What does Modi mean by ‘women led growth’?

Women are the latest target in Modi’s attempt to regain his political mojo. While Modi is not the first politician in or outside India to call attention to the societal benefits of women in leadership roles, his justification is seasoned with that distinctly Hindu right, BJP ideology:

“A country is always empowered by its women. It is she who is different roles—as a mother, a sister and a wife nurtures citizens and these empowered citizens then play a role in building up an empowered society and country.”

Let me pause while I vomit and come back to express how offensive this is, or should be.

First, it operates under the assumption that there are three, and only three, roles that constitute or define women and all are in relation to the family. By default, the modus operandi of women is to nurture, nurture the individual who, under this care of mother, sister and/or wife will become an empowered citizen. Under the guise of empowerment and gender, Modi is putting forth two very patriarchal ideologies.

  1. The transfer of nurture[ing] from woman to individual is not a closed circle for this conduit of nurturing is never circulated back to the woman. In fact, in many instances the only thing that is empowered is capitalism. Nurturing is passed from mother, sister, wife to individual and that individual, in turn, becomes a part of the productive labor force, which, in turn, produces the conditions needed to maintain a capitalist nation-state. This energy flow is of course one classic basis for the work of feminist economists who try to quantify the economic value of a society structured around unpaid nurturing.
  2. In Modi’s scenario, woman is not considered a citizen. Of course  Modi would dispute such a claim at face value but a nuanced reading of the statement suggests no direct relationship between nurturing a citizen and being a citizen. Nurturing an adorable puppy so that it can develop into a well domesticated dog does not, by default, make me a dog as well.

If political actions speak as loud as political rhetoric than we can assume that Modi’s parlance of “building an empowered country” translates into building a powerful nation-state, viz a viz strong military (just look at the new budget), robust private sector, and nurturing FDI. In other words, empowering a patriarchal, paternal model of capitalist democracy.

At present, most of Modi’s tangible execution of empowerment has not benefited any members of society beyond the business elites who, as desirable citizens, are fit to build an empowered nation-state, which essentially means the ability to shape global economics and geopolitics. For this to occur, the traditional capitalist-patriarchy structure needs to survive and again that structure begins with a household structure in which mothers, sisters and wives nurture. Increasingly, women are permitted to be part of that productive labor force, so long as it does not take away from their role as nurturer, nor their role as the upholding the modesty of the household and the nation.

While modesty has a very firm place in the constructed imaginary of ‘traditional’ Hinduism mythology where women like Sita and Draupidi are revered for maintaining their modesty in the direst of circumstances, because in today’s context a woman’s place might be both reproductive and productive (read: nurturing and income generating) it is paramount that modesty is upheld. Because if modesty is not upheld, it suggests that nurturing might be threatened.

Just look at so many of the legal discourses pertaining to women. Most have a basis in modesty. Laws around stalking, teasing, harassment originate from “outraging the modesty of woman” (see Section 354, 354D, 509 of the Nirbhaya Act). Not ‘a woman’, not women-as-individual-citizens but rather “modesty of woman.” I’d argue this is Mother India modesty or modesty of an imagined universal mother, sister, wife. This is further exemplified in workplace documents founded on protecting women workers (not dignity or rights of women in the workplace but perhaps the dignity of the company), accusations of rape (where in some instances, women undergo virginity testing to, essentially, determine if she was ‘modest’ before the attack), and even in rape prevention campaigns where men are encouraged to think of every woman they see as being someone’s mother or sister (but not a wife!).

Anti rape protest copy

Photo credit here.

My lamentation is not new, a refrain of many feminists, even non-feminists in India, but in this current global climate of frightening nationalism, religious, racial, caste intolerance, the sacrifice of social welfare for military growth, it is important to carefully read the nuances within the message of women led development (note in several instances of Modi’s speech, growth and development are used interchangeably), who is espousing it and why.

I am certainly for women led development, but not under such conditions. I believe Modi’s vision of women led development is one of carefully packaged patriarchy. His vision of an empowered country is one in which the nurturing of citizens by mothers, sisters, and wives will be reciprocated back to the that mother, sister, wife only in the form of laws and policies that protect the collective image of women as modest, women as nurturer, but do not empower her as an individual citizen. Perhaps my reading of Modi comes across as too Western a reading of what conditions should constitute women led development; I hope not. Modi is not the only political leader to have a double tongue when it comes to this subject, and thankfully India is ripe with activists, public intellectuals, and individual citizens who will challenge him on this.

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