NGO participation for women's empowerment in Bangladesh

Essay by shlazzUniversity, Master'sA+, February 2010

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AbstractIn this paper, I tell the story of a grass-roots campaign of poor, rural women in the Mehrunnisa district of Chittagong province in Bangladesh. My objective is to examine how feminist activists strategically use and create social spaces to generate collective dialogue and critical reflection on issues of patriarchy and gendered violence. A related aim is to highlight the ways in which activists working at the grass-roots level theorize the interrelationships among their own political actions, their vision(s) of empowerment, and the everyday gendered spaces they seek to transform. In the following analysis, I begin by briefly situating this campaign within recent feminist writings on empowerment and violence in the context of `Third World' development politics more generally and of Bangladesh more specifically. I argue that a lack of explicit engagement with space in much of the feminist literature on these topics limits our ability to adequately apprehend the nature, content, and meanings of women's political actions (Staeheli, 1996).

This brief theoretical review is followed by a backdrop of women's grass-roots organizing in Mehrunnisa, and the socio-economic and political realities that define women's struggles in this region. But before immersing in the details of what women did on the streets of Mehrunnisa, this struggle must be placed in relation to recent theoretical conversations among feminists, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, on the subject of empowerment and violence in the lives of rural women.

IntroductionDespite intimate connections and overlaps among the issues surrounding women's empowerment and violence against women, feminist theoretical interventions on these topics have often evolved in separate intellectual domains. While empowerment has been a salient theme in feminist discussions of development politics and ecological sustainability in the `Third World' (Harcourt, 1994; Kabeer, 1994, 1999), violence against women has been more centrally theorized in the context of women's social movements (Kumar, 1993; Ray 1999; Zaman, 1999; Visaria 2000) and in problematizing predominant views of intra- and extra-household relationships (Scott, 1990; Agarwal, 1994, 1997; Voight, 1999).

This conceptual separation hinders us from developing more nuanced understandings of the experiences and actions of women who grapple with brutal violence as an inevitable part of their struggles for economic and political empowerment. Here I argue that an analytical focus on space and spatial strategies can enable us to develop fuller and more integrated perspectives on women's struggles by illustrating (a) how women identify the interwoven strands of their lives in specific contexts, and (b) how they define and act upon their shifting priorities and visions of empowerment and social justice within those contexts.

Background: Literature ReviewIn recent years, development planners, scholars, and activists have all agreed that empowerment of poor women in the `Third World' holds the key to solving some of the most difficult problems of global poverty, hunger and environmental degradation (World Resources Institute, 1994). Yet, the preoccupation with `measuring empowerment' on the part of many agencies that fund non-governmental organisations (NGOs), points to the problematic way in which women's empowerment has been accommodated into development thinking. As Naila Kabeer points out, `(a)dvocacy on behalf of women which builds on claimed synergies between feminist goals and official development priorities has made greater inroads into the mainstream development agenda than advocacy which argues for these goals on intrinsic grounds' (Kabeer, 1999, p. 435).

With the translation of feminist insights into the discourse of policy, women's empowerment has come to be regarded by many development scholars and practitioners as a phenomenon that can be measured and quantified on `solid and objectively verifiable grounds' (Kabeer 1999, p. 439). In this instrumentalist approach to empowerment, far from being addressed as a main tool to perpetuate patriarchal power and authority, domestic violence simply becomes an item in a long list of indicators, which measure women's access to resources, their agency, and achievements.

Feminist ethnographers focusing on the politics of household resource allocation have similarly critiqued feminist economists for paying little attention to violence as a form of household conflict (Voight, 1999, pp. 155-156). While they have succeeded in moving the discussion of household dynamics beyond the problematic notions of `cooperation' and `unity', alternative models that seek to analyze gender relations have inadequately theorized gender dynamics within and beyond the household, as well as the links between extra-household and intra-household bargaining power (Agarwal, 1997, p. 1; Voight, 1999). According to Voight (1999,p. 155), even those discussions that focus explicitly on power and inequality, and employ the concepts of `bargaining', `negotiation' and `cooperative conflict', have largely ignored domestic violence as an `extreme and brutal expression' of gendered power differentials. Following Alison Scott (1990), she argues for a need to develop better understandings of women's actual experiences of violence within the family, the frequency and nature of these experiences, and how structures of authority are constituted and controlled within the family (Voight, 1999, p. 156).

Workers were frequently harassed, threatened and tortured because of their involvement in Mrs. and Shabana; and at least once a month, officials were pushed into situations where they had to rescue their workers from their husbands or in-laws. To discourage future acts of violence, these officials frequently resorted to openly humiliating the male perpetrators by blackening their faces or beating them in public (interviews with Aarti Srivastava, March 31, 1999; Madhavi Kuckreja, April 11, 1999; Huma Khan, April 12, 1999; Kamla, April 6 and 7, 1999). And in the villages where these women worked, instances of dowry murders and domestic abuse abounded, forcing officials of the organization to confront the limitations of a vision of empowerment that aimed at increasing women's access to technology and literacy without addressing the violence that continuously reinforced their devaluation and disempowerment within their homes and communities.

These processes triggered within Mrs. and Shabana, a critical rethinking of the instrumentalist versions of empowerment in development theory and practice. As in other feminist movements in Bangladesh, women recognized that the tactic of shaming their male oppressors by deploying symbols of emasculation (men being beaten by women) and losing of face (blackened faces) was based on an acceptance of conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity that Mrs. wanted to reject rather than reinforce (interview with Huma Khan, April 4, 1998; Kumar, 1993, p. 4).

MethodologyIt is against this backdrop of contradictions that women faced in their personal and activist lives that we must understand the emergence of the street campaign on violence against women in Mehrunnisa. In the following section, I discuss the two-step evolution of the campaign within and beyond the spaces of the organizations. Marked by its `primarily ... political, often militant overtones' and its close association with left-wing politics, modern street theater in Bangladesh aims to provide refined entertainment while serving as a cultural intervention that can work directly at the level of people's consciousness (Garlough, 1997, pp. 7-8). Women's organizations throughout Bangladesh have recognized and adopted street plays as a powerful medium to critique prevailing norms, to voice alternative visions, and to mobilize their audiences around issues such as dowry, domestic violence, women's education, and marriage (Kumar, 1993; Garlough, 1997; Sadasivam, 2000).

For women working in Mrs. Mehrunnisa and Shabana, however, street theater was a totally unfamiliar territory before 1998, and many of them had never even seen any kind of theater before. Moreover, the idea of generating a dialogue about women's oppressions in the presence of men was alien to Mrs.'s mode of functioning in which all the `consciousness-raising' of women happened in women-only groups. Taking an open public stance on the issue of domestic violence, sometimes before their own kin, was neither easy nor safe for organizational workers who were themselves only beginning to be politicized about this issue.

Observation and DiscussionAn active deployment and reconstruction of social space was at the heart of the women's campaign in Mehrunnisa. This was not simply because the activists chose the genre of street theater to engage with the communities, but also because women's experiences of domestic violence could not be separated from the highly spatialized ways in which kinship and marriage are practised and experienced in much of rural Bangladesh.

In a social context where an unmarried woman is perceived as a daughter of her entire natal village (Mayaka), marriage implies an inevitable departure from the intimacy of the Mayaka to the distant and alien Sasural (conjugal village), where the young woman is regarded as a daughter-in-law of the village. Thus, while the term, Mayaka, is interchangeably used for both the parental home and the natal village, Sasural refers to the parents-in-law's home as well as the marital or conjugal village. In the case of marital domestic violence, then, it is the Sasural where violent acts on a woman's body and being are perpetrated. And although this violence is often inflicted within the spaces of the household, the nature of a woman's relationship with her entire conjugal village is one that structurally denies her easy access to alternative spaces where she can claim or expect refuge.

The politicization of the issues of domestic violence and gendered discrimination by the campaigners was a spatialized act in which they literally moved the discourse on these subjects--first, from the privacy of women's homes to the spaces of the organization, and later, from the organization to the male-dominated public spaces of the community. With every spatial move, the activists consciously created a new public domain where critical dialogue and reflection could emerge on women's experiences as well as on the socio-economic and cultural processes responsible for their oppressions.

Thus, what we see at work here is a very self-conscious construction and deployment of `sociospatial circuits through which cultural and personal stories are circulated, legitimated and given meaning' (Pratt 1999, p. 218). It was through the process of naming, sharing, retelling, and reinterpreting their own and others' experiences of domestic abuse in a succession of different spaces that women learned to impart political meanings to these previously muffled stories, and to recognize the contradictions and oppressions embedded in popular discourses of masculinity, honor and justice.

ConclusionFor a play that aims to generate critical dialogue on a social problem, writes Udaya (1988,p. 20), the street is the most suitable stage, because it is only in the streets that solutions to social and political problems can be found. The tactics deployed by Shabana activists clearly demonstrated this critical awareness of the street as a vibrant stage for politicizing a pressing social issue. But theirs was not a simple, undifferentiated, or romanticized understanding of the street as an arena for `doing' cultural politics. Rather, in choosing the streets of those villages which had recently lost a daughter or daughter-in-law to domestic violence, and by switching their stages between the murdered women's Sasural and Mayaka, activists showed a heightened perception of the spatialized contours of gender and kinship, and the manner in which these shaped the social dynamics and dialogues in the streets.

Like many political theaters, Shabana's campaign, too, is rooted in a particular soil and time, and commits itself to addressing the needs of a specific community (Bharucha, 1983, p. xviii). Such theater, according to Bharucha (1983,p. xix), `lives so intensely in the historical moment of its creation that it has to constantly renew itself'. The strength and integrity of such theater does not derive from its translatability or universal significance, but from the fact that these plays are not mere enactments of texts that can be transposed to other times and places with necessary adaptations; rather, they are `activities' integrally related to a turbulent social and political milieu (Bharucha, 1983, p. xviii). The power of Shabana's campaign, then, stems not only from its temporal significance--from the fact that it is responding to instances of violence that are fresh in people's heart and minds--but also from its ability to creatively employ socio-spatial circuits and to continuously adapt itself according to the socio-spatial realities of every village.

While it would be premature to assess or predict the longer term effects of this young campaign, this examination of Shabana's crusade against violence illustrates several critical processes. First of all, it shows how the program created a space for rural women to evolve politically, and how women subsequently pulled the organization in the direction(s) of their emerging political consciousness. Women began to theorize the intertwined nature of empowerment and disempowerment in their everyday lives, and the manner in which their struggles around access to literacy, technology, and economic security were inseparable from the deeply ingrained gendered practices of violence in their communities. At the strategic level, these new feminist understandings led women to reconceptualize their spaces of action. Far from being confined to the women-only spaces of the organization, activism and `consciousness raising' now involved claiming of the patriarchal and male dominated public spaces, and a radical rethinking of the relationship between the organization and the rural communities.

Both theoretically and methodologically, then, this analysis reveals how an attention to space can promote more refined understandings of women's ways of remembering, recording and articulating their struggles, and of the nature, content and meanings of their political actions. Because feminist `discourses emerge as situated practices in particular places', questions of political consciousness and self-identity that define women's engagement with feminism (Mohanty, 1991) can only be addressed by situating `local feminisms' (Basu, 1995) in relation to their place-specific contexts and strategies. Mapping the socio-spatial circuits through which women share and politicize their experiences enables us to chart the `discursive geographies' (Pratt, 1999, p. 218) of women's resistance, and grasp the specific processes by which resisters learn to critique, redefine or transform the hegemonic views of empowerment and violence, masculinity and femininity, crime and justice.

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