THINKING ALOUD: Dissecting the myth that is ‘women empowerment’

Today is International Women’s Day, and I still wonder what is really meant by “empowering women”

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

BY Prof. Zulfiqarali Premji


My discussions with colleagues back then always centred on the unfair distribution of power, or leadership positions that women continue to face.


Today is International Women’s Day, and I still wonder what is really meant by “empowering women”. Is it political empowerment? Economic empowerment? Social empowerment?

In fact, these categories are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reinforcing. But, I think the best and most sustainable way is to educate the female child.

My discussions with colleagues back then always centred on the unfair distribution of power, or leadership positions that women continue to face. The logic was that once you have a lady in a leadership position, she would enable other women to also rise in status.

I didn’t accept this perception of “women empowerment”, and always thought that women empowerment should be a much wider, comprehensive and inclusive concept for all women irrespective of social class.

I don’t believe in patchwork solutions like special seats for women in Parliament, or similarly reserved seats in university selection. This won’t solve the issue of women empowerment.

From my experience, the solution to this social issue came to me after reading the south Indian saying that “sending your daughter to school is like watering your neighbour’s garden”!

Thus the problem is education. The saying definitely needs to be modified into “sending your daughter to school is like watering the whole of humankind”.

Development professionals and philanthropic institutions like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have a somewhat different perception in Africa regarding empowering women. For only $100, you can empower a woman. This manageable amount will provide a woman with her own sewing machine, thus enabling her to take the very first step on the path to empowerment.

Starting poultry farming – according to Melinda Gates – empowers women in developing countries by allowing them to express their dignity and seize control.

If chicken farming is not your empowerment tool of choice, Heifer International will, for $390, deliver an enterpriser basket to a woman in Africa. It includes rabbits, juvenile fish and silkworms farming.

The assumption behind all of these donations is the same: women empowerment is an economic issue that can be separated from politics.

It follows, then, that a benevolent Western donor who provides sewing machines or chickens – and, thus, enables the women – can resolve the gender empowerment conundrum.

Another perspective is to empower women by forming a union; why not unionize them? See what a women’s strike might do (e pluribus unum: out of many, one: the motto of the US).

Some eighty years ago, the 48th Imam of the Nizari Ismaili Community/Aga Khan-III, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah (Nov. 2, 1877- July 11, 1957), sent a message to his followers that, “If you have only enough money to educate one sibling, give priority to a female child; send you daughter to school first.”

This simple but very relevant message long before feminist movements started has remarkable outcomes; there are no gender biases or empowerment issues in that community today. Similarly, perhaps the most encouraging trend in Africa today is the growing role of females in socio-economic development that’s due to education.

It is interesting to compare not only school enrolment of girls vs boys but, importantly: the attrition rate data. My guess’s that enrolment may be 50:50; but there are fewer girls than boys who finish university. The challenge is to reduce the attrition rate.

What I see around the world today is that women aren’t helpless in the face of existing challenges. They are decision-makers for themselves, their families, their villages, their businesses, and governments. For societies where this isn’t the case, I see people speaking emphatically of the need to empower women.

At the heart of women empowerment lies the demand for a more robust global sisterhood: one in which no women are relegated to passivity and silence, their choices limited to sewing machines and chicken farming.

A gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage. Thus, a gender-equal society would be one where the word “gender” doesn’t exist – where everyone can be themselves, and the only way to achieve this is via education.

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