This book is dedicated to those who work on making human rights a reality for all. The human rights framework is universal, but its form must be local. The cover photo illustrates the complexities in taking universal principles and translating and applying them correctly in different cultural, political, and economic contexts.
The woman in the burqa appeared on the front page of the Times of India, a leading Indian newspaper, on October 14, 2004, following elections in the state of Maharashtra. Circulating the photograph to friends and colleagues as the choice for the cover of this book drew mixed reactions. A woman in burqa to some was not a message of women’s empowerment, but one of oppression. Others said that the picture represented the woman’s strength and freedom. Many Islamic scholars and women in burqa themselves have stated that the burqa for them is a symbol of freedom. It means freedom of movement, and freedom from unwanted male attention or harassment in public spaces. The woman’s raised finger also served as a Rorschach test, being variously interpreted depending upon the viewer’s cultural frame of reference. In the Indian context, however, the symbolism is clear. The black indelible ink on the woman’s finger shows she has exercised her right to vote and thus to influence the election of leaders of her state. While we know little about her level of oppression or freedom in other aspects of her life, in the domain of electoral politics she is free, and choosing to make her voice heard.
The picture of the woman in the burqa thus reflects the complexities in measuring empowerment and in moving from universal concepts to contextspecific measures. However complex and difficult, this is a problem that must be tackled. Poverty reduction on a large scale depends on empowering the central actors, those who are most motivated to move out of poverty—poor people themselves. But if empowerment cannot be measured, it will not be taken seriously in development policy making and programming.