The subject of women empowerment has gathered immense attention and action in public policy, common discourse, development research and gender studies. A careful examination of the same reveals an underlying principle notion– all women make a homogenous identification, that the Indian woman is a singular entity, with agendas of how to achieve “women empowerment”, centered around women as the other[1], to aid and assist men, and to partake in social development as subordinate contributors and not necessarily as equal, co-contributors. Women empowerment is perceived centrally as a means to justify or help achieve national goals, save few exceptions where empowerment of women is perceived an end in itself. The issues of women pertaining to gender inequalities and empowerment are often discussed and deliberated upon by men – largely who wield considerable policy heft and socio-political influence by  dominating positions of authority—on the basis of gender research that may be clouded by implicit male biases and male perspectives; and which may not clearly define or demarcate which women have been studied—and, additionally by communities of women, whose opinions, experiences, and movements, are regularly reduced to the fringe for they may not conform to preconceived notions of how women must be empowered in the legislative-judicial-policy circuit, where men are over-represented[2], and where the empowerment of women must occur within “limited resources” alternating between “competing claims” (Razavi, 1997).

There has been significant institutional redressal of gender issues in India that focuses on structural reforms, however, what essentially fails these initiatives is the lacuna of collective objective to dismantle power structures, both public and private; individual and social, that disempower, oppress, violate and silence Indian women. India has made a persistent effort to act upon gender inequalities by, one, attempting to alleviate poverty in general terms—rather than the globalised feminisation of it—and, two, addressing social injustices by way of broad-based welfare measures and legal reforms. However, it has yet to institutionally address the discourse of women empowerment separately, as a constructive matrix within itself on a large scale. In a mixed economy guided by national socialist planning that has been adopted by India since 1951, the narrative of women empowerment was initially figured from a welfare lens. The Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980-85) saw a paradigm shift from welfare of women to developmental policies for women, and these subsequent Plans placed emphasis on qualitative aspects of empowerment rather than only quantitative aspects.

As I opine on the theme at hand, I must ask who the woman to be objectively empowered is. Are we focussing on the sub-identities of religion, creed, caste, class, sexuality etc. when we speak of the ‘Indian’ woman, or, are we homogenising the many Indian women, whereby their “originality of identity” is transformed into a singular “womanhood” as is universally done? Are we looking at women from the sex-analytic category alone, or are we also considering those who may not necessarily be born as women but who identity as female and are denied the being of a woman? I shall look at this from an intersectional feminist perspective. As I approach the subject of empowering the Indian woman, I must highlight the origin of nationhood, or national identity, from which arises the “non-sovereign” secondary identities of citizen-subjects. The idealisation of nationhood breeds a grading of citizens: first-class, second-class and so on, where women are treated mostly second-class. In the curious case of India, we have not only maternalised the nation and enforced the maternal identity of nationhood, which portrays India as a mother or “Bharat Mata”, but also, the Indian woman, and consequently her womanhood that is bound into her relations with the male, the Subject, constructing dependent ‘hoods’ in the process—mother, sister, daughter, wife; and furthering the “Other” subjugation of women. The process of maternalisation conflates the body of the nation with the maternal body – all-sacrificing, nurturing, fertile, but also as something under threat, needing protection and to be revered.[3] This inadvertently engenders a national, paternalistic-patriarchal conscience of the “ideal” Indian woman, and categorises women empowerment for the “deserving” women and the “undeserving” women. The Indian woman ought to operate within the frameworks of nationhood and nationalism, wherein any subversion of a woman is perceived as a threat to culture and masculinity. While we seek to address gender inequalities, we tend to side line this toxic aspect of nationalism because of which patriarchy and regressive personal laws; sexual, mental and physical violence; the material and non-material issues of poverty; lack of education; economical exploitation and financial dependence of women thrive; and wherein abstract concepts such as access to resources, choice, power to exercise choice freely, autonomy to classify choices; knowledge of rights and remedies which effectively empower the Indian woman, are inhibited. The struggle to keep patriarchal “traditional” value systems intact, which peculiarly only police the behaviour, proclivities and actions of women concurrent to the stage of rationalisation of gender roles and liberalisation of the Indian woman in a post-colonialist India, entails that systemic efforts to empower the Indian woman become even more difficult to achieve.

On the quest to empowering the Indian woman, critical questions on the set of women, their issues, benefits for women, evidences that warrant action, the set of actions that would be sustainable and equitably just, and how the empowerment could be maximised need to be deliberated. All Indian women are at the receiving end of injustice, summarily or permanently, but the degree of injustice operates upon a hierarchy of women—the elite upper-caste–upper-class women, the privileged and the non-privileged women, the Dalit women, the tribal women, the differently-abled women, women of the LGBTQ community, women of the many religions and ethnicities, the “pure” and the “impure” women, and beyond to the unseeable women. Positions occupied by women by virtue of birth in the seemingly essentialist social hierarchy singularly affect social-economic and political mobility of women—often, undermining their autonomy— and, as a consequence, the exercise of the “empowerment” triad: resources, agency and achievement-outcome.

According to Naila Raheem, empowerment refers to “The expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them”.[4]

The primary stage of empowerment must mark the presence of alternatives to choose from and the ability to make choice. To be deprived of choice-making ability is to be disempowered. Raheem classifies choice into a binary – strategic life choices of the first order, for example, where to live, choice of livelihood, whether to marry, etc., and, the “less consequential” choices of the second order.[5]

The multifaceted notion of choice is dependent equally on the intra-variables of, firstly, resources, which make for the individual, social and societal conditions in and by which choices are made; agency, which facilitates the exercise of choice, and, achievements – the end-results of choice or the absence of exercising of choice. The process of empowerment extends beyond the mere access to resources and increase in the quantum of resources available, to the more emancipatory change in conditions in which choices are made. Thus, to empower the Indian woman would not only mean that human resources in the form of education, skill development, healthcare, legal aid, vocational training etc., are made accessible and affordable, but also that the quality of physical resources as well as abstract resources (justice, self-consciousness, social knowledge) improves substantially. The process of attainment of resources must be free and dignified.

Agency is the capability of independent, individual decision-making in the sociological sense, and the subjective awareness of bodily movements and thoughts in the psychological sense. Agency is not an independent variable, it is determined by underlying structures such as social class, gender, ethnicity, customs, ability influencing or limiting the agent and his/her decisions.[6]  This implies that the process of exercising agency, and in turn, choice, is not fully independent. Often, the internalisation of naturalised regressive customs, actions, beliefs and practices that disempower women and which are presumed to be fundamental to collective social identity, but are essentially social constructs that have been domesticated by women themselves, perpetuates the normative power structures that empowerment strives to dismantle. Liberty is equally important in the exercise of agency because, firstly, at times, women may have the agency to exercise choice, but the chosen option and other alternatives may not be viable, substantive or positive in empowering them. Secondly, the exercise of such choice may be forced in the event of an exigency, say, due to a scarcity of jobs in a sector where women were employed previously, might compel them to “choose” prostitution. This isn’t necessarily a liberating choice. However, a woman’s freely choosing to become a sex worker is considered positive empowerment, provided also that the woman is protected from non-consensual acts; mental, physical or sexual violence; her labour is duly recognised and protected, she has knowledge of her legal rights and remedies, and has sufficient accessibility and affordability to exercise them.

Achievement is the outcome of choices (Raheem, 2016). Resources and agency together make up “capabilities”, on which Dr. Amartya Sen’s notable approach to ethical evaluation is based. Using this analysis, poverty can be understood as deprivation in the capability to live a dignified life, and ‘development’ as capability expansion. Therefore, to alleviate poverty of women, particularly, the process of empowerment must include a thorough examination of the differential abilities of women in preferences, and the unequal distribution of capabilities which leads to a lack of choice, intra-gender and inter-gender inequalities—the dynamics of which must be read with context. However, poverty alleviation is one dimension of empowering the Indian woman as inequalities may manifest in  other forms to restrict choices and choice-making  abilities of women. For example, an upper-class independent woman might be ‘disallowed by her family from making crucial decisions, like, whom to marry, that affect her level of empowerment significantly. Here, the empowerment of the woman is on a financial level and does not necessarily translate to being on a personal level.

The process of empowerment is multifold and occurs at stages of individual change, institutional reform and structural development. To be developed and  to be empowered are not the same in the sense that development may constitute the presence of an equal number of women in the labour force as men, symptomatic of economical development, but to be empowered would mean that the quality of work; access to and exercise of resources; agency; mental, financial and bodily autonomy of women is enhanced to empower women and facilitate gender equality.  The notion that “more rights automatically leads to more freedom and greater equality” based on a rights-based approach to empowerment, is misguided and misplaced in the context of India and Indian women. To enhance the number of rights may imply that one’s capability is expanded, but if one lacks the awareness of rights or access to rights, he/she may be incapacitated to exercise rights especially those which might  not take into account one’s lack of access or agency, in which case social rights tend to get rendered a mere paper tiger. For instance, introducing the Right to Property in a state—where both women and men have been owners of property traditionally, and where women enjoy equal property rights due to customary entitlements—on the basis of evidentiary literature of a different set of women in the same country,  who have been mostly property-less, the law centred on the assumption that ownership of property in a woman’s name will be conducive to greater equality and autonomy for women. However, the mere ownership of property by women may do little to empower them elsewhere, say, to pursue employment beyond the “permitted” options or away from home, or enable them to challenge domestic violence in a social system where not only is such employment of women looked down upon but domestic violence is perceived as “natural” and “deserving” behaviour of the masculine upon the feminine. The establishment of the right may be hailed as empowerment in the conventional sense, however, the right of women is inconsistent with their disempowering lived experiences.


The empowerment of women occurs at multiple stages and consists of many dimensions. The process of empowerment can be attained through legal and welfare reforms, but such measures are only as successful as their subjects would like them to be.  A crucial milestone of empowerment is the reversal of internalised regressive gender roles; ingrained patriarchy and misogyny; and institutionalised and systemic violence. The enterprise must take into account the lives, experiences and needs of women, all women, for legal and policy interventions to be effectual. The power imbalances in the public and private spheres must gradually attain an equilibrium, in the absence of which, stable empowerment would remain a distant dream. Combinations of top-down centralised approaches must be accompanied with bottom-top grassroots empowerment that change public opinions and create sustainable empowerment. Empowerment is not given, it is taken, it is reclaimed.

-Akshita Sharma,V-I


[1] “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”

De Beauvoir, Simon. The Second Sex (1949). Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

[2] Only 10.4% Women Judges in High Courts & the Supreme Court of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India. Web. December, 2016.

Rao, Bhanupriya.”Women in Parliament”. 12.15% Women in the Lower House of Parliament, 12.7% Women in the Upper House of Parliament, 2014. Web. April 2016.

[3] Nayar, Pramod. Post-colonialism: A Guide for The Perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. P. 199. Print.

[4] Ibid. p. 19.

[5] Raheem, Naila. “ Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment”. Sida Studies 3 (2016): 17-19.

[6] Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Sage Publishing, 2003. 448. Print.

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