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think there would be much interest or demand for such a volume, and that some of my earlier work on the subject was outdated.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
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.