Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neolibreal India, Aradhana Sharma, Chapter 6: “Between Women? The Micropolitics of Community and Collectivism”, pp: 150-182
In the introduction of the book, A. Sharma begins with the politics of empowerment and the notion of India entering the world stage. Arguing on Farred Zakaria’s article “India Rising” written in the wake of the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, A. Sharma talks about the idea which sustains the triumph of society over state with Zakaria setting up “India’s recent economic growth as an example of the struggle of society againts the state (…) which finally empowered its people economically” (xiv, original emphasis). Even though Zakaria’s arguement is appealing to a certain degree, it glosses over the lives of millions of Indians whose “survival, meanwhile, has been rendered increasingly tenuous by the very processes of liberalization that have benefited some” (xv). By taking up and narrating the “less-often-told stories about the state (…) and popular protests in neoliberal India”, A. Sharma wants to highlight the different effects of postliberalization in India, especially if taken from the margins of society. Therefore, her major analysis of the logics of empowerment is located within what she calls “the lens of grassroots empowerment”. Sharma has made it clear that her argument is not a “one-way localization, or a ‘vernacularization’ of global libearlisn in India.” Instead, what she is trying to argue against is the sometimes “taken-for-granted homogeneity” of the effects of liberalization on the different classes and subjectivities in India (xvii).
The sixth chapter of the book is about an ethnographic analysis about micropolitics of collectivity and comminity in a village called Nimani, on the Seelampur road. A. Sharma’s insights of the MS government-sponsored women program is quite interesting in that her analysis delves into “the fractious dynamics of MS women; those among MS, between participants and nonparticitants, and between participants and program functionaries” (153). With this layered positioning, the author aims to wipe out the common sense argument that “women are already formed subjects and they will coherent in groups because they share common gender identities, interests, and forms of oppression”, that is to say women are an “aggregation of essentially similar individuals” (153). What I found telling in Sharma’s argument, as in chapter 4, is her insistence that “development does not work on backstage socuial realities and already formed social actors, but constitutes them onstage” (154, emphasis mine). interestingly enough is the way she links development state-sponsored program such as MS and the contentious communities -and the frustrations that those programs are, in principle, aimed at for.
In addition to this paradox, A Sharma argues against the homogeneization of gender identities which see women as having the same ideals in their lives. An example that troubles this common sense knowledge is education and the way it depeens the already existing social stratification. The case of Chameli, an ex-preschoolteacher in the village, is quite interesting because according to some women MS participants, she was “disrespectful and comsidered herself as better than the rest because of her formal education and cash wages” as a MS funtionary (157). Another element in the state-sponsored program is the land issue, the Panchayat bhavan (women’s center) land issue that divided the MS women participants and their MS functionaries (158).
This land issue reminds me of an experience that I personally lived two years ago in my own village. Even though the cases are a bit different, I think something can be linked in here. A woman in my village, a business woman I would say, was working with a French NGO that decided to finance a preschool and and an art gallery in my village. The woman in question, who is a native of the village, used the name and image of the village to attract good-willing French people, seduced them to come and invest for free in the village. But the problem is the assocition she set for the cooperation with those French people was composed of herself, her husband, and her children. This association has been never heard in the village. A second issue that aggravated the situation is the land on which the school was built, a land that is hers and where she has already built one of her many houses. therein lies the similarity that I want to highlight. When the other women and the students of the village were tuned about this woman’s wierd business, things were more complicated in that family relationships became rigid from that moment on. The other natives of the village felt betrayed and misregarded in the process of developing the village. The strongest belief that any of us had is the kinship orientation of a program designed to help and better the lives, not of a single family, but those of a whole village. The rivalries ended in in court.
This situation is quite in the Nimani village, where land issue caused “much argumentation and angst” that ended up into unresolvable skirmishes, if not physical fights (165). In this Nimani’s case, however, things are complicated since the MS program disregarded the already existing different women discouirs about power. If the goverment-sponsored program understood that land is very important in identity formation in rural India, it would be able to handle the dispute about the women’s center, when “various families (were) vying for a piece of the village commons on which the council house (of the women) would have been built”.
What is interesting in A. Sharma’s ethnographic analysis is the different voices that are heard regarding the dispute, therefore showing a more complex view of gender identities in the village. Everybody is arguing for or against the program, depending on everybody’s social class or sense of identity deeply differentiated in relation to others. In this regards, A. Sharma argues that “development program do not simply target individuals and groups but also produce them” (167, emphasis added). I would not say that development alone produces these individuals, but it participates in the deepening of their already existing clivages or contradictory worldviews. Heeravati, who is reported to be the quarel instigator, claims that she did not receive loans from the MS program because of “discrimination and nepotism”, for the MS members looked out for their “kin’s interests and consistently turned down her loan requests” (170). Bhagwan, on the same page, sees the disunity in the program as stemming from “interfamily fractionalism” (171), thus linking class kinship and personal interests to the failure of such a program.
In a nutchell, what A. Sharma is trying to argue againts is the collectivization of women as “women,” their essentialization as a common group having the same ideals and facing the same oppression. This common sense knowledge is a fraught process and “its reality has been revealed in Nimani village.” Her arguement is also againts the GAD feminist and simplistic ideas about gender identities, homogenized and presumed identities which fail to seriously take into account the intersectionality of class, caste and relation to partriarchy of MS women participants (178). “Women gender identities” as A. Sharma argues, “are a contradictory amalgam of different social relations, such as caste, class, and kinship” that are not “compartimentalized” but “shaped in conjuncture to each other” (179), and idea that simply means that “women’s agency needs to be examined in the context of their ambigious subject positionings”