Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global/Local World

By Jane L. Parpart; Shirin M. Rai et al. | Go to book overview

The quota debate in India alliances that women and women's organizations need to engage in now to be effective in a still largely male political terrain.

The Indian example offers many insights to women engaged in similar struggles in other countries and contexts. First, it points to the 'rethink' within the Indian women's movement regarding strategies of empowerment. A shift has occurred among these groups regarding an engagement with the state and its institutions. It is now increasingly seen as an essential part of women's struggles to improve their lives. This shift is so fundamental that it crosses political party lines, creating a new consensus on this issue. In the words of the doyenne of Indian Women's Studies, Vina Mazumdar, it is now accepted that 'politics is not a dirty word' for women. Changes in policy-making machineries are critical to the improvement of women's life chances (Rai 1995). Second, the Indian example points to the importance of recognizing levels of governance in crafting strategies of political empowerment when women seek to engage the state. The quota Bill in 1993, which provided for 33 per cent seats in the village and town councils, passed without a murmur from any political party. Yet similar demands at the national level tore this consensus apart. Disassociating empowerment politics from local politics provides an explanation as well as a context for this discrepancy. Third, the Indian example critically points to the importance of recognizing differences among women and women's groups. Because women's groups arguing for the quota did not think it strategically necessary to highlight the issue of differences among women on the basis of caste, they were wrong footed politically. Empowerment for whom became the issue when they had asked the question, 'Empowerment for what?' Finally, the Indian case shows that there is no simple correlation between an enhanced visibility of women in political institutions and a sense of empowerment of 'women' in the polity in general. It reminds us that the question of empowerment cannot be disassociated from the question of relations of power within different socio-political systems. In order to challenge structural impediments to women's participation in political institutions, we need to pay attention to the multifaceted power relations that contextualize that challenge. The debates on empowerment, and attempts to put them into practice, need to be opened up to these questions. Seductive as the language of empowerment is, it needs to, and can, be much more.


Notes
1
A version of this chapter was first published in Democratization 6(3) (autumn 1999), pp. 84–99. My thanks to the editors and anonymous referees for their comments.
2
For the particularity of right-wing mobilization of women, see U. Butalia and T. Sarkar, Women and right-wing movements: The Indian experiences (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1995).

References

Agnihotri, I. and V. Mazumdar (1995) 'Changing terms of political discourse: Women's movement in India, 1970s–1990s', Economic and Political Weekly 30(29): 1869–78.

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