Talking Gender

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A blog about gender, culture and organizational change



Earlier this year, Women Unlimited published feminist scholar Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey which brings together her key writings of the last twenty years. In the book, Batliwala traces the transformation empowerment has undergone since the 1980s, analyzing why and how the concept has been depoliticized and diminished by the state and aid agencies.

In her response to the book published in OpenDemocracy, Andrea Cornwall said the book reaffirms that empowerment is more than just a development buzzword. It brings alive the purpose of empowerment through stories of change. "Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey tells stories about how change happens in women’s lives that reclaim and reaffirm an approach to empowerment that looks and acts very differently. And it is a reminder that these ways of thinking about and doing feminist empowerment work are far from buried in the past: they are just obscured from view, like the hidden pathways that are changing women’s lives that may be missed by those who travel on development’s motorways," says Cornwall.  

We took this opportunity to chat briefly with Srilatha Batliwala about the book and the writing process.   

1. When did you first start thinking about writing this book? Was there an incident or a trigger that made you decide to write it? 

The idea for the book was born on January 24, 2010, at a dinner before the Bangalore launch of Palestinian author Suad Amiry’s second book, “Menopausal Palestine.” My dear friend and noted feminist journalist Ammu Joseph, and Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited (an imprint of Kali for Women), proposed that it was high time I put together my key writing on women’s empowerment and related issues, produced over the past twenty years, into one volume. I was sceptical at first – I didn’t think there would be much interest or demand for such a volume, and that some of my earlier work on the subject was outdated. But they insisted I was wrong, that many people were still using some of these pieces because they were still relevant, and that the volume would have a lot of value for many people trying to understand and work on women’s empowerment, movement building, and so forth. So I decided to do it! 

2. Tell us about the writing process. What was it like for you to revisit your experiences and pull them all together?  

It’s important to emphasise that the only original writing that I did for this book was the introductory and concluding chapters, and the introductions to each of the three parts of the book – the main chapters are all articles, concept papers and such that I had written much earlier, starting with a piece “Why I am a Feminist” that was written in 1986! But I greatly enjoyed writing these prefatory pieces… Ritu encouraged me to use these as spaces to reflect on the context I was in when the various articles in each section were written, and to talk freely about the people and experiences that influenced my thinking at that time, and what and who these pieces aimed at and impacted in some way. This allowed me to bring the personal and subjective into the book – to bring myself in – rather than restricting myself to academic analysis or intellectual distance. Many readers have told me that they have greatly enjoyed these introductory pieces, some even more than the main articles.  

3. Who are you hoping will read the book and how would you like it to affect them? 

I think the book is useful for a wide variety of audiences, but especially for activists, academics and donor agencies concerned about gender inequality and other forms of social exclusion, and about how to organise and empower marginalised people, whether they are women or not. I have generally written for activists – trying to push activism to be more analytical, more informed by theory; but on occasion, I have also written for academics, where I have tried to push theory to be more responsive to practice, to ground realities. In reality, though, I have been surprised to find a lot of the writing I have done for activists being prescribed and used in the academy, as part of courses on gender/women’s studies, development studies, public policy, social movements, civil society, and international relations. So I hope that a diversity of readers interested in social change processes will read it and find it informative. I wish, though, that the many hundreds of grassroots women I’ve worked with, who inspired so many of the ideas in the book, could also read it. Maybe some day some of them – or their children or grandchildren – will! 

'Engaging with Empowerment - An Intellectual and Experiential Journey', is available from Scholars without Borders.


Fabulous Fashionistas is about the style and attitudes of 6 women from the UK with an average age of 80. It tackles gender norms about women in a light-hearted manner. We thought this video was a perfect example of how women can break the 'deep cultures' of social expectation around gender and age. By redefining what women can look like — and behave like — at 80, the women are challenging age-old narratives and notions embedded in our culture. That they're doing this in a stylish and fun manner doesn't make the message any less powerful. In fact, it makes it even more so because it foregrounds something else that's important to remember: that we have the right to have fun, and to be fun, no matter what our age.


By Anya Katz and Joanne Sandler

There is growing debate about whether or not we are at a tipping point for gender equality, a time when the gender discrimination and gender binaries that have divided and distorted us are poised to wither away. When we see millions of people on the street protesting the rape of a young Indian woman, young men and women in Egypt joining together to protect women from public sexual harassment, marriage equality becoming law or proposed as law in more and more countries and localities, projects like Everyday Sexism going viral…we dare to consider that a new era is – well, maybe not around the corner, but possibly – at an incipient stage.

We had this sense that there is far more happening than we hear about to confront gender discrimination in the every-day lives of people and we wanted to know about it: which is one reason we proposed the End Gender Discrimination Now! Contest and joined forces with AWID, BRIDGE and FLACSO, in August 2013, to issue a worldwide call for entries. We wanted to know, in particular, what strategies seemed to have proven traction, what innovative ideas people had and were interested in testing out, and also what was not working.  We wanted to know if, in addition to the many examples that we know through our work or through the media – that is, those that float to the top – there were other initiatives that would emerge.

Earlier this year, we announced winners in three categories and another six submissions that deserved honorable mention because they were so inspiring. In the coming days, you can read more about each of the individuals and organizations that were selected on our websites.

The 200+ submissions we received paint an interesting picture. Caveats aside – this was our first contest of this type, we were asking for complex processes to be described in 750 words or less, etc. – we were surprised both by what was submitted…and also what was not.

First some basic demographic data: We got very few submissions from North America and Europe (15% of the total), no submissions from the Pacific Islands and only 1 from the Caribbean, and relatively few submissions on gender and organizational change (an explicit focus of what we asked for). More than 30% of the entries were submitted by men. The region with the largest number of entries was Africa. With submissions from more than 60 countries, the two countries with the largest number of entries were Argentina and India.

What was particularly interesting about the entries was that they did not come, primarily, from the larger, well-known national and international NGOs or donor agencies that are most often associated with work on gender equality and women’s rights. The majority of submissions were far more local, including a surprising number from women and men who submitted their gut-based reflections on how they ‘witnessed’ gender discrimination and became sensitized to it. These submissions broke the mold of proposing project-oriented solutions; they simply described what they saw and ended with random ideas for change. They also showed, dramatically and straightforwardly, how gender intersects with other categories of discrimination. They included, for instance, a submission describing the Tanzanian practice of Nyumba Ntobhu – which roughly translates into “women marrying women”. The entry described Nyumba Ntobhu as a custom that enabled wealthy women who can’t have children to pay a ‘bridal’ price to a young woman’s poor family so that the young woman can bear children for the wealthier woman with any man designated to have the ‘right’ qualities. We received a heartfelt submission about the journey to gain self-respect and end societal bias by a trans-sexual activist in Kenya. Or a submission from El Salvador, where a community development worker described her wake-up call, “One day in 1991 I was sitting on a log with a friend, mother of 14 children, and she asked me, ‘what is an orgasm?’  She gave birth to 14 children and had never experienced the wonders of her own body…her story was the women’s story in these rural communities.”

Another quick impression of the totality of entries was the prominence of the strategy of ‘women inspiring women’. If a woman in a Muslim-majority country where travel for women was restricted saw women post photographs of themselves travelling alone, the premise was that other women would be motivated to do the same. If women see other female engineers succeeding, they will be more driven to pursue technical careers. Women diplomats, women in the airport security systems and in many other fields submitted examples of the ways in which challenging gender stereotypes in visible and courageous ways is crucial to confronting gender discrimination.

Other strategies – the extraordinarily creative use of traditional and social media (from radio to internet chat groups to databases), the continuing importance of self-awareness and consciousness-raising, the importance of actions by local governments, and the dedicated and courageous organizing of community-based groups – appeared in many of the entries. There were many submissions that described tried and true approaches and a smaller number that demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking.

The social justice activist and folk-singer, Pete Seeger, who recently died, once said, “I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” And so it is for these contest entries. These hundreds of small things, multiplied by many more hundreds and thousands, offer great promise to create a tipping point: a time when gender discrimination is a memory, one that is an important history lesson, but that we no longer live on a daily basis.                  

About the authors: Anya is a first-year student at Oberlin College who focused her winter-break project on analyzing the entries to the End Gender Discrimination Now! contest; Joanne is a senior associate for Gender at Work and the co-author of the feminist mystery, Murder by Choice: A Sister Sleuth Adventure.


By Gender At Work / May 14, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

We're hoping to tell you our stories, bring you our experiences – and hear your stories and experiences on wide-ranging issues related to women's rights, gender equality and gender justice.

2013 was spectacular for us because we started using the web to have more conversations with more people in more parts of the world. Twitter and Facebook are helping us to reach more people with news, updates and opinions. We hope you'll check our newly designed website and keep coming back as we load more resources, articles and publications by G@W Associates and Staff.  Please "like" us and link with us.

This space is a place for sharing and debate. We've all been part of heated and inspiring conversations about the shifting nature of gender equality and gender relations. We are fascinated by the ways in which new ideas about gender are emerging in every part of the globe: from the way that the concept of gender is being re-defined and expanded – including the link between women's rights struggles and priorities of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgendered communities – to new questions emerging about masculinity and patriarchy.  And we are also interested in the way that more traditional organizations – from the private sector to large international non-governmental organizations – are changing the way that they work on the inside to build cultures of equality. We hope that this will become a vibrant space to expand and debate thinking and action on these issues.

So, grab a steaming cup of something and settle in.  We hope to hear from you!!


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