Thursday, September 24, 2009

Globalisation, New Jobs and Women’s Empowerment: Myth of Reality?

Eloquent Silences: A Discussion Part Three

John Samuel: There is indeed a whole range of issues related to gender, women's political participation, space and voice in Kerala. But I also think there is increasing awareness and discussion on these issues in Kerala, in relation to many other states. There are a number of paradoxes, contradictions and tension - operating in Kerala society (and that is also the case with almost all other societies.)

The paradox of ‘empowerment’ and ‘space’ is one among them. In spite of having one of the biggest percentage of highly ‘qualified’ or ‘educated’ women in Kerala, there is relatively less space in the leadership roles, articulate voices and empowered roles within the public and private spaces. The fact that such issues are discussed is also the beginning of a change process. Such a process of transformation requires more affirmative action and more active political participation of women in all arena- in academics, politics, media, and social action, etc.

It is important for enlightened and educated women and men to work together to expand the quantity and quality of those spaces. It is important to participate and shape the discussions elsewhere. When we begin to believe in change, change begins to unfold within us and beyond us.

So the first thing women and men will have to fight is an entrenched sense of cynicism.

R V G Menon: In a male-dominated society only those women who conform to the established norms of hierarchy will be allowed to come to the top. This is true of male dominated groups also. This is enforced not necessarily by the males in the society / group. The females who have come to the top through this conformist route, will zealously ensure this, because their own self-justification depends upon this. The nonconformists are a threat to them, more than even to the males. This leaves the males free to assume a liberal and patronizing attitude.

This predicament can be broken only if the nonconformists settle for a long fight, foregoing the rewards of conformism (like moving up in the hierarchy). But eventually their voice will be heard and their viewpoint will be taken seriously. Settling into silence is self defeating.

N P Chekkutty: Anandi's long note calls for a serious response. I have lots of agreements and a few disagreements.

Now let me take this point, women in the freedom struggle. Freedom struggle being what it was, one cannot expect more women to take part in it unless they were inspired by their family, spouses, etc. It was an anti imperialistic struggle and it came mainly from the upper middle classes, the new Indian elite. Masses came to it only at a later stage and even then women who did participate from lower social segments had little chance to emerge as leaders.

But that is not the case today, when social action, politics, etc, are part of a career. We see that a substantial number of women who are now holding public offices, say in Parliament, Assembly, corporation councils/mayors, etc, are daughters/spouses/ close relatives of powerful male politicians, even in the progressive movement. The case is almost similar in parties like CPI and CPM. Ditto is the case with Congress, etc.

I was thinking about many women activists I knew in my student days, mainly from 1972 to 1982-83, and when I wrote down their names I realised most have disappeared. Who emerged at the top, instead, are women who had powerful support in male politicians. Another group that I see emerging at the top consist of newcomers or what we may call lateral entry: They join public life at a later stage when they have completed education, raised kids, had good jobs, etc. Almost all of them are women with strong support among influential males and are from middle/upper middle class only. Those who had to fight up from below never made it.

Kavitha Balakrishnan: I think today some section of women in 20s and 30s are strategically overlooking so called 'intellectual gender debates' (it doesn’t mean that they are not so 'powerful' to do that, they have their share of struggles that they don’t want to project simply on a gender level. They know that it is now too hotchpotch to do it).

And they are living their life on altogether different contenders; more focused on acquiring skills that can professionally and financially equip them to practically evade restrictions on them generally imposed by family and society. Some of them may perhaps look ordinary and conformists, but they are working largely out of their ordinary frames in life....

I don’t think that Kerala alone has feudalist hangover; in metropolitan cities too one finds the very same, equally contagious and dangerous hangover of feudal mindset. Yeah, academic/ activist circles in major cities may give a slightly assertive picture of women who bother to articulate with a politics of 'self'. But a huge number of other women in same such cities have more access and choice to gain financial independence that eventually equip them to live on their terms in spite of their silently internalised ( more practical, one may say) contentions of feminism or gender debates. These women whom generally we find outside the 'cultural / activist' circles are not altogether apolitical, though one may not find them strictly articulating self in male dominated intelligentsia...

Yeah, majority of women apparently don’t bother gender debates... but it doesn’t mean that they are complacent at all.

There are many ways to live with mind....intellectual articulation is just one among them.
And there is of course a vacuum - of new ways of articulation of mind, emotions and state of affairs not yet conveyed properly and inclusively yet widely experimented across the digital technological world where hiding and revealing have umpteen options....

Now that earlier 'cultural contenders' [that was constituted basically by men with essential 'male' hangovers and women masquerading with either 'male' (whom we called feminists) or 'female' (whom we called home-loving gal) gestures and options in public domains] need to device themselves newly. They should incorporate the multiplied options and disintegrated selves of women.

No space is an ideal space. We live in multitudes of spaces, rather. Let all spaces come in...if they bother....

It is about frames of mind as 'beings in a post-cultural-ideological-unevenly globalised scenario' where ghettoism of all kinds dominates but strategies of more effective kinds are generated to meet with ghettoisms.

V Santhakumar: When I was young (in the mid-eighties) and was an activist, I had good relationships with a number of young girls who were socially concerned, and eager to break the then existing restrictions on girls/women. Most of them were from middle class or lower middle class backgrounds. However, they could not sustain that activism/concern, mainly because a conventional marriage is seen as the most important thing for a girl; and to be married, they have to conform to certain social norms which were highly restrictive.

The conventional marriage is an important issue. I am not arguing against marriage...But seeing conventional marriage as the main source of social (and economic) security for girls - a norm widespread among many sections of Kerala society - creates an environment very much against the interests of women....

N P Chekkutty: The marginalisation of women and the economic stagnation in Kerala are quite interlinked. If you look back, you will see it was in the middle of seventies that Kerala’s economy reached a standstill and even registered a negative growth. From then on, the economic trends were such that women were more and more sidelined and their marginalisation and dependence on men-folk became very pronounced.

In my childhood I used to see many women, including our neighbour who was a Nair woman who fought her husband every evening as he came home dead drunk, going to work in paddy fields but by late seventies such possibilities became next to nil even in our remote village.

The social impact was very high. I know many women who had no means to live, and took to illicit brewing. I still remember one of them for whom I used to carry plenty of jaggery from the shop.

Then the only way out was the little money from the men who went to Gulf or who did some odd jobs here itself. The other option was small jobs on offer -very few- from cooperatives and traditional/cottage industries, etc, where political pulls were very strong. Women were pushed to the rear and their limited independence vanished. I can see this in my mother's and elder sister's life: My mother - who worked in the little land we had -was always strong and independent, my sister dependent on her husband. The slide in their fortunes was not to be missed.

That explains the phenomenon of missing women activists in our political sphere and the rising trend of purdahs, etc, in social sphere. They are two sides of the same coin.

But post- 90's, there is a positive trend emerging. Thanks to globalisation, new job chances are rising even in our villages. I see many girls now going to small units, to fashion hair stylists as assistants, to garment makers, to pickle units, to bank pigmy collection centres, to internet cafes, to DTP centres, and so many other things. They are now able to eke out a living and I am sure their new-found freedom in this post- 80 generation, is an indication of their economic independence.

I think like Dalits who find the economic opportunities offered by globalisation quite liberating, women also are beneficiaries of these new changes brought about by economic changes. Hence they would need to devise their own tactics to safeguard their interests when our established left parties, solely controlled by men, take a different line.

Ramakumar: I think it is a huge twist of facts to say that the revival of Kerala's economy after the late-1980s was due to globalisation. My quick points are below.

First, there was a major revival of Kerala's economy after 1987, in which agriculture and industry grew rapidly. Of course, services also grew rapidly, which indeed accelerated after 1991. This was largely remittance-driven, because globalisation involved devaluation of the Indian currency. That meant that the rupee value of remittances into Kerala increased sharply (almost doubled). For your argument to stand, it has to be said that globalisation is totally coterminous with devaluation. Then, it is not the usually tom-tommed benefits of globalisation that we are talking about.

Secondly, the same globalisation has led to a major slowdown in the State's economy after the late-1990s, leading to a huge rise in unemployment rates across men and women. Where would you account that?

Thirdly, it is totally wrong to argue that post-globalisation, there was a rise in female employment in Kerala. Post-globalisation, agriculture and traditional industries sectors, which account for a major share of female employment, have been in a crisis. In contrast, because of gender stereotyping of jobs, women are not able to get an adequate share of the new service sector or modern industry jobs. A slender expansion of female employment has taken place in trade, export oriented garment industries, ICT and tourism, but it has not compensated for the loss of employment elsewhere and is far less that what men have gained. Between 1999-00 and 2004-05, female unemployment rate in rural Kerala rose from 19.7 per cent to 20.1 per cent. In urban Kerala, this rise was from 26.4 per cent to 33.4 per cent! Where is the benefit?

Fourthly, it is a pity that you have fallen into the argument that globalisation benefits Dalits. The argument here (made by Gail Omvedt, Chandrabhan Prasad and others) is that globalisation is a process by which choices of agents in the economy expand, thereby expanding modernity and thereby helping to break down historical barriers of caste discrimination. Here, globalisation is considered as synonymous with capitalism, which, it is argued, Marx and other writers had seen as progressive. The proponents of the positive view conflate the notions of classical capitalism (that Marx talked about in a positive sense) and “imperialism” of the present era. The outcome is that they do not see any role for the state in either promoting development or in fighting imperialism. The state is seen only as an instrument of oppression. The state is not seen as a bulwark in the national development project. The state is also not seen as essential for resisting imperialism.

Look at the data. The pace of poverty reduction has fallen after 1991 in India. That means that some people who could have been lifted out of poverty were not lifted out. Who were these people? Brahmins? Clearly, it were the Dalits and Adivasis of India (and Kerala).

Anandi Krishnan: But post- 90's, there is a positive trend emerging. Thanks to globalisation, new job chances are rising even in our villages…They are now able to eke out a living and their new-found freedom is an indication of their economic independence.

Correct, in a sense. But a girl working in such petty jobs are secondary educated, graduates or PGs and the income she gets is below Rs. 2000 with which she cannot eke out a living, but her ‘middle-class’ needs can be met. (Since most of the jobs she takes up are receptionist or sales type her appearance is counted, which needs lots of money.) She is a reserve army (In a silks store, a sales girl told me that if the customer refused to take a product, the wage of the sales girl in the respective counter will be cut. She is employed, still she is economically dependent. On my travel, I used to talk to these girls and many of them are doing some other small work too. Today's situation insists a woman and also a man to do two or three types of odd jobs to make both ends meet.
The other class of women, mentioned above, is completely thrown out of their job (for which globalisation has played a role.) The agrarian crisis all over the country has created havoc in the lives of peasant women, which reflects in the migration studies. (Sainath explained his experience of staying with the migrants of Mehboob Nagar.) Most of these women are in the unorganised sector, where the wage structure and working conditions are pathetic.(Now that they all come under the welfare schemes, still I have doubts whether what they want is welfare schemes or wage raise?) With NREGA and other reforms, why selling of wives? Where is the Central Governments' policy and promises to increase jobs? How did they fail, and why state governments are keeping mum?
So sad the word ‘labour,’ ‘labourer’, and ‘proletariat’ are also outdated but they all exist very much in this same society, and nobody is bothered. Even the university studies are concentrated on textual analysis and halla-bulla about violence and sexuality. These are the manifestations of the disease.

N P Chekkutty: I think I will be brief with regard to two specific issues I have to address here:

1. Ram says my contention that the pick up in Kerala economy in the past few decades was not because of new economic policies, but owing devaluation of rupee and other circumstances. He also reminds me that the poverty reduction rates have come down in the post-90 days and the losers were not Brahmins but people like Dalits.

This is a point which is hotly contested in every sphere and I am aware my position is quite apart from that of Ram and others like him. I feel it is better to agree do disagree.

2. Anandi points to the fact that economic development while helped some among the poor, has hit many others, like those in agricultural sector.

Yes, the results of these policies have benefited/affected differently people among different segments. Some have benefited, some seems to have become worse off. But my main point was that the women seem to have slowly emerged out of the extremely difficult situation they faced in the seventies and eighties and there is an indication of a new independence among them through access to jobs and income. It is for the state and society to find out who are the losers and help them out. But the fact remains that though minimal and not satisfactory, there is a tendency which is positive and I am happy about it.