Lady Gaga Meets Ban Ki-Moon

by Wendy Harcourt*

What is gender and what is empowerment, and why do we even talk about these terms in development? Articles in this issue place both terms under close scrutiny. They underline that gender means more than just women. It has to encompass men and trans. They argue that empowerment has to go beyond projects that train women in economic skills, or build leadership and provide education. It is above all about systems and structures. It is also about the inner self as well as having the right economic and social environments to carry out autonomous and collectively empowering decisions. It is also about sexuality and bodies.

Evidently, in today's development setting, we need to spell these things out. The main rider is that we have to be very careful in doing so because we are afraid that there will be even more cuts to funds for women's rights and gender equality projects and programmes. But as much as I agree with this, I have an uneasy sensation that this is not all we should be putting under scrutiny. Why do we have to be so careful? What is so contentious in discussions around gender and empowerment? What is everyone so afraid of?

I feel this even more when by happenchance I took a look at a provocative YouTube video of the hit song 'Telephone' by Lady Gaga with Beyoncé. Within minutes of it being released it had over half a million hits, a week later it is in the millions. It tells the tale of the two famous singer/dancers playing at being totally empowered sexy lesbian murderers in a take off of Tarantino and Thelma and Louise. It is mainstream pop culture, with icons of tough, tattooed women, celebrating sexuality, lesbianism and modern high tech. Itís all there, along with the brand name products. Such images of empowered women are selling and millions are cashing in on it.

So why, in the development context, is empowerment of women so emptied of meaning? Why are delegates falling asleep in the halls of the United Nations as governments report back to the Commission of the Status of Women about the state of play in women's rights? What happened to the energy and excitement around empowerment in those spaces? This journal issue has engaged many women, some men and trans in order to try to understand why the concept of empowerment has become so emptied and depoliticized in development. The discussion looks at gender and empowerment in the UN/donor context specifically but also at the transnational and national women's movements. The answers come back from some of the articles to explain the fear. Women are just not comfortable having or talking about power and money. Fundamentalisms of various kinds are barriers to open discussion around body politics. It is difficult and in some places outright dangerous to be engaging with sex workers, to talk about transgender. Indeed, several mention that women's bodies are still occupied territories, and patriarchal power is still keeping progressive politically gender aware people away from policy tables. Gender programmes are buying into the safe gender norms, particularly around heteronormativity.

There is a strong suspicion of the World Bank, IFAD and other donors as instrumentalizing women and the concept of empowerment. Development policy feeds into the mess of neo-liberal global capitalism and the creation of markets that hone in on women as the pliable workers and ultimate consumers. The articles tell it well, and in various contexts, in the UN negotiations, and in transnational and community spaces, and in national discourses in Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Kenya, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Palestine, Serbia, Sierre Leone, St Vincent, UK and USA. Yet, even as I engaged in the discussion, I kept feeling we are fighting to get out of a wet paper bag. As I was interviewing many of the authors and engaging in a very rich conversation held during the 54th session of the Commission of the Status of Women I still did not get a sense of what is going to make things move. I do not want the empowerment agenda to be reduced to what is now being talked about as the UN gender equality agenda: stopping violence against women, getting more girls into education and more women into government. It has to be about fundamental issues of economic justice, changing social norms, ending repressive sexuality, institutions and systems. But that being said I cannot understand how those of us working in gender and empowerment are going to tackle the huge, mammoth issues of changing whole economies, governments, religions, family structures.

Perhaps we are stuck. But the articles in this issue suggest not. Though they lament about the way the donors have co-opted the empowerment agenda they also underline (see Cornwall) that in many contexts there is a vibrant set of resistances which were shunted out of the way or disregarded by development projects and programmes. Contrary to what has been strained through the development grid empowerment has the seeds of real transformation, it should be anything but boring and negative. What is evident from the information and thoughtfulness of these articles is that the authors are fully aware of the potential of empowerment. What is demanded is that collectively we reach out and go much further than the constraining environment of development, and in the process change development itself.

There is a huge amount of exchange and discussion going on through social networking and multiple ways of communicating. Potentially we have tremendous possibilities to reach audiences we just could not have touched 15 years ago. The book shelf in this issue has morphed into a mass of on-line material put out by the DFID funded 'Pathways of Women's Empowerment' programme on YouTube, websites, video, photo stories, documentaries, digital story telling as well as data and statistics on websites about what is empowering in women's lives. Such conversations are happening every second on email, facebook, twitter, SMS, skype, e-magazines, e-journals, blogs, and in second life. On-line we are able to converse and dialogue and push the boundaries, remake our sense of identities, strategize and scheme. We can find information that once required hours in libraries and much research money. There is so much out there as millions of people are expressing themselves through the new media. The issue is not that empowerment does not mean what it did many years ago when it was first coined by southern feminists working in communities. Nor just that it is a captured concept by the World Bank, empowerment-lite or em-ment, without the power.

The problem is that gender and development is not engaging and exciting people in all these new media even if some of the big International NGOs and donors have got more technically competent in recent years. The issues are crucial, the risk and the danger of systemic failure is real but we are not finding the space nor the ways to express it and engage within development. We need to go beyond the staid UN space, the empty tired discussions of the CSW where much of what happened formally mostly missed the point. How can the development community fully utilize the many different communication technologies in ways that reach across generations, identities and polarities? How can we spark awareness and support among a broad audience engaged in different forms of transformations? And in that political process how can we create different identities and alliances as we work more honestly with the tensions around gender, rights, development and culture? There is something deeply troubling going on, right across the board, as concepts like gender and empowerment are captured by technocracy in the obsessive measurement. The demand for evidence based results does not allow for quality programmes to be valued and owned by the participants engaged in the programmes over time. It is time to make new reflections on the methods of 'doing' development. This includes making a space to disagree and have authentic discussions which are not afraid of diversity and challenge current ways women, men and trans are seen and portray themselves. 

The silencing world of the UN fails to address stereotypes, heteronormativity and conventions. We have to recognize there are these deeper tensions and risks that the world's business sector is totally unafraid to take on. So let us return to the video of Lady Gaga with all its sexuality, playing around with major issues like abuse in prisons, lesbianism, irreverence, hawking of big brands, and straightforward silliness or fun or serious statements about youth culture in the USA being 'inundated with information and technology', according to your point of view. (The last point of view being that of Lady Gaga.) There is a lot of ambiguity around the video's images of women, prisons and sexuality. Some of it stereotyping, a lot of it is just about glam and fun. But it picks up on many of the issues that underline the gender and empowerment agenda; ones that we need to engage in more openly and defiantly resisting the conservative back lash. In development we need to be much more adventurous and creative. We need to go beyond statements which position women's bodies as occupied, abused, hated and denied. They are, that is true, but as Lady Gaga and many other women, men and trans would declare bodies of all genders can be about strength, fun, pleasure, talent and celebration.

A recent gender and empowerment project in which I was involved was mostly conducted on the Web. It brought together any one who defined themselves as feminist and living in Europe. The project tapped into the blogs and e-zines that young feminists are doing, using facebook, mobiles and social media to do their activism. The majority of the ones who joined and put energy into the project, eventually meeting up in Poland in tents, were young feminists under 30 mainly from East and Central Europe. Talking to them about the most exciting activity in which they were engaged, I was told 'Ladyfests'. Ladyfests are community not-for-profit global music and arts festivals with bands, musical groups, performance artists visual arts and workshops. They are alternative political spaces set up and led by 'ladies' (an identity interpreted by the individuals). Those I spoke to attending the Ladyfests were precariously employed, politically engaged in a range of movements, and were travelling in their 1,000s to meet at different venues. There were spaces for women, queers and trans that were challenging the mainly masculine preserve of music and doing their thing. There were many connections and networking on-line in between.

This is not the generation I saw at the 54th CSW, nor whom I see engaged and leading development debates. At best they are on the margins looking in. The point for me is to turn the spaces around to get those people into development debates. They would do much to help us get out of discourses of professionalism that create institutions afraid to open up because they fear argument and difference. This is a time of risk, let us grab it, and open up to the intersections where the multiple meanings of protest, culture, sexuality, politics, gender and power meet.

* This editorial will appear in Development 53.2  'Gender and Empowerment' to be published in June 2010. Click here for the table of contents.

Related articles: Gender and empowerment: A conversation with Nejra Cengic; and A conversation with Yvonne Underhill-Sem