Gameshift, is it?

February 12, 2013 by

Feminism is a loaded term. Especially, since the 90s when the Third Wave Feminism fervently made its way into the intellectual discourse, feminism does not represent one unified concept. It stands for different notions, and constructs, and processes, and beliefs – which often do not really converge that well. And, they don’t need to. Listening to the talk by Devaki Jain, I was becoming more and more appreciative of the beauty of diversity, the privilege of differing. The fact that we now have an ideological platform based on which we bring our differences to the table, and that we build on those differences to move towards a more just, humane, equitable and inclusive social reality – ultimately reflects nothing less than a continuing celebration of feminism.

BRAC Development Institute (BDI) invited a selective group of people representing the academia, researchers, civil society and NGOs to participate in a discussion seminar presented by Devaki Jain on the 10th of February. Devaki Jain is the founder and former director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust in Delhi, India. She is an economist and activist working on women’s issues for a very long time. The seminar was titled ‘New Feminists Negotiation’. As the title suggests, the thrust of the talk was on how a working group of feminist economists are coming up with new ways of negotiating with the state apparatus and the ‘other’. The ‘other’ here is the totality of the male world – a very broad generalization that I found particularly problematic. The male world is equally fraught with many categories like class, caste, age and such other, just like the female world, which is precisely the reason why some feminists are particularly astute about contexts. Contexts differ based on geography, society, polity, culture, economy. Those factors condition men and women’s statuses and shape the struggle for equality. Feminism is continuously defined and redefined based on the context. The conceptual creation of one male world thus conceals the many dimensions of the feminist struggle, the various paths and directions it takes on the way.

Jain believes that despite some advancement made in establishing a feminist understanding of development, politics and society in the last few decades, feminists could not “make a dent on the intellectual package of the other.” The intellectual space is still very much controlled and operated by males. Women scholars are limited to an intellectual ghetto. And, this is where the group has chosen to intervene. The working group of feminists economists have consolidated their arguments in a book called ‘Harvesting Feminism for public Policy: Rebuilding Progress’. The book contains 14 essays by feminists from different parts of the world. The essays are written in the context of crises in food, fuel and finance. The essays supposedly have shifted certain theoretical basis of political economy. Economic democracy, according to Jain, is as important as political democracy.

Not having read the book, it is not really possible to comment on the strength and weaknesses of the propositions made in there. But, being present at the talk where the discussion was centered around this intellectual product and how this was one indication of a step towards making a place in the masculinity infested intellectual world – I have to admit I was expecting little more. Jain claims that the group and subsequently the book questions microeconomic reasoning. Since the objective here is to make room for feminist knowledge in public policy making processes, it is not surprising that these feminist economists focus on reasoning or the conjecture of framing research and agenda that eventually leads to policies. But what I was looking for was more on how their particular stand or the questions they ask are different from what have already been said by many feminists over the years. I agree when Jain expresses her frustration on the presence of only or mostly female audience at a book publishing ceremony when the author is a woman, and the presence of both sexes when the author is a man – but unfortunately, we all know this distasteful fact. My question is – how does the group ensure women’s intellectual presence that will go beyond the mere physical presence? Books have been written before, books will be written afterwards, but that does not guarantee that the book will even be read by the ‘other’, let alone making a longlasting impact on them!

But, it will be unfair not to mention some of the victories of this group though. These feminist economists believe that knowledge should derive from the grassroots level and data driven research can make changes at policy level. For example, one economist did research on the diseases related with cowdung patties and how women who use those can be affected. This eventually resulted in women getting cheap fuel as alternatives to cowdung patties. This may be reformist and not revolutionary, this may be small, but this is how they hope to make an impact – Jain says. They are also working on engendering infrastructure – both hard and soft, which hopefully will significantly benefit women overall.

This is what Jain calls a gameshift. It is a shift in the sense that from a position of begging or asking for resources to work for parity for women, they are now in a position to teach others about how to formulate women’s problem, how to negotiate with the state to help create a more equitable society, how to rebuild economic progress. The audience had members of BDI, Dhaka University, BRAC University, Central Women’s University, Naripokkho, Caritas, CIFAD and BRAC Communications. And quite a few questions arose in this line. Many of us asked what were the strategies of negotiation, how really can data driven research bring changes at policy level for women in general, why the rhetoric of feminism was chosen instead of gender at this point in time. The gist of Jain’s comments is that we have to work in collaboration, and we have to build on small achievements.

I somewhat disagree with some of the points made. I agree with her on grassroots focused knowledge creation, on data driven research results as negotiating tool, and also on working in collaboration. But, to believe that this is a gameshift already, and to focus on women only rather than taking gender as a category makes me hesitant to applaud. I do not mean to situate ‘feminism’ and ‘gender’ in two binary positions, but I believe that asking for gender parity quintessentially involves men in the process. Looking at disadvantaged men to realize how women are marginalized, how competition for limited resources perpetuates women’s oppression and how men and women are not two mutually exclusive groups but rather two social categories with different needs and strengths, is necessary to make change happen. The theoretical presence of the feminists made by data driven research may not necessarily bring policy changes. It has to be founded in practicality. I differ because I see how despite BRAC’s target group being overwhelmingly women, we frame our operations in the gender rhetoric and do not exclude men from the process.

As I have said in the beginning – having differences is enriching. It is mutually educational. I may differ with Jain on some, but I strongly agree on the broader goal, and the ideological platform of feminism we all share.