Saturday, December 11, 2010

Taking Martyrdom to the Massess

Someone said: “I'm going to die for my faith!
Jesus/Rāma/Allāh/Sammāsambuddha - I love you!
In death I will be united with you.
End of this life will bring glory to you. 
... That is the conclusion I have come to!”

Who cares even if your soul were to fly
Out of the window of the concrete standing tall
And your chitty-chitty, bang-bang conclusion too!

Beware, some rational will make you an ally
Material gains, losses, the rational will evaluate all
And use your conclusion to build a political xanadu!

A voluntary death seeker
Your body will reek of the faith lost.
The martyrdom of an unwisely bold
There’s no nirvāna for a venturesome
You are but a foolhardy soul serving political conveniences!

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Take it Easy

We Can End All Violence against Women
Last Wednesday, I was at a fuel station close to my work-place somewhere in Kenya. There was a big fancy 4X4 vehicle parallel to my vehicle but I could not see who was inside because the fuel booth was in-between. The service person set the fuel quantity and put the hose in my vehicle’s fuel tank and disappeared. This is usual; during peak hours, the service persons serve many drivers simultaneously. I fumbled with my bag, phone and music. The vehicle parallel to mine moved ahead just a bit, stopped at an odd angle, and a man sitting in the front passenger seat smiled and the one driving said something. I didn’t quite appreciate the smile but gave a polite smile murmured, ‘hello’. Synthetic politeness is not my forte but I live and work in an environment of ‘oral and visual civility’ so in order to be culturally adaptable I try to conform. Anybody with less air in the head can see through my polite pleasantries though. But that day even before my lips could return to the normal state, the man from the passenger seat was out and leaning on my window, asking if I need help. Baffled, I asked him, ‘help for what’? He replied in broken English, which in summary meant that these service persons at the fuel stations often cheat and fuel can overflow if left like this and that I should let him help me with this task. I shook my dead politely, thanking him for his offer but clarifying that I am not a damsel in distress. He insisted and my politeness was waning. Finally, he seemed to have shaken off the insistence and put out his hand saying, ‘pleasure meeting you, Miss ...’. His other hand offered me his visiting card. My right hand was holding the wallet so I extended my left hand to take the card saying, ‘oh, thank you’. Lo and behold, he kissed my hand. I pulled my hand back ensuring the card does not drop. The man went back to his vehicle and began talking with the man in the driving seat, both speaking rapidly in Russian loud enough for me to hear and make out the language but just that much I have no skills in Russian. While talking, they kept looking at me, head movements a bit too fast and not right, I thought. Suggestive? I considered the possibility of them following me and damned myself for leaving the work so late every day. Then decided that if that happens, I will just hit them with my vehicle as if I were driving an armoured combat vehicle, not a mini something. By now the fuel tank was full and the service person took the fuel card and went to make the payment on my behalf. The two men in the other vehicle looked at me and smiled together. I looked away. The vehicle moved a bit closer in such a way that if I wanted to move, I would have to reverse the vehicle and meander my way through to the exit gate. The man in the passenger seat was saying, ‘sorry, I forgot your name; please repeat’. ‘I never told you my name’, I replied. He insisted a few more times using the same sentence. Finally, I smiled the sweetest artificial possible and said, ‘no more, stop’. He repeated what I said. I responded, ‘correct and now move away’. The man driving the vehicle looked angry and the one in the passenger’s seat looked a strange red his face. I noted their vehicle number. By now the service person was back with the receipt. I put the card and receipt in the bag and saw the vehicle moving away. The visiting card indicated the man in the passenger seat was a first secretary in one of the Eurasian countries’ embassy. I assume the other one must be another top-notch from the same embassy. The vehicle number confirmed that it belonged to that embassy. I toyed with the idea of reporting to the diplomatic police but decided to let it go and thanked myself for buying a vehicle at last. I already have a record of making a mountain out of a mole like the last time when a British Military-man threw flying kisses and made some obscene gestures. I reported it to the police as well as the Embassy in addition to the people I know. Nothing came out of the noise I made, except, the advices to take it easy and enjoy life.
Purple Ribbon Campaign to End Domestic Violence
A few years back, while on a short trip to the buzz city of Haryana, my sister-in-law and I were left with a choice to either wait for a car to pick us from where we were or take the crowded bus across the road. We decided to take the bus. A passenger sitting on the bus engine box, moved to create some space for one of us. I asked my sister-in-law to sit there. I stood facing her with a mass of passengers behind me. Ten-fifteen minutes later I felt somebody was brushing up against my back. I turned back quietly, looked down at the swollen part of the trouser and said underbreath, almost hissing, ‘I am going to cut it’, smiled and looked up. It was a man in his early twenties; from the tools he was carrying in one of his hands, he looked like a mason or a mason’s helper. The man banged the bus wall once (which in the National Capital Territory, signals the driver to stop). The bus stopped and the man ran out. My sister-in-law didn’t notice a thing but I suspect the man who stood next to the man who brushed up, did. He stood like stiff reed, maintaining whatever distance that was possible.

About two and half decades back, as I was walking home from the college somewhere in Bihar and wondering about a small assignment of selling a set of books that would get me about 20 rupees, I saw a motorcycle with two middle-aged men on it coming too close to me. Too late for me to move anywhere, I was already next to a boundary wall so completely cornered. The man at the back seat grabbed one of my breasts, both roaring with laughter. They fled off. The incident was seen by the house-helper’s brother-in-law, who dutifully reported it back to the people supposedly responsible for me. I was whipped-whapped for inviting this treatment and for bringing shame to the family. I was so angry with myself for not pushing the motorcycle and for not noting down the number. I spent the next few weeks searching for that motorcycle with a bottle of kerosene oil and a matchstick box in my bag. Every motorcycle looked that motorcycle and almost all motorcyclists looked like those two men. I reasoned with myself that I can’t burn the whole city because I am upset with two of its citizens. The bottle of Kerosene oil was put back in the store and the matchbox in the kitchen.

Nearly three decades back, I stood in a crowded public bus in either Himachal Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh. A senior from the school kept winking at me. I screamed at him but no avail. My class-mate advised me not to ‘speak’ so loudly. I screamed at the driver and the conductor to stop the bus. Both looked back, realized what’s going on and shouted at me to be quiet and not be a nuisance to the others. I could have clubbed them all to death if I were not that puny little character without a club.

White Ribbon Campaign:
Men working to end men's violence against women
These four incidents constitute not even 0.1% of the incidents that occurred from my childhood to the middle-age. Yet, we struggle to produce data to substantiate that sexual crime against women and children is a reality. The data is writ so large, all over the daily lives of ordinary women and girls that it has become invisible.

In general, the negotiations for the acceptance of violence against women and girls, illustrate the continuous struggle, which has gone on for centuries for the recognition of women and children as persons entitled to certain rights and equality. Currently, it is almost acceptable to talk about violence against women and children and about sexual crime but it comes to time for society, state, neighbourhoods and families to prevent and protect, their attitudes change. Few institutions, if any, are willing to do what they need to do to prevent sexual crime from happening and protect the survivor from the double whammy of having suffered the crime and then being blamed for inviting it, leave alone willingness to take punitive action against the criminal.

Sexual crime form part of the culture of almost every society that I know. The songs, rites and rituals, and audio-visual and written tales often abet the crime through humour, directive or messages of reprisal if actions amounting to sexual crime are branded so and not taken in ‘good’ spirit. Sexual crimes are committed on a regular basis throughout the life-span of a woman. External social environment, laws and time taken to deliver justice, legal and judicial attitudes, etc escalate or de-escalate the severity and incidence rates. The nature of proof required, the manner in which proof is required, the attitude to the survivor and the support mechanisms for the survivor determine the reporting.

Another barrier to reporting of the incidents is that only rape is regarded as a sexual crime. Other sexual crimes are not regarded as a violation of the laws or the rights of the survivors. Therefore, sexual crimes other than rape hardly ever get enumerated.

Sexual violence is not treated as a grave crime in law. It is regarded as more of a moral crime. Moralist phrases like 'outraging modesty', 'spoiling honour' and 'soiling chastity' are not uncommon in the legal vocabulary. Apart from reducing gravity as a crime, such jingos put the burden of a moral character on the survivor. If a girl or a woman does not appear to be modest, respectable or chaste, she is branded as the one inviting the male lust as if men's entire brain is just the hypothalamus and the only thing that can drive them to some action is their libido. Discrimination in law through inferior treatment of the issue or contradictions in laws is more of a norm than a discrepancy so the legal and justice institutions and their functionaries fail to give due recognition to the seriousness of the crimes. There are no accountability mechanisms to nail the police, lawyers and judges if they treat sexual crime with less seriousness or no seriousness. The inferior treatment of the crime in law and by the legal and justice related duty bearers, perpetuates under-investigation and under--prosecution of sexual crimes.

Would you still say I take it easy? You may but would I? No.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Known Unknown

Behind the door
Work continued, methodically
Assembly line movement
In order without an error
No sign of getting overwhelmed
But for a realization

It’s an extensive blotch
Difficult to articulate
Say, disappearance of the unpossessed
A long instance of losing
Something that was always amiss
But a forest of no meaning spreads

A cold current
Numbs calm deliberations
A corporeal mark
Placed at a close angle
I attempt to look away
But the vision is blocked

The power of sensing contained
I know the act of not knowing
All intrusive and forward
The dark ray passes through
Striking the known unseen
But for a particle dropped here and there

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Racism in the Workplace

I often struggle to understand the institutional disinclination to take action when needed. I often wonder how the management and decision-making come to be held hostage by peers who would protect one-another in the politics of racism, regionalism, and nepotism and so on. Why institutions cannot recognize the fundamental follies of the human nature and put in place effective approaches/working tools to challenge regionalism, racism and nepotism that tend to get ingrained in the institutional fabric?

And over the years, racism has diversified its character too. It is no longer only about Whites against Blacks, Whites against Browns and so on. We need an updated assessment of where and what element of racism has changed its character and acquired new dimensions. We also need to assess the specific interplays of regionalism, gender, class, ethnicity and racism, and its impact on the institutional character. Experiential accounts of employees in international organizations – multilateral or civil society – will reveal many new developments, the significance of which has not been either heard or understood. A discursive exploration or investigation will reveal how institutional conduct and employee consciousness are being affected by different forms of racism.

I haven’t come across any instance when a race-based employment-related issue has been even remotely acknowledged, nor I have come across any mechanism that would identify systemic discrimination or practiced discrimination and provide systemic remedies. Experiences of racism are termed as a matter of perception and arising from defensive nature of the employee. Indeed, the word racism can be abused to cover up non-performance and many other misdeeds because managers/peers are afraid of being branded as racist by the others, especially if there is a politics of majoritarianism at play in the workplace. In the game of majoritarianism, it becomes nearly impossible for a manager or a peer to take up issues of corruption, nepotism and inappropriate conduct because of the fear of whimsical/majoritarian allegations of racism. Accusations of racism against those who critique or can expose the wrong-doings in an institution that lacks courage to employ the principles of institutional integrity and work ethics is a reality. Equally true is that fact that the workplace complexities arising from racism or ethnic biases are difficult to prove because those who indulge in it have developed smartness not to leave any evidence of direct discrimination or biased behaviour.

Most experiences of exclusion or discrimination remain wrapped up also because the institutions have no mechanisms to protect those who bring them out. Denial of racism and a fear that bringing out any such issue will not just be a wasted effort; it will also result in unmanageable stress and reprisal leading to a damaged career, keeps the matter under wraps for good. Access to justice, in practice, is a principle preached outside, not inside the organization.

Since individual experiences take place in an organizational context, remedy requires behavioural and systemic analysis of the workplace – immediate and broader workflow linked layers leading to the decision-makers/senior managers – and the external socio-cultural environment in which ethnic bias or racism is experienced. I cannot say how widespread these experiences are or in which other forms they take place because this is not a talked-about issue. What I can say with conviction is that as long as these experiences will continue to be treated as individual perceptions, de facto, the workplace culture will continue to condone the undercover expression of racist biases, attitudes and practices.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Ghosts, again

Can you smell a different whiff
In my breath
You smell the surface.

And you see me
Standing at the street side
While I walked that mile.

I sense awkwardness
Fearful for we have nothing to exchange
We are creatures of inanity.

In this twisted ghosts life of ours
You keep up
Awkwardness surfaces occasionally

You masquerade conversation

You keep the thrifty words keyed in
I keep my guard on
I talk to your reticent vocabulary

Such a strange association

You knock on my door
Looking for some brightness
You pretend to be content

I know, I play along

We hide familiarity in closets
We are strangers again
With nothing to say.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Questions of Masculinities in Development

Nairobi National Museum
I must confess that I cannot take the questions of masculinities in development contexts without cynicism. Part of the cynicism arises from having to experience masculine hegemony in different garbs everywhere and almost all the time. It’s presence can be felt everywhere, in every aspect of life. Academic institutions and workplaces are a reminder of masculization and feminization of disciplines and policies and practices set by men. Even the development and interdisciplinary courses are affected by it. It is not often that one can find a male academic teaching or supervising a gender studies programme or research and segregated and token existence of gender in development and policy based courses is another reminder of gender being ‘women’s burden’ and development being a ‘man’s job’. A close review of the reading list for a course on Masculinities in any academic institution is yet another reminder that women theorists not only have to analyze subjugation and systemic disadvantageous position of people other than men but also have to take up the responsibility of clarifying why men are what they are and how they could be saved from being ‘men in crisis’ ‘whose traditional bases of power and identify in family units are being undermined by changes in the labour market, and by legislative and policy initiatives in women's interests’ (Chant 2000).

The practice of living with perpetual social, organizational and (sometimes) self impositions to be cautious in my approach to men, to be careful not to rock the boat, not to push ‘men in crisis’ (Chant, 2000) should have made me accept the question without problematizing it. It hasn’t. The questions, eg, why development is not paying attention to masculinities, me should not be left behind, etc, are a reminder of: (1) An assumption that so far, all development has indeed been carried out from a feminist perspective, (2) an accusation based on a presumption that decisionmaking in development policy and practice has been vested in women who regard men as obstacles to women’s well-being and consequently development policymakers and practitioners have conflated women and gender, (3) a belief that development theory, policy and practice cannot transcend the male/female or masculine/feminine binaries, and (4) a demand that development programmes should not only do gender analysis, they must also induce psychoanalytic thinking among men to help them overcome restrictive stereotypes and understand implications of hegemonic masculinity on themselves. It seems that this demand carries a presumption that ‘all men desperately wish to emulate particular styles of being a man and it is their frustration with their inability to achieve this that drives them into ‘behaving badly’’ (Cornwall, 1998, a).

Notwithstanding my cynicism, I feel that giving it attention would be useful in so far as it shares the promise to move beyond the token gains of ‘Women in Development’* (WID) to: (1) ‘Gender and Development’ (GAD) approach to understand women in relation to men and the way in which relations between these categories are socio-historically constructed (Kabeer 1994, Moser 1993, Razavi and Miller 1995), (2) the need to shift increasingly towards the heterogeneity of women and men as categories since caste, class, culture, religion, race, age and ethnicity are some of the categories which intersect gender to give women and men multiple identities and result in multiple realities, and (3) look critically at the issue of gender identities in order to address the silence of gender policy and practice on the abuse and marginalization faced by those who challenge sex/gender stereotypes.

I will now give a brief overview of the arguments which support mainstreaming of men into development and explore specific sectors and contexts within development policy and practice where attention to masculinities has impacted or could impact.

Nairobi National Museum
Within GAD paradigm, men are being implicated rather than explicitly addressed in development work focusing on gender inequalities. Men are hardly visible in GAD policy. And where they are it is often as instruments to reach the development programmes to women. Since 1980s, GAD theory began recognizing the need to examine men’s responsibility for women’s disadvantage and men’s role in redressing gender inequalities. Yet it is relatively recently that the debates on economic and social policy have begun to analyze ‘men’s gender identity’, and their roles in the private sphere (Folbre 1994 in Sweetman 2000 a). It is argued that that by focusing on men and masculinity, development programmes can forge men’s relationship with the process to change gender inequalities. This view is supported by some from an equality and social justice point of view, that is, men as well as women may be disadvantaged by social and economic structures and that they both have the right to live free from poverty and repression. This view contends that empowerment processes should enable women and men to be liberated from stereotyped gender roles (Cleaver, 2000). Another aspect of this view suggests that masculinity renders gender visible to men. It can help men see how gender inequalities are produced and distributed between and within the two gender categories. In other words, examination of the ‘politics of masculinity’ (Connel, 1995 a) offers an opportunity to rethink men’s strategic interests in challenging the values and practices that create gender hierarchy.

Development research and GAD practice like GAD policy, has lagged behind GAD theory. Partly because of development organizations’ reluctance to ‘effectively’ change gender relations and their tendency to fall in the ‘public-private’ dichotomy, to ‘side-step uncomfortable issues like ‘interfering’ in relations between men and women within the household’ (Varley 1996 in Sweetman 2000 b).

The recent discourses on masculinities have highlighted integration of the Western constructs and assumptions of masculinity in the development work in the Southern countries and paved the way for ‘localized solutions’ rooted in ‘indigenous contexts’. The Western models of male stereotypes, like, male ‘breadwinner’ or ‘head of the family’ valourized a particular kind of masculinity. In many Indian contexts, such valourization further conjured and supported the notions of purush-paurasharth/mard-mardanagi** or man-manliness. This valourized form of Indo-Western masculinity could be used to highlight the marginality and powerlessness of some men – in relation to some women as well as to other men. Dalit*** rights work and specific campaigns within dalit rights framework, like, mass movements to protest forced sterilization of dalits and Muslims, both men and women, during the tenure of India’s only women Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (Rahman, 2000), are examples of the work, which have been taken up by development organizations, to address marginality and powerlessness of some men. However, this kind of work by development organizations has been more of an unconscious fallout of dalit rights work rather than an outcome of specific attention to dalit men’s marginality against men from upper castes. Also, neither dalit movement nor any other mass advocacy and mobilization work in India challenged the male stereotypes. It also did not address the realities of ‘male privilege’ of the marginalized and powerless men in relation to women (read Omvedt, 1995 to see how this issue surfaces in dalit contexts).

Similarly, the discourses on masculinity also reveal the fact that wherever men have been involved in gender based development work as beneficiaries their involvement has also been limited to stereotypical casts in certain sectors, eg, as biological procreators, intercourse initiators, providers and protectors in sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, education, etc. To quote Cornwall, ‘Yet quite how that involvement is cast, and quite how 'men' are represented in these initiatives, remains in itself something that we need to examine more closely … ’ (Cornwall, 1998 b).

Nairobi National Museum
Attention to hegemonic masculinity has made evident that men are not necessarily absent as beneficiaries even if a development programme is targeted only at women. Discourses and research around feminization of debt arising out of microfinance interventions suggest that often men have been beneficiaries (FitzGibbon 2002). Confronted with situations where leadership and/or benefits of ‘women only’ interventions have been usurped by men, some development practiceners, not yet the policymakers, have started improvizing programmes to address such challenges. However, significant impact of this understanding is dependent upon organizational willingness and capacities to take their programmes out of vacuum and to address the issues arising from the contexts in which the programmes are located. Directly addressing hegemonic masculinity would create opportunities to address issues of gender equality. For example, an understanding of unequal interdependency between women and men could lead to development of strategies to deal with the issue of double burden of women which result from participatory development (Dawson, 1999) or women’s income generation/livelihoods programmes. From this angle, it is essential to facilitate changes in men’s behaviour to effect positive changes in women’s position. And why just men, even in the practice of hegemonic masculinity by some women because ‘as a set of values, masculinity is available to women as well as men’ (White, 2000 a).

One of the sectors where impact of attention to masculinities is slowly becoming obvious is population and family planning. Development communication is now offering the ‘joys of fatherhood’ to men! Not yet a trend, it shows implicit understanding that ‘the ways fatherhood is experienced by individual men varies according to precedents and traditions set by wider society, current social and economic conditions, and by the dynamics of particular families and the individuals within them’ (White, 2000 b). This development comes from an attempt to recast hegemonic masculinity from an unfeeling and absent biological and economic fatherhood to ‘social fatherhood’ (Engle, 2000) – an attempt induced by the feminist demand to re-adjust the sexual division of labour and by changes in family systems due to urbanization, economic constraints, etc.

The recasting processes have received support from the nonformal education sector. This sector pays attention to masculinity and challenges gender roles within male/female binary. For example, Connell talks about the development of gender specific and gender relevant programmes on masculinity by educators in the industrialized world. The former is developed keeping either boys or girls in mind. The latter is meant for both boys and girls and attempt to thematize the gender dimension in social life and education. Connell regards gender relevant masculinity programmes more useful in redefinition and recasting of masculinities (Connell, 2000 b). In India, some organizations engage in gender analysis, use a pedagogy, which is a combination of experiential and locally produced teaching-learning texts, and pay attention to the curriculum to make education gender responsive. However, these initiatives are still very small and have not really impacted the education sector in a significant way.

Nairobi National Museum
The discourses on masculinity, wherever it has been done in conjunction with caste, class, culture, religion, race, age and ethnicity, has been successful in bringing forth the ‘politics of representation’ – in law, history, society, governance, etc. The current trend of training women to contest Panchayati Raj**** elections in India thrives on the interpretation of and opposition to hegemonic masculinity. The trainings being given by international, national and local nonprofit development organizations (NGOs) rationalize the intervention by contrasting irresponsible male politicians who are perpetrators of sexual and gender violence, engage in corruption, etc with women as honest, cooperative, community-minded, and caring persons. Such interventions use negative stereotypes of men and masculinity in relational subject positions who are associated with oppressive power.

These discourses, to some extent, have forced the development organizations to look at the those who are rendered residual by the conventional interpretation of ‘man’ – hegemonic and heterosexual. Often their powerlessness and marginalization is shaped by the lack of representation. The ‘politics of representation’ allows the powerful to represent what they consider as constituents of culture, history, etc and exclude those who are on the fringes, like hijras*****, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people (Narrain, 2003). The responses of the development organizations to issues of identity and representation of sexual minorities have been cautious but also leading to an awareness of the need for diversity. Solidarity with the demand for the right to sexual identity and incorporation of the principle of diversity in employment policies are examples of this response. The impact is relatively more visible in HIV/AIDS work. There has been growing pressure on policymakers and practiceners working on HIV/AIDS to consider gender issues such as vulnerabilities of women and men and power equations in the relationships in the intervention and impact assessment. To some extent, it has made the practiceners aware of specific vulnerabilities such as: (1) Norms of masculinity prevent men, specially young men from seeking information on safe sex (UNAIDS 1999 a), (2) Linkages between social position, number of sexual partners and sexual ego render messages demanding restraint and fidelity in sexual relationship banal, and (3) notions of heterosexual masculinity create a fear of stigma among those practicing men to men sex or bisexuality and forces them to keep their sexual identity secret and hence increases vulnerabilities (UNAIDS 1999 b). Overall, the awareness has made HIV/AIDS interventions accessible to those who do not conform to conventional sexual identities yet it cannot be said that the awareness has fundamentally changed the HIV/AIDS programme strategies. The messages remain largely moralistic, gender insensitive and direct intervention remains condom-centric.

The emergence of masculinities as a field of study owes a lot to the feminist movement and its struggle to end violence against women (VAW). The understanding of the dual involvement of men in VAW – as perpetrators as well as agents who could stop VAW is one of early outcomes of lending attention to hegemonic masculinity. In the USA, the understanding resulted in alliances between feminists and profeminist consciousness raising groups of men (Clatterbaugh, 1997). Such alliances, however, did not become a consistent practice. Development organizations working within the paradigm of GAD accept explanations of VAW which link social construction of masculinities, gender inequality and violence more readily than constructions of masculinity based on biological determinism or psychological essentialism. Such explanations imply that since violent masculinity – as a means to control women and to maintain gender inequalities in various spheres is a learned behaviour and, therefore, it is possible to unlearn it. One of the major reasons for insignificant involvement of men in anti-VAW work, specially in the ‘private sphere’, is due to the huge scale of the violence and the limited resources available for its eradication. But the efforts to give maximum benefits to survivors alone may unwittingly promote the idea that violence is a ‘women’s issue’ (Wood and Jewkes, 2000). What could be derived from this opinion and feminist experience with male support groups and profeminist men is that it is not sufficient to involve profeminist men as supporters and to deliver services to survivors. There is a need to engage with male perpetrators (as well as potential perpetrators) and to recognize the contexts of the violence in order to change attitudes and practices of violent masculinities.

The arguments for strategic partnerships with men and the national and international ‘development politics’ in World Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 resulted in considerable demands for mainstreaming gender concerns. This period is also marked by a shift in the approach of the feminists and development organizations towards the state agencies. It became more collaborative and necessitated a ‘sense-making’ and nonconfrontational definition of gender mainstreaming to enable important state agencies like law, judiciary, police, planning departments and other institutions to accept key feminist expectations, like, ‘substantive equality in place of formal equality’ (Baruah, 1999). The shift also resulted in ‘gendering of the demand for gender mainstreaming’, that is, examination of men’s needs. It led to a demand on the state and nonstate (including development and humanitarian) agencies to formulate and implement policies targeted at the wellbeing of the families of those working with them and at the transformation of the division of labour at home to make it more equal. The mainstreaming agenda included reconstitution of certain systems, demands for new provisions and transformation of the development programmes in view of the work being done by women in the ‘private sphere’ and recognition of men’s right and responsibility to contribute equally to the private sphere. The mainstreaming is gradually becoming visible in terms of provisions like paternity leave alongside maternity leave, childcare at the workplace, etc.

To sum up, even within GAD paradigm, it is not always possible for the development field to give substantial attention to the issues of sexual/gender identities because of development policy’s preoccupation with the practical outcomes, measurable impacts and rigidly defined indicators. The demand to deliver practical programmes often means measuring applicability of theoretical issues from the lenses of prevailing notions of gender. There is also a tendency to shy away from programmatic propositions likely to challenge gender norms out of fear of community reprisal. It is also important to remember that gender related programmatic work within development field is beings done mainly by women. Representation of gender issues, specially masculinities by them are not always taken without resentment and their intentions in asking to stop thinking in binary opposites are often seen as a convoluted plan of feminists to endanger the culture. It is challenging for gender activists working in the development organizations as they have a task of balancing the constraints, which their organizations face and gender equality aspirations and goals they identify with. Any changes, such as cuts in the resources, often entail a loss of commitment of gender rights. For example, resource crunch or changes in the political context may endanger a gender sensitive emergency response or may result in implementation of a relief programme which sees gender related work as an optional add-on (Brayer, 1999). More involvement of men in delivering gender based programmes and more women in emergency relief, livelihoods, governance programmes and inclusion of marginalized gender identities in policymaking may help address some of the problems. Attention to masculinities without abandoning fundamental feminist concerns with women’s rights is, in a way, helping in understanding and explaining inequality to larger audiences and making an argument for changing the focus of the masculinity – from oppressive to humane.

* WID resulted in institution of gender bureaus/desks/sections in the UN, other international and national bodies. However, its output amounted to symbolic politics and little concrete achievements (Kabeer, 1994).
** The ideal purush/mard is described as the creator, provider, and protector. Adjectives, such as, ‘purushottam’/’sachcha-mard’ or the man who is unparalleled, ‘paurush’/’mardanagi’ or courage, and ‘purusharth’/’mardaneeyat’ or the trait of being effort oriented are used to express attributes of purush.
*** Broken or oppressed people who have been denied human dignity and rights.
**** A three-tier local governance system in which 33% seats are reserved for women.
***** Eunuch – usually a castrated person, known also as India’s ‘third gender’

• Baruah, Nandita, undated,
• Brayer, David (1999), ‘Preface’ in Fenella Porter, Ines Smyth and Caroline Sweetman, eds, Gender Works: Oxfam Experience in Policy and Practice, Oxford: Oxfam
• Chant, Sylvia (2000), 'Men in Crisis? Reflections on masculinities, work and family in north-west Costa Rica', European Journal of Development Research, 12, 2, December 2000
• Clatterbaugh, Kenneth (1997), ‘Feminist Allies: Profeminist Men’, Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinities’, Oxford: Westview Press
• Cleaver, Frances (2000), IDS Bulletin, 31.2, April 2000
• Connel, RW (1995) a, ‘Masculinities’, Cambridge: Polity Press
• ---- (2000) b, ‘Teaching the Boys’, ‘Masculinities’, Cambridge: Polity Press
• Cornwall, Andrea (1998) a, Paper titled ‘Missing Men? Reflections on Men, Masculinities and Gender in GAD’ presented at a Seminar – Identifying the Gaps, Setting the Agenda, 8th-9th September 1998, University of Bradford. Available at
• ---- (1998) b, Paper titled ‘Missing Men? Reflections on Men, Masculinities and Gender in GAD’ presented at a Seminar – Identifying the Gaps, Setting the Agenda, 8th-9th September 1998, University of Bradford
• Dawson, Elsa L (1999), ’Gender: Assessing the Impact’ in Fenella Porter, Ines Smyth, Caroline Sweetman, eds, ‘Gender Works: Oxfam Experience in Policy and Practice’, Oxford: Oxfam
• Engle, Patrice L (2000), ‘The Role of Men in Families: Achieving Gender Equity and Supporting Children’, Caroline Sweetman, ed, Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB
• FitzGibbon, Mike (2002), Paper titled ‘Short Changed - Gendered Consequences of Implementing Financial Services in Moshi Rural District, Northern Tanzania’, presented at a Seminar – "Women's Empowerment or the Feminization of Debt? Towards a new agenda in African micro-finance" March 21st - 22nd 2002, The International Famine Centre, University College Cork. Also available at:
• Kabeer, Naila (1994), ‘Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought’, London & New York: Verso
• Moser, Caroline (1993), ‘Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training’, London & New York: Routledge
• Narrain, Arvind (2003),
• Omvedt, Gail (1995), ‘Dalit Visions, Tracts For The Times’, 8, Orient Longman
• Rahman, Sayed Ubaidur (2000), Saddest Day of Indian Democracy, Milli Gazette, Vol 1-No 3, 15 July 2000
• Razavi, Shahrashoub and Miller, Carol (1995), ‘From WID to GAD: Conceptual Shifts in the Women and Development Discourses’, Geneva: UN Research Institute on Social Development, Occasional Paper 1, 1995
• Sweetman, Caroline (2000) a, ed, Editorial in Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB
• ---- (2000) b, ed, Editorial in Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB
• UNAIDS (1999) a, Gender and HIV/AIDS: Taking Stock of Research and Programs. Geneva
• UNAIDS (1999) b, Gender and HIV/AIDS: Taking Stock of Research and Programs. Geneva
• White, Sarah C (2000) a, ‘Men, Masculinity, and the Politics of Development’ in Caroline Sweetman, ed, Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB
• ---- (2000) b, ‘Men, Masculinity, and the Politics of Development’ in Caroline Sweetman, ed, Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB
• Wood, Katherine and Jewkes, Rachel (2000), Violence, Rape and Sexual Coercion: Everyday Love in a South African Township, in Caroline Sweetman, ed, Men and Masculinities, Oxford: Oxfam GB

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

From ‘Let your Father Come …' and ‘Let Your Son Come …’ to ‘Let My Brother Come … ’ and ‘Let My Son Come …’

Many have heard mothers say this to their erring children, ‘let your father come … ‘ and many of us have heard of family violence where daughters-in-law tell their ailing-and-not-liked and sometimes troublesome mothers-in-law, ‘let you son come …’. Is it that these women are not able to speak in a straight language or they lack the confidence to say what they are any way doing, parenting and being a party to discrimination against or abuse of the elderly? Why do they need to speak through their spouse? We have also heard of sisters-in-law threaten their brother’s spouse with a statement beginning ‘let my brother come …‘ and mothers-in-law tell their daughters-in-law, ‘let my son come … ’. Why these women cannot sort out their issues on their own instead of waiting for the brother or the son to come and teach a lesson to his spouse? Does it have anything to do with economic value attached to the person or to their ability to own their actions? Why all of them have such a high level of dependence on the male family members? Why do they compete with one another to establish a greater claim to the male family members?

Let me jump off to one of the possible reasons. An understanding of multiple forms of violence against women and girls – in intimate relationships and from strangers in their daily lives – show how they have been institutionalized and affects every aspect of a woman life from infancy to death. These aspects include citizenship, reproduction, health, sexuality, employment, entrepreneurship, culture, poverty, social care, property, crime, status in family … the list is unending. All these, in my opinion, contribute to the situation that I described above, which makes women’s existence dependent on the wishes of the male family members and makes women compete with one-another in order to exist.

Another reason for such a situation is economic. Yesterday, I was in a seminar on the issue of women and land with women many of whom know the relationship among women land and violence first hand. Experiences of these women established (not suggest) that violence against women and girls and poverty among women is an ‘engaged relationship’. The former being a tool to keep women in state of poverty and poverty is one of the key reasons for women’s servility. While high probability of violence in the domestic and public sphere, in general, affects women’s ability to be present in the public sphere, use opportunities and develop their human capital, ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence create a sort of ‘genetic-cum-collective’ lack of confidence among women that keeps them silent about the beatings, rape and emotional abuse, makes them internalize male supremacy, compete with one-another for a greater dependency stake, and prevents them from questioning the status quo in which men’s labour is recognized but women and girls’ labour is not. The overall impact of violence keeps women poor in all senses and economic poverty increases the risk of exposure to violence enormously.

Murder of women by their spouses alone or in complicity with the family, in particular, murder of widows by the marital family members more than often have roots in land and property. Sometime, the reasons for murder are such that a direct relationship between poverty or economic deprivation and violence cannot be established as a prima facie fact. It is true that poverty or economic deprivations are not the only reasons for women’s vulnerability to violence but poverty or economic deprivation are key factors. These are important factors that must be examined when trying to understand and address scale of violence against women.

Let me discuss here some of the  ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence that are used to keep women economically impoverished and dependent on men of the household or community:

Halitza[1]: In Jewish tradition, according to the Torah, if a man dies without leaving children, his brother must marry his widow in a ceremony called yibbum or levirate marriage. A widow in Sephardic Jewish communities cannot remarry till her husband’s brother relinquishes all claims to own her. In Halitza ceremony, that is a public event, the woman kneels before her brother-in-law and removes a special handmade shoe from his foot. She is then required to spit on the ground next to him and recite several verses from Torah. The ceremony is humiliating for both and mocks the brother for not taking on the sister-in-law. Though yibbum is on decline and most widows go through the Halitza ceremony now, it is practically an institutionalized practice to keep the family wealth within the family.

Widow/Bride Inheritance[2]: This is a form of yibbum among the Luo of western Kenya and many other tribes like Luhya (Kisa sub-tribe). The widespread practice of widow inheritance establishes the male ownership of women’s reproduction, her labour and property and wealth that may be created through the woman’s unpaid labour. Through widow inheritance the dead and alive husbands and their family continue to demand reproductive and productive capabilities of women against the bridewealth paid at the time of marriage with the deceased brother. Luo widows are known as ‘wives of the grave’. Because they do not cease to be the wife of the deceased rather through inheritance widows remain obligated to their husbands and their family and in exchange they are promised social and economic support for themselves and their children. Refusal by the widows often includes disinheritance and being thrown out of matrimonial home. This practice in one or the other names continues to exist in Nigeria, Uganda, India and many other countries.

Lattha Odhna or Chaadar Daalna[3]: Many Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speaking audience of Hindi cinema would be able to recall a film titiled, 'Ek Chadar Maili Si' which came to the cinema halls in 1986. Directed by Sukhwant Dada, the film  is an adaptation of Rajinder Singh Bedi's Sahitya Akademi Award winner Urdu novella, 'Ik Chadar Adhorani'. The story is about a woman , Rano, who is forced to marry her brother-in-law, 10 years younger to her, whom she regarded as a son, through the ceremony of chadar daalna. such levirate marriage or niyoga between a widow and an unmarried younger brother in law continues to be alive in certain parts of India (Punjab and Haryana). Re-marriage of widows was never a norm in India and the possibility of going back to the parents' home has not been an option for the Indian women. They are taught to leave their marital home only on their death-bed. The practice ensures that any land or property owned by the deceased husband stays in the family.

Adoption of a male child from the husband’s family[4]: More in the past than now in India and many other parts of South Asia and Asia , if the widow did not have any male child from her deceased husband, she is made to adopt a nephew of her husband.

Widow Cleansing[5]: This practice also dates back centuries and is, till date, widely practiced in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria. A widow is expected to have a sex with a male relative of the deceased husband in order to maintain access to family property and land. In practice, this custom any man from widow’s marital village or the deceased husband’s family, usually a brother or close male relative of the deceased husband, to force her to have sex with him. This is also linked to a belief that that if the widow does allow ‘cleansing’ her husband’s spirit will not be free. This practice established the woman as being haunted by spirits, as unholy and mentally ill and in some communities this is further extended to say that a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. Now there are professional 'cleanser men' to rape widows because in many places, a widow must go through cleansing ritual before she can be inherited.

The above practices are not directly linked to the state of affairs described in the first paragraph in all contexts but they exemplify the modus operandi of patriarchy that instils a deep sense of dependence among women. A deeper examination of some of the apparently non-economic motives shows the inter-breeding of economic and non-economic issues. For example, such a large number of women are being killed, tortured and mutilated for bringing shame and dishonour to the family. But consider why women and girls are burdened with the safekeeping of family honour. Women's vulnerability to violence derives not only from the poverty but also from the potential they hold to be empowered individuals. One of the ways that potential can be crushed is by employing tools that socially disempower and disfranchise them. Making women and girls’ symbols of family honour puts on them the burden of keeping the honour, as it has been defined by patriarchy, intact. The definition of family honour invariably has its roots in historic political and economic exclusion, sexism and other discriminatory practices that keep women outside of social, political and economic empowerment opportunities. The definition of family honour leads to socio-cultural conditioning of women and girls that prepares them for marriage as accepted by the patriarchal system of a particular place, child-rearing, house-keeping and other unpaid care and economic roles. This conditioning creates a façade that women have an important role in the family in maintaining the family honour themselves as well as by scrutinising other women’s conduct, and it keeps the sense of empowerment far from women.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Women Crossing Borders


Migrants and migration long back ceased to be a venture of the select few looking for better avenues. One can safely say that since medieval period it has become a compulsion for farm workers, domestic workers and small landholders workers who are simply looking for a source of income to survive. It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 persons, that is, more than 1 billion persons, are migrating within countries and internationally, in search of employment. Of these 1 billion, 72% are women[1]. This is even more so when it comes to women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constituting 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America[2]. According to a study that focuses on women’s migration labour from and between six countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region[3], the numbers of women who undertake migrant labour in Southern Africa have been increasing significantly over the past decade. Most people when they think of migrant labour, usually imagine a male face. But over the years, due to several socio-economic and political changes the face of the African migrant labour is changing into a twin woman-man face. Women now make up almost 50% of migrants in the SADC region.

Globalization of labour:

Globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities to fill gaps in nations with a dwindling labour supply, for eg, from Somalia to Canada, or in nations which may offer better remuneration for the same work, for eg, from Afghanistan to Iran. Globalisation has also opened up markets for skilled workers and the decrease in traditional labour employment areas such as mining and agriculture. This has provided new entry points for the migrant labour into economies, for example in the service sector. Women are increasingly participating in the trans-national informal sector (for eg, as construction workers in countries other than theirs), and cross-border trade (for eg, between Tanzania and Kenya). This said, since globalization of labour is also characterized by increasing demand for skilled workers and is, therefore, leading to job losses and further impoverishment of unskilled workers. Globalization, in this sense, has created a complex tension between the demand for skilled labour and constraints imposed on unskilled workforce.

Globalization pushes the States to open up the borders for economic transactions. This is leading to increasing number of free trade agreements between countries, emergence and growth of multinational corporations and common markets such as the one mooted and promoted by the East African Community (EAC) for the free flow of products. While the borders are opened for the free flow of products, the borders remain closed for the labourers. Globalization, in this sense, has created another kind of tension between the rich and the poor countries. The developed countries, more than ever before, are banging their doors shut on those seeking refuge or work. Since global concept of production is based on comparative advantage, production sectors within developing economies are losing the diversity of production and labour employed in subsistence production, which benefitted from the diversity of production, is forced to cross borders hiding in trucks and boats or clinging to lifeboats adrift in the oceans.

Within Africa both rural to urban and cross-border migration has been significant due to domestic economic reasons as well as due to colonization. Colonization crated new boundaries, divided communities and separated families and clans. These separations had the effect of increasing cross-border movement. Since the end of colonization, intra-regional migration in SADC includes temporary migration, including workers and seasonal migrants, permanent migration, forced migration and refugee or asylum-seekers. Refugees/Asylum-seekers usually come from politically unstable countries such as Angola, Mozambique and more recently from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as countries that do not belong to SADC. In the East an Horn of Africa, the movement is from Somalia, Southern Ethiopia, Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. Kenya is a major recipient country of the refugees/asylum-seekers in this region.

Recent trends in migration are increasingly marked by movements linked to cross border-trading and related businesses and street vending, and less by formal employment because, as mentioned earlier, formal employment opportunities are becoming more and more demanding on skills.

Women as migrant labour:

The migrant labour endeavour is a double-edged sword for women. On the one hand, becoming a migrant labourer can mean the acquisition of new skills and uplifting one’s family and community financially, but on the other, women migrant workers expose themselves to several risks during this process.

While globalization may foster the acceleration of trade and investment, it does not create an environment that protects migrant workers’ economic, social and physical security. By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who provide safety nets that sustain communities at home. But here’s the flip-side of the story: Many of the smugglers of human-labour are part of a growing ring of sex-traffickers. Huge numbers of poverty-stricken girls and women accept the promise of a good job or forced into so-called marriages with financially well to do husband but find they have been tricked into sex work as has been revealed from several cases in the South Asia. Cases noted from Nepal and Philippines suggest that some girls are even sold to smugglers by poverty-stricken families who see them as their only hope for an escape from poverty. Most women trafficked for sex work come from Asia, but increasingly Eastern European women are also getting into ‘international sex trade’ due to the hardship created after the erosion of the social safety nets in their countries.

The chain of exploiters for migrant workers, especially those seeking unskilled jobs include the brokers who facilitate passport, etc, recruiters who find employers and help obtain visa, employers who secure work-permit, and migration officials. Migrant workers are often illiterate or semi-literate and often have limited knowledge about and access to information regarding their rights. Women migrant workers are vulnerable as women, and like the rest, as foreigners and as unskilled labourers, and are exposed to possible abuse and exploitation such as physical and social isolation, and sexual and physical violence. Countries, where the migrant workers migrate to, also resent them when they have to pay for medical and legal services required by the migrant workers.

Marginalization, racial discrimination and suspicion are all too well known to the migrant women workers. Some countries do racial profiling on grounds of suspicion of a threat to security or sex work. Many women, unable to understand the bureaucracy around migration, find themselves declared ‘illegal’ and in detention centres for months or even years at a time, imprisoned for reasons not known to them. Women and girls going for either domestic work or sex-work, are usually left high and dry by the brokers, recruiters or employers who take their passport and a large chunk of their income. It is not unknown to find cases of women migrant workers being kept imprisoned, unable to escape. When the police of the receiving country reaches them, women migrant workers are usually hesitant to speak out about abuses they suffer because of the fear of deportation or greater sense of economic insecurity.

Combinations of poverty, gender discrimination, abuse, armed conflict, HIV & AIDS and climate change push women to seek employment in other countries. Though there is no data to establish, migrant women have been noticed to be more likely to be divorced, separated or have been abandoned. Similarly, migrant women are also more likely to be widowed than men. The study of migration of women from SADC countries suggests that increasingly, women migrant workers are primary economic providers and heads of households. They often travel alone and need to return to migrant occupations repeatedly.

Key sectors in which women migrant workers are involved:

As far as unskilled of semiskilled women are concerned, women and girls from all over the world are recruited to be domestic workers. In Africa and Asia girls from rural areas are often expected to move to urban areas and become domestic workers in order to help support their families financially. In North America and Europe, women from South America and Asia and in the Middle-east, women and girls from Ethiopia, South-east Asia and South Asia work in the homes of the rich sending money back home to their families abroad. Common experiences of domestic workers include low wages, long working hours, no time off, loneliness, verbal and sometimes physical abuse, being forced to wear uniforms and act in roles of servitude, heavy work demands, homesickness, the denial of a family life of one's own, racism, and vulnerability to sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS[4].

Many women are involved in cross border informal businesses, crossing borders for small periods of time or even daily. Their daily life, therefore, is marked by daily saga of exploitation and abuse.

Migrant women in SADC region, usually find employment as domestic workers or entertainers, or other fields that are not regulated by labour laws. The agricultural sector absorbs a large amount of migrant workers, but its seasonal nature does not make for a stable year-round income. In the East and Horn of Africa, migrant women struggle for daily wage work, small trade of goods, including smuggled goods and as domestic workers. Thus a combination of elements, such as local conflicts and global restructuring of work, result in an array of migration patterns in Southern and East and Horn of Africa.

Women migrant workers and economic development:

Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — Ethiopians in diaspora sent a total of US$591 million to Ethiopia in 2006, which is nearly 4.4% of Ethiopia's GDP and Eritrea received US$411 million in remittance money, which amounts to 38% of Eritrea's GDP[5]. In Somalia, remittances are regarded as the ‘lifeline to survival’. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US$305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals[2].

Some women acquire new skills through their migrant occupations, which they use to contribute to both the host and their own countries’ economies. The sending and receiving countries benefit from the remittances women send and the productive investments they are able to make with their earned income. In households, which receive remittances, the bulk is utilized to cover basic needs and services, with differences depending on the country. Most remittances are spent on education in Zimbabwe (57%) and Mozambique (57%), while a significant portion is also spent on medicine in Zimbabwe (40%), Swaziland (39%) and Mozambique (31 %). Recipient households reported having contracted loans to purchase food, etc also use the remittance to pay-off debts. These examples suggest that the households of migrant women workers are highly dependent on external sources of income. In general, remittances seem to be protecting human development because they allow families to pay for education, health, electricity, water and other services, when they are not provided by the State. It can be said then that poverty reduction and community development could be aided by these remittances. Examples from Kerala in India shows that these benefits include improved local physical infrastructure, growth of local commodity markets, development of new services, changes to cultural practices that harm girl children and generation of local employment opportunities.

1. Enaskhi Dua. "Beyond Diversity: Exploring Ways in which the Discourse of Race has Shaped the Institution of the Nuclear Family" in Enashki Dua and Angela Robertson. Eds. Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Feminist Thought. Toronto: Women's Press, 1999. pp 237-260. Quoted in Helene Moussa "Global Surge in Forced Migration Linked to Colonial Past".
2. United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM - now part of UN Women).
3. United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW - now part of UN Women) and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). “Gender, Migration and Remittances in Selected SADC Countries: Preliminary Findings”.The study focuses on cross-border migration to and from Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, although it refers to other countries when there are notable trends, particularly related to the relatively unexplored subject of gender
4. Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis. Not One of the Family: Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
5. UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Educating the Yemeni girls

Photo: Oxfam GB
With so much of ho-hulla over girls’ education where is Yemen headed? My own visits to different parts give me both optimism and causes despair. The concrete structures of the schools impress me but the fact that no special efforts are being made to motivate parents to send their daughters to schools and allow them to complete their education is disheartening. Recently, a colleague mentioned that during her meeting with education officials in a governorate, the officials grumbled that they built schools for girls but all the schools are running into a loss. What they meant was that the investment and regular cost of maintaining those schools is not matched by adequate enrollment and retention of girls in these schools. This is a clear example of schools being built without community consultations and agreements with parents. Community participation in the decision-making related to the location of the school, facilities required in the schools and the sex of the staff pay a key role in a community’s willingness to allow their daughters to get an education.

My own visits to a few schools located close to or inside villages demonstrated another side of the story. Village elders and school authorities informed that the demand for seats in schools is far higher than the capacity of these schools. They have developed an interesting strategy to deal with the problem. Every year, they enroll the older girls and reject younger ones. They believe that in this way every girl will have a chance to study, albeit late. The flipside of this strategy is that it reduces the ‘learning years’ that a girl has. Since a large number of girls are taken off the school by their parents when they reach the age of puberty, these girls have lesser number of years to pursue education.

The experience of the schools located close to or inside villages, however, demonstrates that a few simple steps can improve girls’ enrolment. If the reasons behind drop out is analyzed and remedial steps are followed in a comprehensive and integrated way alongside factors that have led to an increased demand for seats in schools, an enormous impact on girls’ retention in schools and completion of education can be ensured. Let us look at some of the steps that could be taken up.

Despite the fact that villages in Yemen are small and located far from one-another, the need to open basic and secondary school in disadvantaged and remote areas cannot be emphasized more. The above given examples show that unless schools are located within a distance that communities feel is appropriate a large number of girls in rural areas will continue to miss out education. If the government feels inadequate to build and maintain schools in all areas, it should aid and encourage nongovernmental organization to start bridge schemes, and nonformal education centres to provide quality education to small number of students in the local communities. Such education programmes should be recognized by the public and private sector so that their usefulness is not any less than qualifications acquired in government institutions.

Photo: Oxfam GB
Girls’ education, from basic to secondary level, to become a ‘viable option’ for parents, must be free. In a society, which does not regard education having any intrinsic value or does not see girls education as having any material value, any cost, whether school fees or the cost of book, stationary, uniform and transportation or hidden costs like those charged for student projects, is bound to be seen as an avoidable drain of family income and can discourage parents from sending their daughter to a school.

These two steps alone will not be sufficient unless all schools have women teachers. These teachers should be trained, motivated and supported not only in teaching but also in organizing community outreach activities so that they can induce girls into education. Often, parents are concerned about sending their daughters to a co-educational school because they fear for their safety and honour. For example, one of my colleagues after a focus group discussion with a community in Seiyun district shared that most parents in this community are reluctant to send their daughters to the school because a male teacher tried to molest a girl student. It is important, therefore, that the schools in participation with communities should put code of conduct for male teachers and students and sanctions in place to stop harassment and abuse of girls.

It would be a good idea to provide some incentives to poor families to motivate them to send their daughters to the school. The incentives could take the form of free food, stipend to pursue basic and secondary education, free transport, a fixed deposit that the girl can receive after she completes secondary education, etc.

Another important issue is that education and vocational training should not be rolled out separately. A step that is needed to convince parents about the usefulness of girls’ education is to compliment education with market-oriented vocational skills. This will help parents see immediate usefulness of educating their daughters.

Another critical step that is needed, at least, in the initial stage to give a thrust to these efforts is to give job/income generation opportunities to those women who complete their education in the formal sector. This step calls for coordination and collaboration between various agencies, both governmental and nongovernmental. It requires that the donor agencies which support basic and secondary education, vocational training and employment generation programmes should see these three as connected issues and their grant-making policies should reinforce these connections.

To sum up there is a need not only to invest more in girls’ education but also to invest effectively. This calls for high level of donor and government commitment to increase investment as well as to strategically reform education curricula and delivery systems. And this commitment must be sustained over a long term to provide free and universal access and other facilitative services, and to achieve balance between education and relevant vocational training in schools.

Article originally published at Yemen Times:

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Women and Religious Fundamentalism

A message from Bhagawad Geeta as the Thought of the Day
in front of Baitil Aman Guesthouse, Shela Village, Lamu,
owned by Sidiki Abdulrehman
WOMEN’S support to religious fundamentalism could be explained with the help of notions of women as objects and subjects of community identity, conditioned as much by patriarchal values as men, their interests so intrinsically connected to the community that thinking of individual or collective interests may amount to blasphemy. Also, making an assumption that all women would like to oppose fundamentalism implies rallying behind universal notions of women-hood and sisterhood, and romanticizing women as universal peace-seekers.

Here, I would like to explore women’s identities, interests and values as complex interactive elements in the multitude of intersections and over-lapping themes of fundamentalism. I will attempt to analyze a few key intersections of religion, nationalism, caste, class, gender and community identity in India with a special focus on current trends in Hinduism to understand the layers of women’s support to religious fundamentalism. I will also attempt to link the growth of religious fundamentalism with increasing attempts to control women.

While approaching religio-spirituality, we should make a distinction between the values of the religio-spiritual realm and their practice. The growth of values is associated more with metaphysical aspects of the religion and is seen as the preserve of enlightened and unattached spiritual persons who could devote themselves fully to emancipate the soul. The practice of these values is considered to be closer to ordinary mortals. The intricate world of attachments in which women live makes them ‘incompatible’ to the demands of a spiritual world which is highly valued, powerful, and a typically male domain. Some women may strategize an escape from attachments and create a religio-spiritual space for themselves by renouncing their sexuality and sex roles through sanyas (renunciation of attachments) (Babb 1988, p. 280-285) and affiliations with religious movements and organizations looking for women in their fold to gain broader legitimacy.

To use Gaitskell’s analysis of South African women’s conversion to Christianity through the Christian Mission Stations (Gaitskell 1990, p. 253), these organizations provide women an alternative set of protectors and economic base which makes escape from the drudgery of life as a daughter, sister, wife or widow possible (Basu 1999, p. 200). In India, right wing organizations like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and others, which frequently invoke the goddesses and female spiritual gurus of the past and use women in liturgy have attracted many Hindu sanyasins (female religious mendicants/proponents/ascetics) like Ritambhara or Uma Bharati. The invocations are not only a bait for women but also a reminder to the women affiliates to see the scope for their philosophy and activity in supporting everything that these organizations are doing, including promoting hostility towards faiths and people perceived to be damaging Hinduism.

Talking of the Sangh Parivar, Arundhati Roy says, ‘its utter genius lies in its apparent ability to be all things to all people at all times’ (Roy 1999, p. 181). A broad understanding of ‘violence’ beyond the direct physical and mental abuse and as produced in people’s perceptions may help us in seeing the image of the Sangh Parivar as it exists in the minds of middle class, poor and home-bound women. This perception of violence is linked to the notions of religious domination and subordination, which subvert the chances of survival of another value system. For example, beef eating, spread of non-Hindu values, unemployment, religious conversion, inter-religious marriages, adoption of a Hindu child, etc. may be taken as attempts to denigrate the status and spoil the purity of Hindu religion. Therefore, these may be perceived as socio-economic and cultural violence against the ‘Hindu’.

The Sangh Parivar has articulated a feminist politics that reflects upon such perceptions and created ‘a space for personal accomplishment to which unskilled working class women and frustrated middle class women [across caste, particular religious community and region] might be attracted’ (Sahgal and Davis 1992, p. 9, text in brackets mine). While taking on the persona of a religious saviour, the Sangh seeks to mobilize women against the ‘perceived perpetrators of the violence’. The counter violence or support to fundamentalist organizations is seen by these women as an issue of religio-political identity and collective empowerment to oppose ‘occupation of minds and cultures’.

Kandiyoti in her paper ‘Islam and Patriarchy’, talks about women resisting the old normative order slipping away without any empowering alternatives and women pressurize men to live up to their obligations to provide protection in exchange of submissiveness and propriety as part of patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36). The exchange of submissiveness and propriety for protection brings forth the issue of women’s bodies being treated as sites of community identity in a patriarchal society (Kannabiran 1996, p. 32-33). Submissiveness and propriety by these bodies is essential for patriarchal honour.

In India, for example, Ritambhara’s speeches, marked by incitements to reclaim male honour, remind men to live up to their part of the bargain. Similarly, when Uma Bharati asks women to play a political role without compromising their ‘basic nature’ (Llewellyn 2001), she is reminding that impropriety by female bodies would damage the Hindu honour which corresponds to male honour. The Sangh Parivar seeks to secure women’s support by playing on the tensions between ‘deeply ingrained images and expectations of male-female roles and changing realities of everyday life’ (Kandiyoti 1992, p. 36), which put a demand on women to step in the public space. By using the lack of alternatives before women, it attempts to consensualize women’s investment in patriarchal values and simultaneously puts conditions on her public engagement.

The offer of male protection comes with (i) the condition that women will have to become consenting custodians of patriarchal values, and (ii) an implicit guarantee that they will get the residual power and benefits that would accrue from their support to the Hindu male communal coercion (Sangari 1999, p. 398-408). The perceived notions of danger and security and the chance to exercise residual power through patriarchal bargains may make this offer lucrative for many women (Jeffery 1998, p. 223).

According to Moghissi, fundamentalism is ‘an attitude towards time’. It proposes ‘an ideal past, initial conditions’ or ‘golden age’ which contrasts to the present and can be retrieved…’ (Moghissi 1999, p. 69). All may not view the fundamentalist form of return to the golden age as conservative or retrogressive. For example, by linking fundamentalist space with religion and women’s welfare, the Sangh Parivar makes it possible for a woman to occupy public space and for her family to explain their daughter’s feminism as a form of sewa (Sahgal 2000, p. 198). This may appear as liberal to many.

Similarly, in the context of Muslims, ‘attempts by disadvantaged groups to rise in ritual status by strict adherence to "tradition" or the Shariat are not seen by them as a return to medievalism but in fact as symbols of achievement’ (Pandey in Chhachhi 1988, p. 23). So, acceptance in a social group closed so far or the move upwards in the social ladder may appear progressive and create an incentive for both poor men and women to support fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism also has a unique feature of constructing its own version of the ‘true identity’. In India, this is evident from the Sangh’s move to homogenize identity by disregarding the variety of ‘Hindu religions’, which have existed within the concept of Hinduism (Romila Thapar 1989). An interrogation of gender, class and caste in India reveal that the Sangh is promoting a uniformly brahminized, class-based, transregional modernity and a principle of formal gender equality located in a dichotomous upper caste practice.

The impact is visible in the spread of practices like dowry in states like Tamil Nadu (Kapadia 2002), wearing of sindur and mangalsutra and practice of karwa chauth by Hindu women irrespective of the region and culture. In the homogenization process, women’s space as well as capacity to bargain is being curtailed further by emphasizing brahminized feminine constructs and collective identity (Basu 1998, p. 175-76). Traits like self-sacrificing motherhood and devoted wife are now also being channelized towards building and nurturing a Hinduised social cohesion. In this brahminized, class-based, trans-regional modernization process, women may not have the space to think of separating their identities from the image of the ‘homogenized community’.

The Indian national movement, beginning in the 19th century, was imbued with simultaneous processes of socio-religious reform, specifically attempts to improve women’s condition within Hinduism. These attempts could be attributed to (i) initially, a desire to emulate what the reformers considered modern, i.e., the models of womanhood and conjugality of the colonizers, and (ii) later, the need to engage the wider masses in protesting against the colonizers. It would not have been possible to engage women in the protest without raising the issues which restrict their participation. During this period activists like Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi, Kailashbashini Debi, Tarabai Shinde, Haimavati Sen, Saraladevi, among others, challenged the patriarchal system by identifying the power dynamics which make man-woman relationships unequal (Chakravarti 1998, Sen 2000, Sarkar 1997, Omvedt 1980). Though dalit leaders started talking about caste, cultural, regional and class differences, but on the whole women were treated as a homogeneous entity.

The national movement identified the humiliated and colonized land with the image of a subjugated Hindu woman’s body – her body, sari and adornment encompassing present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan and Myanmar. The image stays even after 56 years of Partition. It also plays an important role in the projects of Hindu nationalism. The image of the motherland has been used to exhort proliferation of female deity or Shakti cult among women who find the concept of shakti empowering. The Sangh Parivar sees partition as a mutilation of the sacred body of the mother and holds Muslims responsible for this act of ‘desecration’ (Sarkar, p. 163-190 and 268-288). By laying claim to Hindu nationalist feminine icons and linking them to female power, patriotism, partition and a dream of Akhand Bharat the Sangh has successfully managed to mobilize Hindu women to support the cause of avenging partition.

Women’s support to the communalized politics of the Sangh Parivar also needs to be looked at from vantage point of individual women’s politics to benefit from the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution as well as BJP attempts to enlarge its vote constituencies. The BJP has much to gain by keeping women’s collective political empowerment within the bounds of socio-historically gendered subjectivities. However, any such analysis must also keep in purview the socio-historical factors.

Women in India have long been active in various types of social and political movements – at national, regional and local levels. They were engaged in grassroots caste-based politics during the Nehruvian period when political power was mainly with the upper castes.

The emergence of ‘backward castes’ and farmers’ parties brought in many other groups of women in politics. Throughout, mainstream politics neither allowed an orientation towards gender issues, nor allowed women to use their agency in collaboration with women’s activists to actively raise and interrogate issues of gender inequalities. If anything the incorporation of gender issues has been considered divisive in the mass nationalist/caste/community building processes and movements. The controlled participation did help some individual women to ameliorate their own situation but systemic gender inequalities have remained unaddressed (Jeffery 1998, p. 222) and women’s orientation towards collaborative agency has been constrained.

Women’s support to religious fundamentalism reflects a situation where women are caught between emancipatory aspirations and inherited notions of ideal womanhood. Notwithstanding multiple factors influencing women’s support to fundamentalism and the impossibility of talking about a common protest against religious fundamentalism, it is possible to turn this ‘situation of being caught’ into a ‘situation of struggle’. Not by ascription to the universal notions of womenhood and sisterhood but by recognizing women’s multiple realities of and exploring questions such as, ‘is there a dissatisfaction with the nation building processes because they have not addressed the issues of gender, ideology, power and identity’, ‘are the modernization processes being seen by women as socio-cultural and economic devaluation of women’, and so on. The contested relationships between women, religion, society, state, culture, nationalism need to be theorized afresh in the public space and ‘discursive and related historical frameworks alike need to be (re)addressed’ (Rouse 1998, p. 69).

Article originally published in Seminar #537, May 2004, India Shining at

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