The two volumes under review cover a remarkable journey spanning upwards of four decades. They contain a selection of papers from among Devaki Jain’s prolific writings the central theme of which collection being, among other things, not just the interrogation of ‘development’ from a feminist perspective but dissecting ‘development’ itself. Each of the papers in the two volumes is illuminating in its own way; overall the volumes bear testimony to Jain’s ability to provide perceptive observations that go beyond critique to demonstrate how the same development-oriented programmes could have been turned around to achieve the fundamental objective of transformation of society of which women’s empowerment is an integral component.
Needless to say, this review cannot discuss every paper; rather, it will highlight some of the more important learnings that the journey of this Southern feminist has produced and as documented in the collection. The thematic discussion below of some of the collection is based on the reviewer’s reading of the papers; the author herself has preferred not to organize her material thematically, which is a pity, since the collection would have benefitted immensely, analytically, if this exercise had been undertaken.
Feminist Theorizing: What have India and the Global South Contributed
In several papers across the two volumes, Jain points out how the mode of ‘doing’ women’s studies (either through field-based research, engaging with the state on development policies, participating in global fora, or, through critique of mainstream disciplines) has produced knowledge that has enabled scholars to self-critically and repeatedly come back to the question of ‘who is a feminist?’ and what uniquely defines, sustains and enables the expansion of feminist principles in all walks of life, even given deep differences over language, religion, caste, race and region.
Following her review of ‘Advances in Feminist Theory’ (1: p. 57), Jain laments the fact that while the knowledge produced by Third World feminists contributes to dismantling concepts inherited from western literature because of the different social and economic processes characterizing the functioning of societies in the countries of the South, the reconstruction of theory with new concepts that reflect the ground realities of the South have yet to come out of theoretical enslavement to be able to chart out different strategies for change. In ‘Indigenising Feminism’ (1: p. 99), Jain is more categorical when she states that: ‘it is my perception that feminist theory—as different from feminist practice–is still not a body of knowledge in India’ (ibid.). This observation gets reinforced in her paper on ‘What is Wrong with Economics’ (1: p.199) wherein she critiques the discipline of Economics not on the basis of the tenets that make up the discipline but by demonstrating through field research the consequences for women in particular, because of the flawed conceptualization of ‘measurement’ and ‘valuation’ of ‘work’ characterizing mainstream Economics. In several other papers as well (‘Minds, Not Bodies; History of Ideas and Reconstruction of Knowledge’), Jain carries forward this theme of ‘contribution of knowledge from the South’ even while maintaining that dissipation of energies because of disproportionate emphasis on difference and unique identity have thwarted efforts not only towards unity of purpose and consolidation of efforts, but have also not helped theory-building.
‘Development’–A Failed Project from a Feminist Perspective
Most of Jain’s collections demonstrate how ‘development’, any which way we define, measure or comprehend it, has failed women in particular and the marginalized among the population in general. While this failure is not unique to India but a characteristic of most developing countries, and while Jain because of her global presence has been able to bring a comparative perspective in her writings, much of her own field research is anchored in India. She takes Development Economics head-on through her critique, for example, of the Indian state’s anti-poverty programmes to demonstrate how the operation of these programmes on the ground are either exclusionary altogether, or, they include the poor (women) on adverse terms. Each one of the field-based studies reveal several different facets of what is and what went wrong with these programmes––the manner in which they had been conceptualized with little understanding of the situation on the ground, lack of knowledge of how households are organized economically and not just socially, insufficient attention to build-in mechanisms for course correction, periodic monitoring and evaluation of individual programmes as well as all programmes taken together, etc. Cumulatively, these shortcomings meant that ‘when the poverty households had not been reached, the question of whether the women had been reached became redundant’ (2: p.15). Several of these papers are not just critical of policies; they contain suggestions of how the same programmes needed to be reconceptualized and reconstructed to reach and benefit the target population.
An important contribution to Development Economics that Jain makes through her writings is the significance of what she calls ‘vocabulary’: ‘words have meanings and the use of a certain word… can distort the dimensions of policy and change’ (2: p.14). For instance, Jain critiques the use of the term ‘minor forest produce’ to characterize the activity involving a large number of women for whom it is an important source of employment and income apart from significantly contributing to the country’s GDP. This nomenclature is instrumental in denying women employed in forest produce collection the attention they require in policy and data systems. Considerable attention in several papers has been paid to bring out how the non-recognition of the varied nature of non-monetized work that women in particular are engaged in not only makes these women and their work invisible but also thwarts attempts at transforming the manner in which the economy is organized and understood. Jain and her team at the Institute of Social Studies Trust are the pioneers of the Indian Time Allocation Studies that capture and measure the time that adult women and men allocate to different activities. The analyses of data from such studies have enabled researchers and policy makers to get a sense of which gender is disproportionately concentrated in what kind of work—paid or unpaid.
Institutions for, and, Institutionalization of Gender Equality Programmes
Jain is among the few women scholars from India who have served on various international organizations in different capacities. This, combined with the fact that she has been invited to address a range of institutions across the globe, has provided her an opportunity to examine closely the functioning of these institutions and therefore assess their contribution to achieving gender equality. Some of the papers in the two volumes provide rich information about the attempts by Southern feminists to make their voices heard, to get international documents and reports to reflect these concerns, to engage with Northern feminists so that the latter are sensitized to the cultural differences as well as economic vulnerabilities facing Third World countries in general and women in these countries in particular. In ‘Nuancing Globalisation…’ (2: p. 95) Jain reviews important global development documents to highlight the shifts in discourse that have taken place; the Southern streak in her is evident from the following observation that she sneaks in: ‘I argue that we must revise the language used and the measures introduced in the discourse on globalization… I suggest that we the people have to teach the UN and the national governments how to develop their analytical and monitoring frameworks, rather than work into or with the ones they have created’ (2: p. 98). However, one detects a tone of resignation in the self-reflexive piece, ‘Women, Public Policy and the New World Order’ (2: p.182); here, notwithstanding the comprehensiveness of the piece, it also simultaneously informs the reader why and how Jain has reached the following conclusion: ‘Looking back, I would say that gendering public policy is a trap. Our involvement in development plans prevents our rethinking the whole idea of development. In the past, our brilliance consisted in drawing on women’s experience to challenge prevailing wisdom. Entering into the exercise of gendering this or that item pre-empts that possibility. It is like sleeping with the enemy’ (2: p. 223).
Time and space permitting, one could have drawn out more themes from the collection. But it is also important to reflect on what this contribution means for present-day women’s studies scholars and what could be the kind of research questions that emanate from these volumes. That these volumes congeal within them an enormous wealth of information relating to ‘Development: Global and Local’ with an avowed focus on where women stand in this project, goes without saying. Nevertheless, in our opinion, this collection raises, among others the following two questions:
Methodologically, since the author herself has chosen what papers to include in the collection, a discussion on what informed this choice would have contributed significantly to feminist methodological debates that constantly and simultaneously interrogate what has been made visible and why, and, what has been silenced and why. We have already alluded to the fact that the volumes could have benefitted immensely if the collection had been organized thematically. The thematic organization would have addressed to some extent the methodological question that we have raised.
Coming to the second question, it seems to the reviewer that the Introduction to the volumes could have been imagined slightly differently by say, including references to subsequent research that either concur or differ with what the author had written at a particular time and juncture. To illustrate with just two examples: the much celebrated Chipko movement mentioned in the volumes at several places makes no mention of subsequent pieces that have questioned the very foundations of this celebration of women by women, apart from calling into question the facts on which this ‘so-called movement’ is based. Similarly, while there is no dispute that the decentralization brought about by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution have democratized politics at the grassroots level, feminists in Kerala in particular are increasingly examining what gender norms have been transformed through these processes. Discussion of other and newer research in the context of what had been written in an earlier period could provide important leads to future research on the same or similar subject.
Padmini Swaminathan is an independent researcher based in Chennai.