna Basu writes, ‘in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, north India was one of the most backward areas in the country in terms of women’s education’. Deep-rooted prejudices, fears of challenges from educated girls as well as fewer institutions than in other parts of the country meant fewer literate girls. Aware of the need to change things, a handful of elite Delhites set up the Indraprastha Putri Pathshala in 1904. Twenty years later, the school was to become Indraprastha College, and in 1916, Lady Hardinge Medical College was established. Young women in Delhi could now hope to become doctors—albeit several decades after Kadambini from the Bengal Presidency and Anandibai in faraway Philadelphia had qualified to practise.

To be a doctor, teacher or even a lawyer were the most popular career options available to young middle-class Indian women in pre-Independence India. It was only the exceptions who became pilots like Sarla Thukral or photographers as did Annapurna Datta and later Homi Vyarawalla, or joined the Telengana movement and learnt to wield rifles long before the Maoists started raising cadres of young revolutionary women. For those a bit older, the All-India Women’s Conference, various mahila mandals, women’s groups and organisations were respectable fora—and many introduced members to issues of power-sharing and decision-making within the organisation: Today, often generating programmes for government and implementing others of their own, women’s groups also perform the role of vigilantes and assist in counselling and arbitrating in cases such as marital discord, domestic violence and sexual harassment (Karlekar et al., 1995). Some organisations are successful in training women for managerial positions in a non-business context, SEWA being a case in point.

That managerial positions for women in higher education needed special attention was recognised by the National Educational Policy of 1986 and a programme under the auspices of the University Grants Commission was started in 1994. As one involved in this process of capacity-building, Karuna Chanana was able to put her years of university teaching in a department of education to good use. At the end of Sensitization, Awareness and Motivation or SAM workshops, she found that a number of participants became ‘aware of the larger role that they can play within their institutions’. If moving into management positions may be new for college and university teachers, it is the raison d’etre for those in business and corporate houses. Yet, as Pushpa Sunder shows, while almost 50 per cent of those who graduate from Indian Institutes of Management are women, only 10-1 5 per cent are swiftly absorbed in jobs. In the fast-growing hospitality and IT sectors, cthe gender ratio is heavily skewed in favour of men1. And for those who become managers, many c.et sidelined into non-strategic positions. The overweening presence o( the glass ceiling means that a mere 6 per cent make it to corporate boards. Aggressive masculine values are valorised—even [hough as Sunder argues that in banking, financial and HR services, the so-called feminine traits of empathy and patience could well be equally valuable.

If the reader feels a slight despondency at the persistent inequalities in areas of high visibility such as the corporate and business worlds, Rita Sethi’s detailed historical sweep of the development of crafts in post-independent India by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Pupul Jayakar and, much later, Laila Tyabji and Jaya Jaitley reaffirms the belief that Indian women’s empowerment in certain areas has been well on its way for several decades. Nor would it be judicious to brush aside such achievements as being those in ‘soft’ areas: a major employer of both men and women, the indigenous craft sector is not one where leadership is a cakewalk. Like any other sphere of collective activity, it has meant a long and difficult meander to not only convince and carry along one’s cohorts, but also to be taken seriously. Admittedly, these women at the helm have been privileged not only by birth, but also by their proximity to the existing power elite. Though Jayakar was close to Indira Gandhi (the elegant Prime Minister gave the handloom sari a place in the sun), she too had surely to contend vviih gender biases and prejudices against the sector.

When one moves away from institutions and entrenched power elites to the area of individual genius, it is to the likes of Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi that one mms. Her mesmerizing prose and searing word images, writes Radha Chakravarty, bring tribal women who have been silenced for centuries, into the discourse of power. The naked raped and humiliated Dopdi becomes ‘a terrifying figure of vengelul female wrath’ while her tormentors, the hated men in uniform, quail at the sight of her violated body. A few decades before Mahasweta Devi, another woman had made history by bringing the métier of a different group of disprivileged and oppressed women into focus. In Madras, Rukmini Devi Arundale took sadir, the dance of the devadasis, on to the public stage. She not only successfully transgressed the boundaries set for a Brahmin woman but also made Bharatanatyam, as she renamed it, acceptable for generations of young women. Documenter of dance, Ashish Mohan Khokar, traces the life of this amazing young woman who not only defied conservative society by marrying the 42-year-old Theosophist, George Arundale, but also went on to be an institution-builder (Kalakshetra), a brilliant innovator, a teacher of dance and an animal rights’ activist.

At about this time, the 1930s, women in India had started entering the film industry, the earliest being of Anglo-Indian, Eurasian and Jewish origin. Sarah Rahman Niazi points out that though actresses ‘enjoyed freedoms unknown to women from other socially sanctioned respectable professions’, they elicited deep-seated moral indignation and anxiety from an essentially conservative society. However, there were few like Devika Rani from the Tagore family who not only acted but also ran her own studio company. Some years later, Durga Khote from a not dissimilar Maharashtrian background became a well-respected actor. For those who have seen Bhoomika, the angst of the early woman film actor (Hamsa Wadkar) so poignantly portrayed by Smita Patil, comes as no surprise. On the other hand, for those from families where performance was not a taboo, it was an easier social transition. Jaddan Bai came from a family of tawaifs and soon created a niche for herself in the Talkies. At different levels of expertise and performing often for a disparate clientele, women Hindustani classical singers such as Kesarbai Kerkar, Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar and others brought a new dimension to an understanding of the feminine presence in an art form. Kumud Diwan Jha, an exponent of the Banaras Gharana writes about them as being the Alpha song birds-vibrant, powerful and brilliant. As creative activities, dance, music and singing have had women exponents for well over a century—though it may only have been since the 1930s that there was a grudging public acknowledgement of their right to do so. Women have been writing fiction since the late 19th century, but interestingly enough, while folk artists have perhaps painted the mud walls of their homes for centuries, the middle-class woman artist emerged, again in the 1930s. Kala Bhawan and the Bengal School of Art were among the first to encourage young women not only to paint but also to make wood blocks and elaborate works using batik. At the individual level, there was the genius of Amrita Sher-Gil and some decades later Anjolie Ela Menon. Many contemporary women artists have a deep feminist sensibility, acutely aware of their role as women. Thus, Deeptha Achar discusses the work of contemporary artist Nilima Sheikh who has commented on the close approximation of her work to the women’s movement.

That in 2014, it is still necessary to devote a website to women leadership and women empowerment indicates that many questions remain unanswered. Among other things, it is never too late to interrogate the increasingly minimalist role of the State in vital areas such as education and health. By implication, some contributors have looked at the negative role of the State; others have acknowledged its role in initiating pro-woman laws. At the same time, individual initiatives and collective ventures outside the purview of the State have worked, often more for women. Whether they be activists, performers, lawyers, administrators, journalists or academics, the contributors to this collection have brought into focus once again the need to keep stretching the parameters of women empowerment. These are not a given—and if individual life stories are inspiring, there are many more that remain untold if not forgotten. Through its emphasis on areas not usually regarded as ’empowering’ or areas of work and interest as those befitting ’empowered women’,  we have brought into focus many lives and their varied stories. Some have been shrouded in silence; others were known by only a select few. Yet others have been acknowledged but not regarded as germane to discussions on women leadership and women empowerment.

And of course, as must be expected with well-established scholars, activists and performers, each author has her or his own take on people, institutions and situations. Points of view will differ and some acknowledged experts in particular fields may not appear in the dramatis personae; these should not be viewed as omissions—but as challenges to readers to make space for different readings of well-known contexts and trends. After all, the aim of this volume is to enlarge the discourse, questioning notions of what can and should be included in ideas of women empowerment. Borrowing from Andre Beteille, it questions the authority of a gender-based hierarchical order within an ostensibly democratic system. Some contributions provide answers to this questioning; others discerningly point to the road that yet lies ahead.

Enhancing of women’s strength and self-confidence through women empowerment
Rate this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.