Posted by Aanchal Khulbe
Feminism has been mistakenly identified as a synonym for women empowerment. The term’s historical usage can be traced down to America’s civil rights movement, which sought political power for women in different aspects of life. The word was quickly picked up by social workers, NGOs, government bodies, the UN, and then eventually popular culture too. Of course, what happens at white countries reaches third world countries soon, and it reached India, where it was observed in the seventh Five Year Plan of 1985 to 1990, and was observed in almost all consecutive five year plans. Here, too, it was picked up as part of by the legal language, the official language of the State, the development language of NGOs, think tanks and organisations working on the ground
Empowerment, by the Oxford dictionary, means the “authority or power given to someone to do something”. Women empowerment was meant to address the lack of power given to women in areas of education, polity, law and law making, the public sphere, decision making, finance, workspaces, positions of power in companies and organisations, to name a few, and to actively ensure a more equal sharing of power by giving power to women.
Empowerment is an ideology focused on more equal sharing of power, it makes power the norm. Empowerment leads us to believe that work that earns money is more useful, relevant and that makes a person worthy.
Also read: Women’s Wages And The Dilemma Of Negotiation
Further, by making power the norm, it reinforces the stigma of men and masculinity as inherently more important, rather than breaking it. Don’t get me wrong, empowerment isn’t a completely wrong model when it comes to equaling the status of the genders. But it is very problematic.
What does it say about people not in positions of power? It tags them lazy or incompetent. Moreover, it legitimises their oppression based on this laziness. It rewards and praises women who take the initiative and start to work outside their homes, and stereotypes the other women as unworthy of that praise or reward.
In that sense it makes women hate themselves, hate their current conditions, hate the conditions of the women before them, labouring in kitchens and bedrooms, and join the race to prove themselves anything but those ‘unmodern’ women from the previous age.
It rewards women who take initiative and work outside their homes, and stereotypes the other women as unworthy of reward.
In the same way, the conversation about men in domestic roles, more sharing of roles by men at home, is further pushed back because importance is given to roles that earn money, roles that require you getting out of your home for ‘work’. Needless to say, it further pushes back conversations on LGBTQIA+ issues, on men who are feminine, or trans men and women.
There is a theory that this women empowerment model has been brought in to further the capitalist agenda by including more working/labouring hands, targeting the one set of population that historically has been kept away from work outside homes.
On a very different level, has women empowerment done anything to tackle the problem that men have with the increasing surge of well educated women, who would be earning soon and might pose as a threat to the decision making of the households? The simultaneous sensitisation of men on this regard that was deeply necessary has not happened. The result is that women themselves must tackle the increasing frictions caused at home, and are mostly battling work and domestic life, or studies and domestic life together.
The empowerment model also does nothing to mitigate traditional roles associated with women like domestic labor and child rearing. There isn’t a simultaneous model for men to ‘disempower’, or to share equally in these areas. The result is that women mostly end up doing both these jobs, which act as double and triple burden on them, further leading towards inequality.
The empowerment model does nothing to challenge the present patriarchal convention that the man’s job is much more worthy than the woman’s.
Also, empowerment lays high value on competition, which finally results in favouring women with high social and cultural capitals, which means women from more powerful and influential backgrounds, or a background of high education – mostly upper caste women. This leaves out women from marginalised castes and classes. Women empowerment then, tends to favour only a certain people, despite its image of being absolutely neutral, unbiased and apolitical.
We understand that women empowerment is not a model that has or that can ever help in smashing the patriarchy because it does nothing to challenge or invert the present patriarchal convention that the man’s job is much more worthy than the woman’s. It does nothing to invert the gaze of looking at gender relations from a man’s perception of the world to a woman’s. It simply plays along the gender binary that men’s work is more valuable and the only way for women to climb the ladder of importance in this society is through taking up those roles historically and socially assigned to men. It does nothing, even, to address the huge gap in the conversation about women’s emotions, needs, and socially-constructed realities. Women empowerment is a sham, and it leaves very little space for gender justice and equality.
Aanchal is a motivated, far-sighted, pro-dialogue, Ambedkarite feminist. She has dedicated her life to working on and looking through the lens of gender, caste, sexual violence, subjecthood and law. She can be followed on Facebook.