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Adieu to Developing Feminisms but Not to Being a Feminist

Dr. Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay
Indian Feminist and Social Researcher
May 17, 2021
Feminisms in development is alive and well and it is in the hands of the future generation. They are making all the difference in local struggles and making new meaning for the futures of feminism in development.

Goodbye and adieu,

On the 8th of March 2021, international Women’s Day, I made a kind of resolution which has been long in the making. This essay entitled a Farewell to arms is a sort of closure on a chapter of feminist activism that I was part of for almost thirty years. I experienced it as a prolonged battle, as a saga of institutional battle fields, bodies strewn, and injuries sustained and like all battles the victories most times did not match up to the human and material costs. I am not turning my back on feminism though. This is written for all my readers but especially for colleagues in development in general and particularly the feminists among them, feminists who have since 1990s tried to make the juggernaut of international and national development programmes more gender friendly. 

The term gender friendly is of recent coinage, that is if you are as old as me and been in the business as long. Like other terms that have entered our development lexicon this too can be variously interpreted – ranging from just add women in the pot of things you want to do to make the world a better place to focusing programmes on one gender, women, or addressing men too in your programmes because they are the other gender. Whatever may be the approach there has been a decided shift away from seeing men as the only agents and subjects of development whose lives and livelihoods need improving to seeing women too not just as part of families but as agents in themselves. At least that is the hope which kept us going. And if you read the project documents or the UN formulated and internationally agreed goals for development, the terms gender and gender equality are ubiquitous. I would like to claim some credit for my generation and those younger than me that this acknowledgement is a result of long years of painstaking work at the level of institutions, both national and international, in trying to convince them that both men and women count in making the world a better place. 

And now with Covid pandemic and in lockdown, zoom conferences and webinars on Gender and Covid have proliferated. And for good reasons. Given that the pandemic has made all classes of people across the world so aware of the role of care and caregivers in society (although for the most part still taken for granted), from domestic work to childcare to nursing, much of it provided by women, there is renewed interest in the political economy of care and the main carers namely, women. But this is an urgent theme for another day. For now, I want to focus on a related but different theme which is the feminist turn to institutions (national and international) to fix what essentially are problems of inequality and what the mixed outcomes have been. 

Feminists in different parts of the world have been appealing to institutions, especially the state, for a long time to address problems of social and political inequality. However, the form of feminist advocacy that this essay refers to has its roots in the build up to and the resolutions passed at the historic World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. This conference inaugurated a new style of advocacy whereby feminists targeted international institutions and global conferences to get their messages across and then, armed with the agreements reached, tried to influence their own national governments.

The back story.

Many of you are wondering what I am talking about. What is development, what is gender and who are these feminists in development? I will try my best to explain even though I gave up trying with my father thirty years ago who, although he was immensely proud of me and my only unquestioning fan, nevertheless thought I was wool headed when I explained what I do. In the 70s and 80s he could point concretely to my work in rural development in India and say I do ‘social work’; later my association with Oxfam made things more concrete. When my book based on my PhD research came out end 1990s, he pointed to it as being self-explanatory of what I did.

Gender: what’s that? But because I was a girl and not a boy, my parent’s friends and our relatives (all solidly Kolkata middle class) indulgently saw me as a good girl because I did ‘social work’ and did not consider me a failure; after all I was not expected to be a breadwinner. It would suffice to use my expensive education to get a respected job in the university or at most in the civil service; but I was not expected to. If I had been a son with degrees to my name and gone off to do ‘rural development’ I would have been considered a failure for not having been anything other than a doctor, lawyer, civil servant, academic (although many of my friends with engineering and doctor degrees were in rural development with me at that time but few women). And that is, for those not used to the term, what ‘gender’ is; the differential expectations that society has of what men and women should be, which make us who we are, and is constitutive of our social relationships. These differential expectations from men and women have little to do with their biological sex and everything to do with what society makes of the biological difference. In recent decades the greater organisation of voices of people whose gender identity does not necessarily fit neatly into the binary categories of female and male has further delinked this association. Transgender peoples have taught us that at best gender is an ambivalent category.

If it was only differing expectations did not translate into differential treatment, we would not have this inequality between men and women. But it does; differing expectations translate into unequal resource allocation in families, societies, countries and internationally which means that unless you were me (a daughter and not a son) with parents who insisted on, sacrificed and paid for my expensive school education and till post-graduation and made opportunities available in India 1970s, I would not be writing this! Because these expectations for women and men differ from society to society (even within a city which is why I specified my Kolkata middle-classness) we are often lost when the gender codes are different as for example with transgender people or with women and men from other parts of the world or even from other classes in our immediate milieu. We try to define them in ‘categories’ different from us and encoded within which are historical, social, and cultural memories and stereotypes: western women as sexually available, western men as efficient and manager types; Indian/ African women burdened by tradition and African/ Indian men as unreliable; transgender people to be pitied and/or abhorred, depending on where you are.

Development=Progress. The term development has many meanings but is most often associated with making progress. Many of us in the old days (70s, 80s and 90s) considered the state to be responsible for economic and social development including undertaking large infrastructure projects so that citizens could earn their living and live better, healthier and knowledgeable lives. Growing up in India we were all in some way or the other aware of the developmental state with its development planning mechanisms and projects. Internationally of course there was a big divide between the so-called developed countries and the countries in Asia and Africa which because of their colonial history had fewer resources, poor infrastructure and poor education and health. So up to the 1990s there was this social contract between the developed countries (Europe and America) and the developing countries (the rest) that the former would aid the latter in their development. This aid took many forms from money, to paying for large scale projects, to know-how, technology and expertise. It always came with conditionalities although of course this was not so obvious because it was about influencing the priorities of development. And then there were the UN organisations with membership of all, the international financial institutions the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that increasingly assumed control of world development. All of this constellation of institutions, projects, and priorities constitute what is known as international development.

But this is all at the level of states. There is and always has been side by side a whole array of international, national and right down to the local level many organisations working for issues and causes that help people to access or run development programmes and projects. Many of these international and national organisations have long traditions of helping people; with local traditions of social work being very important for gaining acceptance. The 1970s saw a new form of activism growing in India, which although we saw it as new and different because we were these activists, was also following in a long tradition. We were following in the footsteps of many Gandhians before us. This activism was focused on the rural areas because that is where India was, and we the sons and daughters of the middle-class wanted to use our knowledge and professional training to serve people in rural areas, to unleash the ingenuity and local knowledge stifled and misunderstood by the state bureaucratic machinery and urbanites looking down on them as backward. 

Many of these programmes in the 1970s and ‘80s were about adapting technologies to suit the circumstances in the rural areas. These could be the introduction of soft technologies like community heath delivery models using local women as health workers like the one I was first employed in in the western Indian state of Maharashtra near Mumbai. Or hard technologies requiring engineering skills like improving hand pump designs (only source of drinking water in drought prone arid regions of western India/Africa) and making them child proof so they don’t constantly breakdown. The India Mark 2 (could be Mark 3 or 4as the model was constantly improved) is Unicef patented and is now used all over South Asia and Africa. We built these technologies with the aim to make them part of the state system, so they endured. We were not just local but were linked internationally through exchange with like-minded organisations in the global South and as well the North.

Feminisms. And finally, a word about feminism, and specifically feminists in development although I was just told by a 30 something feminist colleague from India that I was stating the obvious. Her remark, is there anybody who does not know about feminism, made me worry I was repeating common knowledge. But I don’t think so because I want to talk about history, the history of those of us who were the architects of a certain form of transnational feminism. 

In the 1970s and 80s there was a world-wide resurgence of women’s movements, some earlier and others later. These movements were diverse and took many forms from street level advocacy, to consciousness raising and as well challenging the citadels of knowledge, universities and their academic disciplines. What was common to all this diversity was the call for equal treatment and dignity for women. For women from poorer nations this was combined with calls for an end to class and other oppressions and a fairer share of development resources between the so-called developed and developing nations. The recognition that women should have a say in world development came with the organisation of the first UN World Conference on Women held in Mexico in 1975. And so began the first UN decade devoted to women’s development. The awareness that women should have a say was brought about by activism worldwide but also from within the UN by economists and sociologists. 

One of the areas that feminists investigated and challenged was the discipline of development studies. In a landmark conference convened at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in 1979, researchers from many parts of the world gathered to discuss the impacts of development on their societies, women and men, and why things were getting worse not better for rural women who at that time constituted the majority in developing countries.  On the basis of this conference Anne Whitehead wrote what can be considered one of the first analysis of why development programming was failing women. It was not because third world women were stupid but because planners and experts had simply ignored the fact that women and men do not live alone but are related in society to each other through the socially constituted relations of gender. These relations mediate one’s access to development programmes and to the benefits, vary from context to context and historically; that is, they change in response to wider changes in society. Development planning and programming was bringing new impulses into these societies based on the priorities of the planners themselves, who saw women and men in the light of their experiences in their own societies. While the socially constituted relations of gender were one of domination and subordination, in many societies women played critical roles in the rural economy and society which development planning destroyed often because they focused only on men’s roles. This had consequences in the long term for women and men and how gender relations got reconstituted and reproduced at every level in society. And so was born the field of gender and development which became the main policy line at the Beijing conference 1995.

This was very discernible in the Indian case. In the 1970s and well into ‘80s in India, for example, there arose in the aftermath of the nation-wide student and worker rebellions in the 1970s, what has been termed the third wave of Indian women’s movements. The immediate trigger was the publication of the Status of Women report prepared by the Status of Women committee set up by the government for the UN Women’s Decade 1975-85. All countries had to prepare a status report on the progress of women in their countries. The report that India produced ‘Towards Equality’, was an outright indictment of the state and its development policies and showed how women, especially schedule caste and tribal women as also rural poor women who together constitute the majority, had been consistently neglected with the outcome that women were paying with their lives. The ratio of females to males, which everywhere favours women, had in many places reversed with fewer women in the population. All the indicators of ‘progress’ were negative and the existing evidence pointed to a worsening of the status of women in the very years devoted to state-led planning and progress (John 2014:126). And so began a decade of struggles to highlight issues and seek remedies. By the mid-1980s the women’s movement had spread to address a host of issues affecting women, including violence, the right to employment and fair wages, legal equality, education, health and environment (Mukhopadhyay 2016).

We have a name: Feminisms in Development. I can put my finger on the moment in our collective histories when and where the term feminisms in development was coined or rather given currency. It was at an international level with the publication of the book by the same name published in 2007 in which the chapters derived from a workshop held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex in 2003 and entitled Gendered Myths and Feminist Fables: Repositioning Gender and Development Policy and Practice. The workshop saw feminists from different parts of the world working in universities, policy institutions, NGOs, UN and governments review their own efforts in research, teaching and training and policy work to make development institutions amenable to understanding and taking on gender. Feminisms in development was an international movement that named and gave an identity to what many of us who were doing; we were the people who at intervened to explain, to coach to persuade through our research, the importance of taking gender relations and gender differences in needs and priorities in development.

Fast forward to a post Beijing 1995 feminist world

The most widely dispersed legacy of the iconic Beijing conference 1995 and that which became the principal strategy by which governments and development organisations set out to take the Beijing Platform for Action agenda forward, was gender mainstreaming. Conceived as a strategy that would lead to the goal of gender equality, gender mainstreaming involved inserting gender knowledge in policy arenas so that instead of a piecemeal approach to including women in the margins of development programmes, all development programmes would be formulated and implemented keeping women and men’s interests in mind and the differential impact on them. 

It was one thing to get this strategy agreed but it was quite another to convince every single development organisation that it needed to be done, to provide the research to show why it was needed, and then to innovate courses to train people in these bureaucracies (because that’s what they were) to be able to appreciate the importance of gender in their work and to use the tools we provided in their planning of policies and programmes. Feminists inside and outside these bureaucracies were kept busy with the nitty gritty of operations. A whole body of gender ‘expertise’ that had little to do with either feminist movements or with the conceptual underpinnings of gender knowledge took shape. To be gender expert you didn’t have to be feminist anymore and in case there were many feminisms and not one. It was far better in fact not to declare yourself a feminist as this according to the development bureaucracies was a political bias. 

By the 1990s I was in Europe first as a PhD scholar in the UK at the beginning of the decade and later working for a knowledge institution, the Royal Tropical Institute, based in Amsterdam. Because of my location and because of my work I became one of the principal architects of this form of knowledge and its circulation through international training programmes. We tried through our work to maintain our ‘purity’ by generating grassroot knowledge by undertaking large action research projects with Southern partners, only to be told that that our findings did not qualify as evidence for ‘policy’. 

I remember a particularly painful experience that took me a long time to get over. We (the gender unit at my Institute) were commissioned in 2005 by the then Unifem (the UN Fund for Women and later in 2010 UN Women) to write a manual on Gender and HIV and Aids. Instead of seeking advice from a gender expert working on HIV and AIDS, we decided to ask the activists in the South working with vulnerable populations like sex workers and others to help design and write the manual. What we produced was practice based and close to the lives of affected people and the main message was how to make rights real. We were called to New York after we sent the first draft to present it to the joint advisory committee on Gender (a convening of so-called experts from the main UN agencies). To cut a long story short we were brutally shown the door because the ‘experts’ could not match any of what we had written about rights, about gender and about HIV and AIDS to UN accepted definitions. One of them threatened us that if we didn’t fall into line, they would sack us. Distraught and humiliated I went off on my own tramping through ankle deep snow and crying my heart out (it was winter in NY). We then simply gave the writing of the manual to someone who spoke the UN language and she produced a perfectly boring, bereft of content and full of UN jargon manual acceptable to those who had commissioned it.

This kind of experience was repeated many, many times over in different forms and different institutional levels over the next decade. We had produced a form of knowledge acceptable to global and national institutions, which then was reproduced in different formats into ‘policy’ speak. The policy speak was never allowed to contradict the main policy line which was liberalism and market friendliness. Very gradually the terms in development and its meaning began to change. You weren’t allowed to mention redistribution because that would question the neoliberal economic paradigm within which all policies had to operate; terms like class were replaced by innocuous ones like ‘the poor’, and gender became women and then women and men. We were back to the biological rather than the social difference between women and men. Any language that smacked of political transformation was gradually eased out. I had been complicit in creating a Frankenstein that we could no longer control.

Did the decade of efforts since Beijing 1995 have any concrete impact? It certainly did; the ubiquity of gender within institutional policies and actual programmes supported is proof that there were changes. I personally have witnessed the launch of many extraordinary feminists in the aftermath of Beijing. As Lina Abou-Habib writes in her article entitled, ‘The journey began in 1995: how Beijing shaped 25 years of feminist activism’ (2020), her work on gender equality began with being part of the preparatory process and the Beijing Conference in 1995 itself. The preparatory process introduced her to a whole network of feminists across the middle east. In the next decades these networks undertook many campaigns in the countries of the region for changes to policy and law, laws that continued to reinforce women’s subordinate position and were often anti-woman. This included the controversial law of nationality that all these countries have that disallows women from passing on their nationality to their children; only the father’s nationality can be passed on to their children. And not to forget the most treasured outcome of all, the solidarity and friends that we made from all over the world which linked us to common goals of social transformation and change.  

The Beijing Conference had other important consequences too. It opened up the discussion on sex and sexuality beyond its definition in reproductive health policies. The world-wide HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 1990s brought to the fore the vulnerability of specific groups in society as they contracted and died from this sexually transmitted disease. It also gave visibility to groups that hitherto had lived at the margins of society and whose livelihoods were dependent on the sexual economy. Sex workers both male and female, transgender peoples all of whom we had done our best to ignore came out in the open and became key in the fight back against this devastating pandemic. Women’s movements had never accommodated either sex workers or transgender persons and it remains so today. But what it did do is open up the possibility of seeing the many sexualities that today have become a part of feminist discussions. 

Despite this for many of us who had struggled to put gender on the agenda of institutions, there was a profound sense of the loss of feminist political objectives in the process of mainstreaming. By Beijing+20 it was realised that gender has been institutionalised in development institutions but that it had not happened in the ways that we feminists wanted. We had to accept that what we perceived as a gap between the intention to mainstream gender and the inability of institutions to implement this intent was not a gap at all; it was a characteristic of the institutionalisation process itself. It was not because we had not tried enough or had not provided the appropriate research and training although often, we were made to feel that way. As we lost the struggles for interpretive power over what gender and gender equality in development mean, we witnessed this knowledge being shaped, compromised and transformed into something quite different by its entry into policy making arenas. 

After 2005 development cooperation or international development changed radically. It was already changing for some time but with the restructuring of aid and the greater embrace of neoliberal policies in the rich donor countries, the relationships between the west and the rest they had colonized ceased to be one of social contract. Two decades of economic austerity imposed on states by the World Bank and IMF around the world reduced the role of the state in poor and developing countries from being responsible for development to becoming a not too good manager of privatised public goods like health and education. It reduced the legitimacy of the state. The state had always been seen as the main actor in development responsible for deciding on priorities and allocating resources. Increasingly however it was no longer the state but global institutions that set the priorities within which most governments had to operate.  

For feminists in development the dilemma became that the more successful we were in installing feminist knowledge in global policy arenas the more the distance that grew between the local and context-specific struggles around gender equality and the universalistic definitions of gender equality. This meant that for context specific struggles to be recognised in global arenas and to receive the resources and backing it deserved, it had to fit into existing global agendas. These agendas as I have shown earlier hegemonize liberal governance and neoliberal economics. Liberal rights for women and gender inclusion are fundamental to these agendas insofar as these rights release the subject “woman” from her tradition-bound role and make her free to participate in the neoliberal economy. Addressing the structural causes of gendered inequality in development in the post colony does not, however, feature in this agenda. The socioeconomic and political changes necessary to end poverty, enable distribution, and ensure security are also not part of this agenda (Mukhopadhyay, 2015). 

I have been writing about our predicament in journals and articles for nearly ten years now. The reception from my comrades in arms has always been one of disappointment with what is seen as my turncoat behaviour. There is a defensiveness that is understandable. It is understandable because often the only form of feminist politics that many in this movement have known is institutional politics and that too at a certain remove from the localities in the postcolony. I am the last person who would deny the significance of feminisms in development. But I will say that when we don’t recognize where and how the balance in our advocacy tips and instead of siding with those who suffer inequality we side unwittingly with the powerful because we are so in thrall to institutions, we as feminists lose the ‘intentional core’ of our politics which is to resist domination by the powerful, to insist on equality not in the universal and abstract sense but on the terms that people in specific contexts are fighting for. Although these might sound like high concepts (too theoretical the bureaucrats in development organisations always liked to say), the reality in the last ten to fifteen years has increasingly shown that they are real and have consequences for the most vulnerable and powerless: people discriminated because of their gender status (along with their class/ caste and race status). And I say this not only to my friends and colleagues working at a more global level but also to my feminist friends in India whose strategies of working in and out of the state has often landed them in political places quite the opposite of where they should have been.

When I mentioned the title of my blog to my friend Naila Kabeer from whom I learned about gender and development, who as academic par excellence has inspired all of us, she was surprised that I was saying goodbye to what is recognised as my life work. She on the other hand hoped to continue. I do too especially in the way Naila and other friends in academia have done, which is showing that knowledge is also a terrain of struggle. We cannot turn our back on the struggle to transform knowledge and ideas because what we do is based on the ideas that we have learned all our lives. So I look forward to being part of the struggle as long as I am able to.

The afterlife of Feminisms in development

To end a little feel-good story of solidarity in today’s Covid world. My friend Valerie Lipman has just written a blog commemorating International Women’s Day 2021 entitled ‘Women’s activism across generations and the globe in the time of Covid’ which tells the story of an intergenerational project between young girls and older women in West Bengal, India and their global links with some of us also older feminists located in Europe.  As a result of the extraordinary determination and struggle of a group of girls over a hundred homeless older women living in cyclone and Covid-affected villages in the Bay of Bengal region, India will be moving into homes which have been especially designed and built for them. 

In May 2020 the state of West Bengal in India and Calcutta city was the centre of the Amphan cyclone which wreaked havoc especially in the Sundarbans coastal area in the Bay of Bengal.  During the Covid pandemic Nishtha, an NGO established almost forty years ago, and which worked in three hundred villages in this area promoting and developing the rights and skills of girls and women, was very active bringing help to the villages. In the aftermath of the cyclone, they became aware of the acute need for rebuilding houses. It was then that a group of young women (aged 15-18) from this area, who were related to them through various projects raised the issue of housing for older single/widowed women (who are generically called grannies) who had no place to go. In the meantime, a supply chain had been set up with my friend Rajashri in Kolkata at the centre to manage the funds that various friends and relatives living abroad, channelling it to NGOs (my friend Valerie and I being among them). Rajashri told us that Nistha had spoken about the housing crisis in the aftermath of the cyclone especially the crisis of homelessness for older, single/widowed women. My friend Valerie who has spent her whole working life on care issues for older people in the UK, and who was acquainted with Nistha because she had met them during her doctoral field work in Kolkata, communicated with them that she was willing to support the housing for the older women. 

Almost six months went by till we heard back from Nistha. The project to build houses for older women had taken a lot of time because there were several negotiations with the local government body about how they should be helping. The group of young women coordinating and advocating for older women spearheaded these negotiations. First, they made the local council agree to write over the land on which these houses were to be built in the name of the woman who received the house; they did not want to rely on the uncertainty of goodwill in case it evaporated, and the woman was rendered destitute. Second, the negotiations took longer because although there was money for the houses (materials and sundry expenses) received through donations (mainly Valerie), the labour costs needed for these women to hire people to build was insufficient. 

A note on the gender politics of governmental relief and rehabilitation efforts is called for. In the aftermath of the cyclone, as with major natural disasters, the government makes available subsidies for reconstruction through the local government channels and elected bodies. These subsidies are for people who can’t afford to rebuild, as in this case, their houses. When we say ‘people’ of course their eligibility is means tested according to the regulations (below a certain income), but these regulations are gender blind which means they do not recognise the specificity of the experience of being a widow/ single, older and poor in a village in the coastal region of West Bengal. And that is where the young women’s group stepped in with their intervention. They emerged as feminists in development by recognising and calling attention to what it meant to be an older, poor and single/widow; that being an older single woman in a village is not just a biological fact but that it denotes a social status and worth which makes the bearer vulnerable. 

Governmental subsidies for rebuilding houses were given on the assumption that those who got this money would put in their labour as part of their contribution. The young women’s groups demanded that since the local council did not have to pay for the materials for the houses, they nevertheless had a responsibility towards these older women and should pay the costs of labour. These older women did not have the labour power available to do their own building. They reminded elected officials that these women were also citizens and had a vote. And so it was, the local council paid the subsidy for hiring labour. A final touch to this cross generational cooperation story was that the design for these houses with locally sourced materials and appropriate for flood prone areas like the Sundarbans, was done by a young woman architect from Kolkata, the daughter of a Kolkata feminist.

Feminisms in development is alive and well and it is in the hands of the future generation. They are making all the difference in local struggles and making new meaning for the futures of feminism in development.

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