Shades, Shapes and Sizes of Women’s Empowerment

Jan 12, 2015

In her latest book(1), the Indian activist Anrudhati Roy advocates for going beyond externalities such as ‘burkas’ and ‘botox’ when talking about feminism and women’s empowerment. Gender inequality is not about how women look or what clothes they wear, but about women being coerced – or subtly pressured - into looking, moving or behaving a certain way. Such restraints may take different shapes from one cultural context to another and it is important to bear in mind that women’s empowerment can never be a universally standardized project. Differing from one country to another, gender inequality could reveal itself in the form of gender wage gap; the prevalence of sex selective abortions; limited possibilities for day-care; or discriminatory legislation when it comes to buying real estate. The question therefore arises what it means to be an advocate for women’s empowerment in different cultural and socio-economic contexts.

Negotiating Women’s Autonomy

In a recent column novelist Tahmima Anam remarked that women’s empowerment ultimately boils down to shifting “the basic assumptions that men and women make about their respective places in society"(2). These gendered assumptions are embedded in the socio-economic structures of society, such as: the division of labor and the laws on marriage, divorce, and reproductive rights. Tahmima Anam, however, has emphasized that the battle for greater gender equality is not merely a battle for formal and public rights, but touches upon the overall scope of women’s autonomy: both in the public sphere and at home.

When advocating for greater equality among the sexes it is important to bear in mind that a woman’s autonomy is never simply proclaimed but always negotiated in a wider context of social, economic and family relations. During the months I spent doing research in Korail slum(3) I was often surprised by the varying degrees of autonomy and independence that characterized the lives of the women I interviewed. One of these women was a young mother who was hardly ever allowed to leave the house by her husband, whom she described as having a ‘bad temper’. Another young bride and mother I spoke to, on the other hand, left her house on a daily basis to work in the garment industry together with many of her female friends. Yet another woman whose house I frequently visited had been happily married for years. Her highlight of the day was to talk over the phone with her husband who worked as a manual laborer in Qatar. Her husband’s job was a source of constant anxiety, for his family had high expectations of the amount of money he would send back home and turned suspicious towards here whenever these hopes were not met. Yet another female interviewee had to make ends meet without the financial support of a husband. He had left her just after their daughter was born, and she provided for her small family by running a handicraft business. She was rightfully proud of her own business but worried over her daughter’s future; would she be able to arrange a good marriage for her?

Empowerment Goals

Taking the above examples into account, the question could be posed what empowerment looks like for these different women. Is empowerment the ability to leave your own house whenever you want? The opportunity to form your own friendships? Is it the courage to stand up to your husband or in-laws? Is it the possibility to earn money or start you own business? Or is it the option for delaying marriage or divorcing a bad-tempered spouse? Probably empowerment could mean any of these things, that is: depending on who is being empowered.

UPPR has recently carried out an elaborate study(4) in order to assess what empowerment means to women living in UPPR communities. Local women were asked to partake in listing certain priorities for empowerment, which included: access to education, the ability to solve problems within the community, being able to earn and save money, and the power to make important family decisions. In the course of this consultation process social status emerged as a significant area of gradual change. The ability to participate in one of the community-based savings and credits groups, in particular, was described as a way to break free from household-based isolation and as a means for fostering greater engagement in community affairs.

Hence, empowerment does not necessarily manifest itself as some grande project signifying the ultimate liberation from patriarchy, yet can also take shape through small changes, such as: being able to leave the house or being able to save and earn money. These small changes, however, bear testimony of a challenging mobility - out of the domestic sphere and up the socio-economic ladder -  and hint at the fact that a woman’s place in society is never fixed.


(1) In her book ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ (2014) Anrudhati Roy writes about ‘Beyond Burkas and Botox: The Struggles of Feminism Nowadays’ (Pp. 35-37). For an excerpt see:

(2) Read Tahmima Anam’s full article, ‘Bangladesh’s Home Truth’, for the New York Times:

(3) As part of my master’s in Cultural Anthropology I conducted qualitative research for over six months in Korail slum, Dhaka.

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