Religious fundamentalism and neo-liberal economic reforms are converting poor grassroots women in India into both agents and instruments in a process of their own disempowerment. Though these forces are not necessarily acting in concert, they are nonetheless reconstructing both gender and other social power relations.
While we have analysed this dynamic elsewhere (Dhanraj et al. 2002), in this article we examine the role of certain gender myths – or rather, myth complexes – in this process. Specifically, we explore the way certain gender myths are being used to convert women – particularly poor women – into instruments of both the neo-liberal and fundamentalist agendas in India. The operation of these myths is analysed in the context of a government-initiated rural poverty alleviation programme in southern India and the Constitutionally-mandated reservation of seats for women in local elected councils (panchayats).
At the outset, we wish to emphasise that we do not offer this critical analysis as academic observers, or deny our own participation in these processes. Indeed, the choice of examples is guided at least partly by the history of our own contribution, and the involvement of colleagues whom we supported in various ways. We have both been complicit, through our past roles in grassroots activism, feminist training and advocacy, in promoting various gender myths and feminist fables that we have only recently begun to recognise as such. Thus, it is not our intention to point fingers or place blame. The analysis that emerges here is the result of critical introspection, of re-examining our own as well as others’ past assumptions and interventions. We believe this is a critical moment when all feminists – whether activists, policy advocates or researchers – must interrogate our own assumptions and strategies, or risk becoming completely marginalised and/or instrumentalised by the forces of resurgent patriarchy, religious fundamentalism and neoliberalism.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Gender Myths that Instrumentalise Women: A View from the Indian Frontline