Questions on Neoliberalism, Gender and Emancipatory Practice

Das Gupta

In India, mobilizations of women by fundamentalist
agendas, state-led depoliticized forms of collective action (e.g. microcredit)
and subversion of elected women has led to a bounded construct of women’s
citizenship under resurgent patriarchy, neoliberalism and fundamentalism. The rising
intensity of violent crimes against women and the different responses to it are
indicative of larger social processes. The developments of the last four
decades have led to social outcomes which are contradictory in its manifestations
of gendered patterns.

Gender and neoliberalism
Neoliberalism in India has operated in a society
already heavily weighed against women. Gender disparity was already encoded in
family and social institutions which colonial capitalism strengthened and used
for the purposes of labour deployment and control. A complex process of myth
formation has constructed gender in Indian society in the last two hundred and
fifty years that was crucial to the social reproduction of class in India
(Bagchi 1995). Law making and its implementation show both continuity and
changes in its use of ‘public laws’ to deal with property, criminality and
entitlement along with the domain of ‘private laws’ that codify family as the
basis of organization of society. The singular political action in the first
decade after independence was the codification of Hindu Personal laws as the
starting point in ‘nation-building’ – a political process that continued for
more than nine years from 1947 to 1956. Legitimising the patriarchal basis of Hindu
Personal Laws, the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) in its legal recognition as a
tax entity remains the most blatant and uncontested provision for tax  exemption for Hindus in India (Das Gupta 2013).
Three decades of state-led capitalism preserved
patriarchy in every sphere. Four decades of neoliberalism has brought in its
wake newer forms of gender exploitation and new modes of gender disempowerment (Elson
2002) leading to sharpening of both aspirations for emancipation from gendered
dimensions of oppression and marked tendencies of intensifying patriarchal
clout leading to increased intensity of violence against women. Market
fundamentalism has bred religious and social fundamentalism as well, with
disastrous consequences for many sections in society and especially women. The
general conclusion from the literature that has evaluated the impact of
liberalisation on women has established quite forcefully how large sections of
women have been significantly disempowered by neoliberal economic reforms
(Hiway 1999; Sen 2001). The recent sectoral shifts in the economy have been on
clear gender lines. Women were losing many of their earlier occupations, being
crowded into less stable employment and were being pushed to the margins of the
economy contrary to assertions of ‘feminisation of labour’.
A socially advantaged family background and family
education status have been much more important predictors of job access and
mobility than skill levels (Harriss, Kannan and Rodgers 1990; Kingdon 1997).
This finding defies all the spurious modelling based on undifferentiated social
categories that still predict a convergence in wages for ‘skilled’ and
‘unskilled’ labour in the wake of liberalisation as long as ‘capital can be freely
transferred between the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ sector. Moreover, when just 3%
of men and 1% of women have access to college education (Velkoff 1998), the
very premise of the links between the effects of reforms on the labour market
establish the stratified structure of the labour market in terms of social
There have been diverse outcomes for different classes of women.
Liberalisation led to the increasing marginalisation of vast sections of both
men and women workers, in the agricultural sector. While there is an argument
often put forward that certain sections of women have economically benefited
from liberalisation, both in the formal and informal areas of the service
sector, the premises of these arguments have been highly contested and the
nature of these ‘benefits’ are  disputed.  The heterogeneous gender effects of
marketisation policies of the last few decades clearly point to a class
dimension. The link between caste and class is established quite firmly in the
link between the changes in the structure of production and the ‘driving out’
of Dalit occupations from the market without any substitute in terms of
employment opportunities. Thus the status of Dalits in rural India is
overwhelmingly that of landless, migrant workers (Franco 2002). All of these
areas of brutal divergences from the promises of the neoliberal dream have opened
up areas of resistance and opposition to the state’s reform agenda.
Nevertheless, the path charted out by the neoliberal reformists is still firmly
embedded in state policy in India with the narrowing of the class basis of the
state in favour of big capital.
Mainstreaming, development and emancipation
The bases for feminist engagement with India’s
trajectory of development as a political
advocating pluralist approaches derive from multiple feminisms.
However, less than a decade after the Beijing Conference, many feminist
concepts had transformed into gender myths characterized by essentialism and
simplistic slogans within ‘gender and development (GAD)’ frameworks.  Critical reflections of feminist ‘gender
practitioners’, which interstice donor agencies, researchers, national and
international ‘development bureaucracies’, the print and electronic media and
women’s organisations, can be divided into three broadly interrelated themes:
first, the struggle for interpretive power in the moves from ‘women’ to
‘gender’ in the political battle over interpretation; second, the ways in which
functioning of state and non-state institutions undermine feminist intent; and
third, the challenges in repoliticising feminism to achieve solidarity among
contemporary multiple feminisms in the battle(s) against patriarchy. The
installation of policy-driven gender orthodoxies elucidating the struggle over
interpretive power that shaped the language of GAD are heavily informed by the
multiple dimensions of processes of ‘gender mainstreaming’.  The insights range from debates on
‘targeting’ poverty through female-headed households, the changing world of ‘work’
and ‘women’s work’,  questions of agency
in labour rights of sex-workers, contradictions in the institutional evolution
of ‘gender’ in aid programmes, and stereotyping of the ‘poor, and powerless
victim’ of patriarchy. Convenient concepts around poverty informed simplistic
formuations around feminization of poverty. The female-headed household, based
on simplistic binary comparisons between male-headed and female- headed
households, as ‘exceptionally disaffected parties’ became the focus of
neoliberal efficiency-driven-targeting in poverty reduction programmes
(Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead 2008).
This is most clearly visible in the myriad of
women specific schemes and programmes implemented by Third World governments
with support from international organizations and funding agencies. Thus
the  ‘good governance’ framework of
institutional interventions informed by gender orthodoxies and claiming to be informed
by ‘gender perspectives’ ignores the historical materiality of different layers
of change in patriarchy and its capacity to mutate to preserve itself. This
mutable patriarchal apparatus imposes upon and makes women conform to changing
roles to cater to the perpetuation of this mutation. It is a process in which a
so-called gender perspective on ‘empowerment’ replaces emancipation in the
institutional realm and then ‘empowerment’ becomes a tool of conformity. The
contradictory terrain of women’s empowerment in this abandonment of the quest
for emancipation is summed up in the following observation: as associations
with collective action and more radical transformative agendas are sloughed
away to make the notion palatable to the mainstream, ‘empowerment’ has been
reduced from a complex process of self-realization, self-actualization and
mobilization to demand change, to a simple act of transformation bestowed by a
transfer of money and/or information
. (Ibid)
Debates on emancipation and social change
Can a ‘gender perspective’ itself become a tool
for conformity? Or does it have radical potential in itself? Have the debates
that led to the adoption of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in Beijing as a central
agenda entailed that the shift from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ erased radical
implications and made women’s interest less visible? How far does mainstreaming
go as an agenda to confront patriarchy in its social and political economy
dimensions? Is reclaiming the category ‘women’ from the utilitarian uses of
‘gender’ necessary for feminist transformatory agendas? These are some of the
explicit questions and debates that have emerged in the context of Third World
experiences in the convergence of GAD and the ‘good governance’ agenda.
There are also implicit debates that provide
pointers to the unaddressed terrain of praxis of ‘gender perspectives’. The
relationship between gender and social transformation needs to be linked to the
trajectories of peripheral societies which have to contend with the struggles
of the oppressed and the exploited for needs and aspirations for improved
quality of life and livelihood security. These struggles are directly related
to the consumptive lifestyle of the upper and middle classes integrated with production
processes and distribution priorities, by the policies and programmes of
nation-states, and the lending and funding criteria of international financial
institutions. Depending on specific social conditions, histories, power
relations and modalities of production systems which channelise accumulation, multiple development ideologies have
developed with varying emphasis on the role of two key institutions: states and
markets. The relative power of political configurations within which such
debates have been polarized, has determined ‘development’ priorities.
With fluid finance capital driving neoliberalism,
the ability of so-called developmental states to deliver on their
interventionist programmes has been systematically eroded in the last three
decades. The literature evaluating the impact of neoliberalism on domesticity,
work and livelihood of women highlights how large sections of women have been
disempowered by neoliberal economic reforms reversing many of the gains of
women’s struggles. Since the Asian financial crisis, hard neoliberalism paved
way for a soft version with a synthesis of policy frameworks deriving from
humanist libertarian views of ‘development as freedom’ and the ‘entitlements
approach’ , Rawlsian approaches of prioritising basic liberties over
equality  and post-materialist
dispensations from theorists like Inglehart. These converged around ‘inclusion’
– the consensual slogan of soft neoliberalism, spanning international funding
agencies, state and non-state donor and recipient organizations. ‘Gender
mainstreaming’ got embedded in this neoliberal
‘inclusion’ paradigm. Techno-managerial instrumentalism did not originate in
state bureaucracies and donor agencies. It was nurtured in private institutions – the primary sites of capital accumulation
which are the vehicles of neoliberal propagation.
to Mazumdar, Neetha and Agnihotri (2013:62), “…A case in point is the present
labour law regime’s conceptual effacement of women workers’ individual
entitlements where jodi based migratory labouring units are combined with
piece  rate wages – as in brick kilns
across the country and sugar cane harvesting in western and southern India. The
significance of this issue, though noted in description, has been largely
ignored in the literature on migration. The findings show that a larger
proportion of women of SC and ST backgrounds are concentrated in rural based
circular migration marked by contractor driven debt/advance based tying of male
female jodi labour. This in turn has interlocked semi-feudal bondage and
semi-feudal patriarchal practices into recruitment and employment practices of
a section of the developing modern industries, highlighting the primitive basis
of their mode of accumulation…”.
How far does this contemporary materiality explicitly
constitute and inform the terrain of multiple feminists’ contestations towards
emancipatory practice?
Bagchi, J., 1995, Introduction, Bagchi J. (ed), Indian
Women: Myth and Reality
, London, Sangam
Cornwall A, E Harrison and A Whitehead (eds), 2008,
Feminisms in Development: Contradictions,
Contestations and Challenges.
New Delhi: Zuban
Das Gupta, C 2013, The Tenacity of the Hindu
Undivided Family: Gender, Religion and Tax Concessions, Economic and Political Weekly, 48(40): 73-75
D 2002,
Integrating Gender
into Government Budgets within Context of Economic Reforms, in Budlender D. et
al (eds) Gender
Budgets Make Cents: Understanding Gender Responsive Budgets,
Gender Affairs Department, Commonwealth Secretariat
Franco, F  2002, Introduction, Franco F. (ed) Pain and
Awakening: The Dynamics of Dalit Identity in Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh
New Delhi, Indian Social Institute.
Harriss, J, Kannan, K.P. and G. Rodgers 1990, Urban
Labour Market Structure and Job Access in India: A Study of Coimbatore
Geneva, International Institute of Labour Studies.
Hirway, I 1999, Economic Reforms and Women’s Work,
in Papola, T.S. and A.N. Sharma (eds), Gender and Employment in India,
New Delhi, Indian Society of Labour Economics, 351-369.
Kingdon, G G 1997, Does The Labour Market
Explain Lower Female Schooling In India?
, London School of Economics,
London,, Accessed on June 8, 2003
Velkoff, V.A., 1998, Women’s Education in India,
International Programmes Centre, Women of the World, October.
Mazumdar I, Neetha N and I Agnihotri 2013,
Migration and Gender in India, Economic
and Political Weekly
48(10) 54-64

Sen, S 2001, Gender and Domesticity: Liberalisation
in Historical Perspective, UNEAC Asia Papers Issue 4,, Accessed on March 3, 2003.

The author is Associate Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi

Categories Gender