Saturday, July 26, 2014

Questions on Neoliberalism, Gender and Emancipatory Practice

Chirashree Das Gupta

In India, mobilizations of women by fundamentalist agendas, state-led depoliticized forms of collective action (e.g. microcredit) and subversion of elected women has led to a bounded construct of women’s citizenship under resurgent patriarchy, neoliberalism and fundamentalism. The rising intensity of violent crimes against women and the different responses to it are indicative of larger social processes. The developments of the last four decades have led to social outcomes which are contradictory in its manifestations of gendered patterns.

Gender and neoliberalism
Neoliberalism in India has operated in a society already heavily weighed against women. Gender disparity was already encoded in family and social institutions which colonial capitalism strengthened and used for the purposes of labour deployment and control. A complex process of myth formation has constructed gender in Indian society in the last two hundred and fifty years that was crucial to the social reproduction of class in India (Bagchi 1995). Law making and its implementation show both continuity and changes in its use of ‘public laws’ to deal with property, criminality and entitlement along with the domain of ‘private laws’ that codify family as the basis of organization of society. The singular political action in the first decade after independence was the codification of Hindu Personal laws as the starting point in ‘nation-building’ – a political process that continued for more than nine years from 1947 to 1956. Legitimising the patriarchal basis of Hindu Personal Laws, the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) in its legal recognition as a tax entity remains the most blatant and uncontested provision for tax  exemption for Hindus in India (Das Gupta 2013).

Three decades of state-led capitalism preserved patriarchy in every sphere. Four decades of neoliberalism has brought in its wake newer forms of gender exploitation and new modes of gender disempowerment (Elson 2002) leading to sharpening of both aspirations for emancipation from gendered dimensions of oppression and marked tendencies of intensifying patriarchal clout leading to increased intensity of violence against women. Market fundamentalism has bred religious and social fundamentalism as well, with disastrous consequences for many sections in society and especially women. The general conclusion from the literature that has evaluated the impact of liberalisation on women has established quite forcefully how large sections of women have been significantly disempowered by neoliberal economic reforms (Hiway 1999; Sen 2001). The recent sectoral shifts in the economy have been on clear gender lines. Women were losing many of their earlier occupations, being crowded into less stable employment and were being pushed to the margins of the economy contrary to assertions of ‘feminisation of labour’.

A socially advantaged family background and family education status have been much more important predictors of job access and mobility than skill levels (Harriss, Kannan and Rodgers 1990; Kingdon 1997). This finding defies all the spurious modelling based on undifferentiated social categories that still predict a convergence in wages for ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour in the wake of liberalisation as long as ‘capital can be freely transferred between the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ sector. Moreover, when just 3% of men and 1% of women have access to college education (Velkoff 1998), the very premise of the links between the effects of reforms on the labour market establish the stratified structure of the labour market in terms of social differentiation.

There have been diverse outcomes for different classes of women. Liberalisation led to the increasing marginalisation of vast sections of both men and women workers, in the agricultural sector. While there is an argument often put forward that certain sections of women have economically benefited from liberalisation, both in the formal and informal areas of the service sector, the premises of these arguments have been highly contested and the nature of these ‘benefits’ are  disputed.  The heterogeneous gender effects of marketisation policies of the last few decades clearly point to a class dimension. The link between caste and class is established quite firmly in the link between the changes in the structure of production and the ‘driving out’ of Dalit occupations from the market without any substitute in terms of employment opportunities. Thus the status of Dalits in rural India is overwhelmingly that of landless, migrant workers (Franco 2002). All of these areas of brutal divergences from the promises of the neoliberal dream have opened up areas of resistance and opposition to the state’s reform agenda. Nevertheless, the path charted out by the neoliberal reformists is still firmly embedded in state policy in India with the narrowing of the class basis of the state in favour of big capital.

Mainstreaming, development and emancipation
The bases for feminist engagement with India’s trajectory of development as a political project advocating pluralist approaches derive from multiple feminisms. However, less than a decade after the Beijing Conference, many feminist concepts had transformed into gender myths characterized by essentialism and simplistic slogans within ‘gender and development (GAD)’ frameworks.  Critical reflections of feminist ‘gender practitioners’, which interstice donor agencies, researchers, national and international ‘development bureaucracies’, the print and electronic media and women’s organisations, can be divided into three broadly interrelated themes: first, the struggle for interpretive power in the moves from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ in the political battle over interpretation; second, the ways in which functioning of state and non-state institutions undermine feminist intent; and third, the challenges in repoliticising feminism to achieve solidarity among contemporary multiple feminisms in the battle(s) against patriarchy. The installation of policy-driven gender orthodoxies elucidating the struggle over interpretive power that shaped the language of GAD are heavily informed by the multiple dimensions of processes of ‘gender mainstreaming’.  The insights range from debates on ‘targeting’ poverty through female-headed households, the changing world of ‘work’ and ‘women’s work’,  questions of agency in labour rights of sex-workers, contradictions in the institutional evolution of ‘gender’ in aid programmes, and stereotyping of the ‘poor, and powerless victim’ of patriarchy. Convenient concepts around poverty informed simplistic formuations around feminization of poverty. The female-headed household, based on simplistic binary comparisons between male-headed and female- headed households, as ‘exceptionally disaffected parties’ became the focus of neoliberal efficiency-driven-targeting in poverty reduction programmes (Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead 2008).

This is most clearly visible in the myriad of women specific schemes and programmes implemented by Third World governments with support from international organizations and funding agencies. Thus the  ‘good governance’ framework of institutional interventions informed by gender orthodoxies and claiming to be informed by ‘gender perspectives’ ignores the historical materiality of different layers of change in patriarchy and its capacity to mutate to preserve itself. This mutable patriarchal apparatus imposes upon and makes women conform to changing roles to cater to the perpetuation of this mutation. It is a process in which a so-called gender perspective on ‘empowerment’ replaces emancipation in the institutional realm and then ‘empowerment’ becomes a tool of conformity. The contradictory terrain of women’s empowerment in this abandonment of the quest for emancipation is summed up in the following observation: as associations with collective action and more radical transformative agendas are sloughed away to make the notion palatable to the mainstream, ‘empowerment’ has been reduced from a complex process of self-realization, self-actualization and mobilization to demand change, to a simple act of transformation bestowed by a transfer of money and/or information. (Ibid)

Debates on emancipation and social change
Can a ‘gender perspective’ itself become a tool for conformity? Or does it have radical potential in itself? Have the debates that led to the adoption of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in Beijing as a central agenda entailed that the shift from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ erased radical implications and made women’s interest less visible? How far does mainstreaming go as an agenda to confront patriarchy in its social and political economy dimensions? Is reclaiming the category ‘women’ from the utilitarian uses of ‘gender’ necessary for feminist transformatory agendas? These are some of the explicit questions and debates that have emerged in the context of Third World experiences in the convergence of GAD and the ‘good governance’ agenda.

There are also implicit debates that provide pointers to the unaddressed terrain of praxis of ‘gender perspectives’. The relationship between gender and social transformation needs to be linked to the trajectories of peripheral societies which have to contend with the struggles of the oppressed and the exploited for needs and aspirations for improved quality of life and livelihood security. These struggles are directly related to the consumptive lifestyle of the upper and middle classes integrated with production processes and distribution priorities, by the policies and programmes of nation-states, and the lending and funding criteria of international financial institutions. Depending on specific social conditions, histories, power relations and modalities of production systems which channelise accumulation, multiple development ideologies have developed with varying emphasis on the role of two key institutions: states and markets. The relative power of political configurations within which such debates have been polarized, has determined ‘development’ priorities.

With fluid finance capital driving neoliberalism, the ability of so-called developmental states to deliver on their interventionist programmes has been systematically eroded in the last three decades. The literature evaluating the impact of neoliberalism on domesticity, work and livelihood of women highlights how large sections of women have been disempowered by neoliberal economic reforms reversing many of the gains of women’s struggles. Since the Asian financial crisis, hard neoliberalism paved way for a soft version with a synthesis of policy frameworks deriving from humanist libertarian views of ‘development as freedom’ and the ‘entitlements approach’ , Rawlsian approaches of prioritising basic liberties over equality  and post-materialist dispensations from theorists like Inglehart. These converged around ‘inclusion’ - the consensual slogan of soft neoliberalism, spanning international funding agencies, state and non-state donor and recipient organizations. ‘Gender mainstreaming’ got embedded in this neoliberal ‘inclusion’ paradigm. Techno-managerial instrumentalism did not originate in state bureaucracies and donor agencies. It was nurtured in private institutions - the primary sites of capital accumulation which are the vehicles of neoliberal propagation.

According to Mazumdar, Neetha and Agnihotri (2013:62), “…A case in point is the present labour law regime’s conceptual effacement of women workers’ individual entitlements where jodi based migratory labouring units are combined with piece  rate wages – as in brick kilns across the country and sugar cane harvesting in western and southern India. The significance of this issue, though noted in description, has been largely ignored in the literature on migration. The findings show that a larger proportion of women of SC and ST backgrounds are concentrated in rural based circular migration marked by contractor driven debt/advance based tying of male female jodi labour. This in turn has interlocked semi-feudal bondage and semi-feudal patriarchal practices into recruitment and employment practices of a section of the developing modern industries, highlighting the primitive basis of their mode of accumulation…”.

How far does this contemporary materiality explicitly constitute and inform the terrain of multiple feminists’ contestations towards emancipatory practice?

Bagchi, J., 1995, Introduction, Bagchi J. (ed), Indian Women: Myth and Reality, London, Sangam
Cornwall A, E Harrison and A Whitehead (eds), 2008, Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges. New Delhi: Zuban
Das Gupta, C 2013, The Tenacity of the Hindu Undivided Family: Gender, Religion and Tax Concessions, Economic and Political Weekly, 48(40): 73-75
Elson, D 2002, Integrating Gender into Government Budgets within Context of Economic Reforms, in Budlender D. et al (eds) Gender Budgets Make Cents: Understanding Gender Responsive Budgets, London, Gender Affairs Department, Commonwealth Secretariat
Franco, F  2002, Introduction, Franco F. (ed) Pain and Awakening: The Dynamics of Dalit Identity in Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi, Indian Social Institute.
Harriss, J, Kannan, K.P. and G. Rodgers 1990, Urban Labour Market Structure and Job Access in India: A Study of Coimbatore, Geneva, International Institute of Labour Studies.
Hirway, I 1999, Economic Reforms and Women’s Work, in Papola, T.S. and A.N. Sharma (eds), Gender and Employment in India, New Delhi, Indian Society of Labour Economics, 351-369.
Kingdon, G G 1997, Does The Labour Market Explain Lower Female Schooling In India?, London School of Economics, London,, Accessed on June 8, 2003
Velkoff, V.A., 1998, Women’s Education in India, International Programmes Centre, Women of the World, October.
Mazumdar I, Neetha N and I Agnihotri 2013, Migration and Gender in India, Economic and Political Weekly 48(10) 54-64

Sen, S 2001, Gender and Domesticity: Liberalisation in Historical Perspective, UNEAC Asia Papers Issue 4,, Accessed on March 3, 2003.

The author is Associate Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi

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