Social Identity

IGC Special Lecture: To be or not to be

  • Blog Post Date 06 January, 2020
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Devaki Jain

Institute of Social Studies Trust

In December 2019, an international conference on ‘Closing the gender gap: Health, education and economic opportunities’ was held at Patna, Bihar. Development economist and activist, Devaki Jain, delivered a special lecture on gender equality, in which she dealt with the question: Should we measure women’s progress in relation to that of men, or should we create new systems of measuring and ensuring justice, drawn from women’s existing situations and ideas?

I hope you are intrigued by the title that has been put up which is ‘to be or not to be’, which troubled poor Hamlet. This is also the question that troubles me and those who might think like me on gendering, whether of policy or programme. For me, the question translates into should we measure women’s progress in relation to that of men. Should we make, equalising the gender equality or levelling up the difference between men and women in the various economic and social indicators, our goal? That is ‘to be’. This is where I think gender equality measures take us. We are trying to measure up to where men are. Or should we women, gleaning from our lived experience, the history of our journey, and the goal of equality create new systems of measuring and ensuring justice, drawn from women’s existing situations and their ideas – in other words, set self-goals for ourselves – ‘not to be’. The lecture travels along the journey that some of us who call ourselves feminists as well as feminist economists took over decades, calling attention to women as economic agents and leaders of transformation, and then pointing out what steps were needed to have that idea included that we were the transformatory factor. Thus, we started to challenge the goal of gender equality, put crudely: ‘catching up with men’. I summed up my distaste for this idea of comparing with men. In the opening session of the UN World Conference held in Beijing in 1995, I called my speech, “We are minds, not bodies”, showing that we are thinkers. We are generation of ideas. My thesis is that women are also minds and their progress needs to be seen autonomously, not in comparison with men. For this, I would like to draw support from Amartya Sen. Women should be seen not as patients whose interests have to be looked after but as agents who can do effective things, both individually and jointly. We also have to go beyond their roles, specifically as consumers or as people with needs, and consider more broadly, their general role as agents of change who can, given the opportunity, think, assess, evaluate, resolve, inspire, agitate, and through these means, reshape the world. This is Amartya Sen.

Over the decades, Sen has added to our vocabulary of both reasoning and writing; provided many terms, words, names which have remained with us – missing women, entitlements, capabilities, agency – terms which contain ideas which have entered our everyday vocabularies. One such related quest for equality is contained in his book called the ‘Idea of Justice’, where he used the term ‘public reasoning’. Public reasoning, to Sen, is a form of democratic process. It is to have an open discussion: to open up policy-making, law-making, and development design to participation. The term ‘reasoning’ is a new one in the game where earlier, we always chose the word ‘participation’, which we even now do, and we know from the time of Robert Chambers the whole model of people’s participation, but Amartya has changed it from the old discourse to shift the domain of argument from the body or physical presence/participation, to the mind by the use of the term ‘reasoning’. Reasoning leads to the mind, and to Sen, the most important element for establishing an affirming human agency is reasoning. His basic belief or premise is that argument, reasoning, and the application of mind is critical to build a just world. So, in my lecture, we are using these frameworks to argue for other ways of engaging with women to remove or reduce discrimination, injustice, and economic inequality – rather than catching up with men – the way I interpret the idea of gender equality efforts. I suggest that women’s ideas, reasoning, understanding of inequalities and how to overcome them, their minds and their choices need to be harvested to build a just and vibrant economy and society, engaged with their minds not with their bodies. Many ages ago, many of us started to challenge the goal of gender equality. I don’t know how many of you have recalled that time. ‘Would you want to sit at the same table with men?’ That was a joke because many of the tables of power had men who were corrupt and who were actually disgracing the governance. So, we had jokes like these referring to men who had sort of trashed power, and then we would answer ‘we will set our own table’. Another question was ‘do you want to eat or have a piece of the poisoned cake?’ The poisoned cake would then be the entire political system, and we would answer ‘we will design our own cake’. By raising these questions, we broke away from making the agenda for the women’s movement a question of gender equality, a notion of comparing and catching up with men. What we wanted was that women’s skills and ideas in economics, justice, philosophy, politics, housekeeping, food, everything should be the platform. In fact, our platform should be aspired for by men. Thus, it is not a race with men. It is an affirmation of our minds and lived experience being brought into political philosophy, and an economic programme which stood for equality and justice.

Listen to these women who are thinking of how to handle their position. So, I asked the question, “Should our aim, goals be to close the gender gap” as is mentioned here or to enable women to aspire for a better life on their own terms. In other words, should the measuring scale be men or her ideas for her well-being? Tomes have been written by feminist scholars challenging various elements, theories in existing disciplines like economics, philosophy, psychology which do not recognise the agency coupled with intellect of men. There may not be time for me to share that wealth, but I do wish I could share with you some jokes on how they have attacked psychology but there may not be time. I suggest that an evaluation of women shifting the interest of her body to the mind is what is required. There is a pervasive hierarchy in the mind-body categorisation. The mind, of course, is seen as superior to the body. You know about Descartes and his cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Her mind and the idea and practices it leads to are worth noting and supporting. These will then dissolve or eat into the current hierarchies of gender, mind, and body. The story of women’s reasoning is a story of unpeeling the layers in which inequality is embedded, and the many faces of difference that need to be addressed, strategies to be employed, and structures that are needed to be removing it from local to global. It outranks the legal, political, social, cultural, economic, and ethical elements that come into play in the quest for equality. It points to the enemies of the idea of equality as indeed Mill pointed out to when he noted down where the threads to liberty came from. So, I am discussing some examples which sort of reveal both the collective strength by which women can escape from various types of pressures, and then I have legitimised in showing this by brilliant articles by Catherine McKinnon and other legal political philosophers, and feminists who are arguing that collective action of women’s groups is an expression of mind and a strength to move themselves forward.

When there was an issue in Nellore of Arrack, many of you who have come from Andhra Pradesh would know, women were able to push it back and there are various strategies they used. For example, they cooked rice and threw it in front of arrack sellers and so forth and they managed to get the Prohibition Order given by the Andhra State and that was later pushed back because of revenue that you get from Excise Tax. Then you come to Khirakhote, which is up in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. There were women living on top of a mountain and they used to walk down in order to do their marketing or so on. Then a man set up a lime-quarrying machine at the bottom of the mountain and he had donkeys going up and down to bring the limestone that was on the top. The women did not know what to do. Then, finally, they closed the path so that the donkeys could not walk there without falling and they won the battle. In Manipur, the government wanted to break and take a women’s market away to another building they were building and these women strategised. They slept overnight with mosquito nets and they won over the Municipal Corporation but I am told sadly, in the last two years, they have been shifted to a super-market kind of place. Tragic. These are examples to show how collective action by women can protect their own rights in economic spaces. I do not want to go over too many of them but there is another brilliant one which happened in Assam where the people who were immigrants were in a settlement and naturally, the city wanted to throw them out and they are supposed to have worshipped the elephants who came to destroy their hutments and were able to push the elements back.

The more interesting thing, which is where I want to show women’s agency, is an exercise that we did with the Planning Commission. This was thanks to Syeda Hameed, who was a member of the Planning Commission and she decided to be very brave and put together something called the ‘working group of feminist economist’s, which had the courage to call us feminist economists. Normally, as you know in plans, women are put into a chapter called ‘women and development’ or ‘women and child’ and that is where social welfare and arrangements are made, including gender-sensitive budgeting, but we argued that we are in the mainstream of economic sectors. So, this group was set up by her and nothing that we said had to go to the women and development chapter. It went into the main sectors. This was again an illustration I am giving of women’s agency that we should not be considered a part of a gender-equalising system, but we should be allowed to design a form of economic programmes that come out of our experience. In agriculture, Bina Agarwal had lots to do with this, and she pointed out that women are increasingly the main cultivators. Then in the Eleventh Plan, it is recognised that 85% of farmers who are small and marginal are increasingly women and therefore, there were inputs to that. So, there is a recognition and a response, and then there is industry: feminisation of indebtedness, increasing of assetlessness, fall in real wages. So, then it highlights the need to integrate social security cover to women’s special needs. Again, I will tell you about our input and how it was reflected. Then we go to employment. You can read their attention to women’s contribution, conditions employed, and so on and then the answer: promotion of inclusive growth for regions and social groups, at least 30% of female beneficiaries in all schemes. From what I hear from Bihar, they have done this, I think. For poverty alleviation, again household approach tends to mean that benefits reach men as they are the heads of households. So, we do not want household approach. We want individual approach. So we go on and you can read it yourself: healthcare, family welfare. Recognise that besides themselves suffering from ill-health, women are severely affected by the morbidity, mortality in the households. So, this again is what I argue as agency, that is, women are called to design and we do not go into the ‘women and development’ chapter nor into the gender-budgeting package.

You must forgive me but I really am terribly opposed to this idea of a budget. Too many of my friends here are gender-budgeting people - to be carved out for women’s empowerment or women’s increase in status - economic, physical, moral. I think taking the main sectors and showing how women are participating in it, and then getting the attention that they need not out of a budget but as an overall structure of the macroeconomics. That is the kind of way I argue to support my main thesis that we should not be treated as beneficiaries but we should have our own will as agents of change. Now, if there is time, I want to read out very interesting and very funny illustrations of how women consider theorists like Freud and Jung and others.

Feminist scholars are reinterpreting most theories and we need to take something out of that. Here is something which I hope will stay with you in your mind. This is a seminar I attended at Leiden University long ago. These were all scholars from Netherlands, drawn from psychology, sociology, and politics, and they challenged almost every theory and proposition that come from traditionally-acknowledged leaders of thought and then reinterpreted it. So, you have, all of you know about anorexia and bulimia and when I sent it to my friend, Ashwini Deshpande, she said but that’s how it is. But these women who are also psychologists and neurologists showed that anorexia and bulimia are not necessarily what we consider. That is, anorexia is when I want to go on a fast; so, it is a kind of a strike, a hunger-strike. And bulimia could be something which is also to show that I do not want the food that you give me. It could be seen as an example of self-autonomy. Then we have other examples, which are really very meaningful. For example, you must know that many times, women who are strong are considered to be witches. You know that poor old Joan of Arc was burnt because she was showing great strength, and the interesting thing is that many so-called leaders of liberation themselves have seen women as somehow not able to be intellectual. Here is an example which was given to me by Amartya’s wife. Robespierre, the leader of the French Revolution and therefore, one would imagine a champion of rights, argued that women were like children. He called their conversation, their voice, the babble of women and therefore, not eligible for voting rights. This is the French Revolution: liberty, fraternity, equality, and he would not give them voting rights because he thought they had no minds! So, this is a kind of perception, and then people like Fatema Mernissi and others have written about and this is happening in India too. Bright women in the villages are considered witches and burnt. That is this kind of lack of acceptance that women have been mimed. So, these are just to show that you have to reverse this imagery.

Coming back to my [lecture], in a way, it is unpleasant and I hope I am wrong that this whole quest for gender equality, putting or measuring us against what is available for men because gender immediately means bringing it up to the equality of men. On reflection, I feel we need not go that way. We can go on this journey of women’s own minds and situations, and how they design and carve out their progress and support that instead of making the measure generic one. Secondly, the idea of putting aside the budget for women is another one that I have not been very comfortable with, but I say this in complete ignorance. I admit that I am ignorant. That there must be people who are sophisticated here who are doing it in a much less crude way than I see it. And that is why I came here and I have learnt a great deal.

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