Ruth Paterson, BA(hons), MA
Women's empowerment in challenging environments: a case study from Balochistan
…to really bring about change, advocacy for gender-fair development must be home-grown. It but is not just also a matter of of entering growing the spaces in between that the weave, space,
and evolving from the vast and rich fabric of everyday life. (Iqbal, 1999: 89)
Abstract This paper offers strategies for women’s empowerment in conservative, tribal and religious environments, based on an innovative program in Pakistan. Mainstreaming Gender and Development encouraged participants to build on their communities’ strengths, minimised resistence among families and communities by including them in the development process, and succeeded in building a cadre of women activists. Based on its experience, the author questions the importance of collective action, suggests that the selection of participants should be based on aptitude rather than socio-economic status, and highlights the potential for women’s empowerment in challenging environments.
This is a pre-print of an article accepted for publication in Development in Practice. Development in Practice is available online at: http://www.informaworld.com/CDIP
There is a range of literature elaborating on the theory and practice of women's empowerment by those genuinely committed to feminist social change. However, it leaves many questions unanswered. For example, most literature mentions that challenging power relations will create resistance, but does not propose strategies for minimising or addressing resistance. The literature suggests beginning with women's own understandings of their lives, but gives few insights into how programs should operate in a religious environment, and the role of religion in women's empowerment. Most women's empowerment strategies promise to
develop women's self-esteem and increase their household 'bargaining power' without looking inside the home at how the household dynamics function and might change. How can programs positively impact household dynamics? The experiences of an innovative program in Pakistan suggest some interesting strategies for: understanding issues of gender within a cultural and religious context and preparing women to raise issues of gender in a highly religious public discourse; broadening the empowerment process to include emotional as well as rational and analytical development; and building on strengths and opportunities rather than the analysis of problems. In particular, the program ‘Mainstreaming Gender and Development’ (MGD) shows how women can build their families and tradition to support redefined gender roles. Context ‘Mainstreaming Gender and Development’ focused on six districts of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest, poorest, and least populated province. Most of Balochistan is arid, and rural
livelihoods have been undermined by a series of droughts and the falling water table. The increasing politicisation of religion and prominence of madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan is very evident in Balochistan, where tribal identities dominate. Religious rhetoric is pervasive in public discourse; individuals or organisations that transgress public norms risk potent accusations of being 'unIslamic', often without theological foundation. The common practice of marrying cousins helps to maintain family identity and networks, and to reinforce tribal identity. Gossip is a particularly powerful form of social control in Balochistan. Prospective in-laws assess young men’s and women’s marriagability based on reports of their behavior and family’s reputation from community members. As a risk prevention strategy, women's
actions and mobility are limited; family honour is judged by women’s behavior. Most
women do not move outside their home other than to attend school or visit relatives, and only do so accompanied by a male relative. Non-government organizations (NGOs) in Balochistan generally have a poor reputation. Only a handful of the several thousand registered NGOs are working on social development and many of those are primarily subcontractors to international organizations. In particular, NGOs are seen as places where men and women work together, contravening social norms where women have little interaction with men outside their own family. While Balochistan is typically seen as conservative, backward and traditional, it is a society in flux, or rather, a complex web of societies undergoing a variety of changes. Literacy rates are low at less than forty percent for men and twenty percent for women (IPRI, 2005), but there are still scores of first generation literates aspiring to participate in the modern world they see on television. Others are disenchanted and look to tradition or religion for a sense of purpose. The gap between traditional and modern aspirations is widening. Chasms are developing between sects, tribes, young and old, traditional and modern, increasing misunderstanding and conflict. For young people, the changes present opportunities and challenges, as well as disappointments; there are numerous difficulties including the poor quality of education and high rates of unemployment among educated people. Operating in an environment that is widely understood to be highly conservative, tribal and patriarchal, MGD provides lessons in social change in what would seem to be unpromising environments. Although there are many forces for change in Balochistan, there are also strong conservative and religious forces trying to limit women from redefining their roles. Most NGOs are limited by actual resistance, lack of genuine understanding of or commitment to feminist social change or lack of strategies to facilitate change effectively. In this context, MGD appears radical and provides salient lessons for other programs in Balochistan and in other challenging environments, addressing a gap in women's empowerment practice and theory. Program overview The Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP) was founded in the late 1990s by a group of men and women who had worked in Balochistan's emerging NGO sector, and wanted to create a space where dominant development paradigms could be challenged, and a critical and theoretically well-grounded generation of activists developed. IDSP designed
MGD as a two year program to develop a cadre of women development professionals in Balochistan, to increase women's public engagement, and to bring more women into the organisation. MGD took twenty young women from six districts through an intensive year of personal and professional development based on residential sessions in Quetta and practice sessions in their districts. The women were then expected to replicate the program for another fifteen women in their own districts, with support from IDSP. IDSP selected participants for MGD on the basis of the women's motivation to promote change in their community and had a basic literacy criterion, without regard for their financial or class status. This allowed for socio-economic diversity among participants and among the communities in which the participants worked in addition to linguistic, religious and tribal diversity. It may be argued that since development budgets are tight, the money and energy that is available should be channeled towards the poorest in society as they miss out in other spheres. Women's empowerment strategies are often seen as one dimension of 'development' interventions that are frequently criticized for not working with 'the poorest of the poor'. However, if far-reaching feminist social change is the ultimate objective of a women's empowerment program, program designers should consider whether drawing potential change agents from a common class background will best meet the program objectives. If one of the preliminary objectives is to develop a cadre of change agents, does the organisation want them to be seen by the community as a group of 'poor women' or a group of women selected on the basis of their ability and clarity of thought? To be effective, social change needs to have deep roots across society. As each of the women from MGD develops their sphere of support and their network of allies, including women from across the socio-economic spectrum has broadened the program's impact. Developing trust within communities and families to gain permission for the young women to participate, and for the first cohort to live in Quetta with IDSP, was a challenge. In
Balochistan personal and kinship relationships are primary. Families were encouraged to come to the IDSP office, to meet with staff and students and even to stay in the hostel. The young women's families often gave permission for them to participate based on the assurances of particular staff members, placing an additional burden of responsibility on those staff. Several participants spoke of the trepidation they felt in entering IDSP, being unable to imagine a learning environment not controlled by strict discipline and corporal punishment.
Almost all spoke of how amazed they were by their first experience with IDSP. They mentioned the sense of equality between participants and staff, and the friendly, caring environment. Some mention their surprise at seeing women and men sitting, talking and laughing together. A few spoke of their initial disapproval of IDSP staff breaking the strict social codes they had been brought up with. Most adapted quickly – finding an environment that addressed the issues they had with their schools or home environments. This paper is based on conversational interviews with twenty three participants, twenty one current and former staff, and twenty people from outside IDSP, as well as project documentation and the written daily reflections of program participants. Personal development Developing a sense of self The understanding of empowerment at IDSP focuses on what Rowlands defines as personal empowerment: something internal that women can build and strengthen, and that is not dependent on others. Almost all participants credit the self-awareness module as a turning point in their life – the first time they thought, or had licence to think, about themselves and who they are. The women had spent ten to fifteen years in an education system that punishes difference and creativity and rewards rote learning, and social situations that do not encourage girls and young women to think critically. IDSP gave staff and participants licence to express and explore their feelings, and vocabulary and space to discuss their ideas. Each day began with writing a reflection on the previous day and sharing it with the group. The participants were also encouraged to keep a diary for more personal reflections. Through the self awareness module, the participants began to reflect on their own personalities, to clarify their aspirations and to understand how they related to others. According to Batliwala, empowerment is ‘not merely a change of mind-set… but a visible demonstration of that change which the world around is forced to acknowledge, respond to, and accommodate as best it can’ (1993:10). The participants of MGD also stressed the importance of action, because the community and Allah will judge them on their actions not their thoughts. However, they consider action to be how empowerment is used and
reinforced rather than being its essence. Managing emotions
Participants and staff alike said they understood empowerment to start from within, to involve learning about one's self from many perspectives and learning to harness one's rational and emotional resources to achieve desired ends. Many participants said that they used to get very angry, irritable or upset; through MGD they learned to understand and manage these emotions without suppressing them. Increasing their own understanding of their self and their reactions to other people and issues helped the women to develop a sense of agency. Most empowerment literature implies that the process of empowerment is
primarily rational – based on analysing one's self and situation and experiential learning about one's own agency through individual and collective action, and possibly creative expression. I found little reference in the literature to including an exploration of participants' emotional and non-rational dimensions. Gender and Islam The MGD module on gender began conventionally, discussing participant's experiences of gender roles. The participants reflected on how each of their families differed and discussed changes in gender roles over time with older family members. These discussions led the women to question gender roles and stereotypes by highlighting their socially constructed and ever-changing nature. MGD differed from most accounts of women's empowerment programs by its grounding in Islam. Kabeer writes that when arguments for gender discrimination on the basis of
biological difference fail, culture is ‘the obvious next line of defense,’ moving the dispute from facts to values (1999:7). In Balochistan, gender discrimination is based on popular understandings of biological difference and Islam. Through MGD, the women learned to discuss and challenge gendered roles on both bases to powerful effect. Their language at times suggests that women and men have 'complementary' roles, but also stresses that women can do anything that men can do. The participants read and discussed translations and interpretations of the Quran, comparative religion and the politics of religion with each other and with respected scholars. They learned that women’s rights and active participation in society are not contrary to Islam and that the Quran emphasises men's and women's equal value and moral responsibility. They learned to critique interpretations that curtail women's mobility or consider women to be of less value
than men, and gained confidence in their own interpretive abilities and the language and ability to discuss religious interpretation with their communities. Most participants and staff did not seem to be Islamist – whereby people structure their entire way of thinking and their activism around their interpretation of Islam, understanding the world through their religion. Rather, most seem to derive their understanding of the world, their aspirations and values through a range of authors, from personal experience and local cultures. Islamic interpretation is important for justifying their decisions to themselves and to others, but does not appear to be the primary source of guidance as they redefine their roles as young women. As with conventional women's empowerment programs, learning how gender roles are socially constructed and ever-changing gave the participants a sense of agency. It also validated their taking actions that they could justify morally but that contradicted current social norms. Operating in an environment where Islam is ubiquitous in public discourse, the women of MGD were empowered by understanding and being able to discuss gender roles using Islamic interpretation; they learned to operate within and redefine a highly religious public discourse. Critical thinking and changing ideas of development The initial modules encouraged participants to think critically about themselves in the context of their families and societies. MGD also gave these women skills to critique and form their own opinions about tradition, culture and religion as well as education, politics, history and development. These skills are unusual in their communities, particularly among women. Critical thinking and analysis is a core part of most strategies for women's empowerment. However, MGD is unusual as critical analysis formed a basis for valuing indigenous culture as a foundation for social transformation. MGD encouraged the women to develop universal values from their local environment where others apply universal values to judge local practice (Kamal and Sayed 2005 67). In Balochistan, education and development are generally associated with cars, urban life, and devaluing illiterate people and tradition. Education offers young men and women a ticket out of their family and community. Many families rely on remittances from urban or overseas relatives – the cash economy requires some engagement with urban life. However, they also
feel a loss of tradition and culture as young people move to urban areas. It is not surprising that communities view education and development programs with mixed feelings. IDSP, and MGD in particular, helps young people to value life within their community and to improve it. Barkat Shah explained that most communities have very strong, self-sufficient and sustainable systems… We should build on those things… build the faith of people in the positive things in their community [rather than encouraging their dependence on others] (interview 18/07/2005). Many participants said that their families and community members were astonished by MGD activities that focused on learning about and promoting indigenous culture. This approach created space for discussion and made the participants seem less threatening when talking about other issues such as promoting change in gender relations. Most participants developed a sound interest in and commitment to further understanding and promoting their culture, as well as recognising negative aspects and promoting social change. The role of tradition and culture in people's lives is generally not mentioned in the women's empowerment literature, or not as a source of strength. Many programs claiming to empower women teach or encourage women to do local handicrafts for income generation. Handicraft work is assumed to be culturally appropriate, to value women's indigenous knowledge and skills, and to require few inputs and time constraints so it can fit around women's schedules. However, this is using a dimension of 'culture' more for convenience than as a foundation for physical and intellectual development. Some people who oppose modernity see cultural revival as an alternative, particularly for women. Promoting women's 'traditional' roles is used to discourage their entry into modern, urban life, where men are trying to establish roles for themselves. Islamists see opportunities for women to increase their welfare by supporting a traditional, patriarchal framework. Whether for income generation, to limit women or to increase men's responsibility towards women, tradition is generally seen as contrary to and preceding modernity. In contrast, IDSP's approach echoes Talal Asad, who said ‘when one talks about tradition, one should be talking about, in a sense, a dimension of social life and not a stage of social development’ (quoted in Mahmood 1996). Many strategies for women's empowerment begin by identifying inequalities and understanding problems; an approach combining Frierian techniques with feminist insights. In contrast, MGD tried to encourage the participants to look for and understand the strengths and possibilities that they already have within themselves, their community and governance system, and use these to create new ones. For example, the women were encouraged to find
role models within their own communities, and to take advantage of new provisions for Citizen Community Boards that can access government funds for small scale development projects. The participants developed critical thinking skills and recognised problems and injustices while developing a sense of agency. Empowerment programs may benefit from building on the participants' strengths and opportunities rather than analysing their disempowerment. The next section looks at the women's engagement with their families and communities and shows how their approach was highly successful in reducing tension and resistance by making others feel valued and included in a process of learning. Building allies – working with family and tradition MGD was designed to help the participants to be agents of change within their families and communities, rather than to isolate them from their environment. Theory sessions were interspersed with a range of challenging but structured activities to help the women to engage with their families and communities. Learning to communicate Many participants said that they learned to communicate through MGD, and to share their experiences and ideas firstly with each other and with IDSP staff, and then with their families and communities. Many participants explained that they were largely silent before joining MGD; they had felt some dissatisfaction with the messages they were receiving through their families, community and education, but did not have the space, audience or the language to express their thoughts. Religion and tradition placed a heavy damper on the power of girls and young women – their societies' least powerful people – to articulate divergent opinions. Engaging families IDSP found activities to engage the women's families critical to the program's success and to enabling the women to promote social change. MGD activities such as learning about and recording many aspects of indigenous culture required the participants to engage with their families and communities. Following an exercise in one district where participants cited Indian movie stars and sportsmen as role models, the mentors responded by assigning each participant the task of
writing a one hundred year family history, hoping they would find people to admire and emulate in their own families. One of the participants recalled: When we sat to discuss our family history, my grandfather became very emotional; he was very much happy and astonished… to recall the history and see it as a document for my family. The family history exercise helped to draw the participants and their families together through the learning experience – to facilitate conversation on changing social mores and cultural practices, and to develop a shared sense of history. Many participants were first generation literates. Whereas formal education tends to devalue non-literate people's knowledge and skills, the family history exercise, and other activities such as recording folk traditions, songs, poems and medicines, restored their status and valued their knowledge. Many participants also shared their reflections and diaries with their family members, and used and discussed mentoring techniques – initiating unusually personal discussions. Some participants said that they have family members who have learned so much through this process that they appear to have been through MGD themselves. These exercises have created space within most of the women's families for discussions between family members and on topics that would not have been discussed in the past. A number of the women stated that their father or other relatives will come to them for advice or to talk through decisions, where previously they would have been excluded from decision making altogether. Most families or key family members in most families, became supportive of their daughters’ activities. Opposition to the women's participation in MGD was common among relatives and community members – putting considerable pressure on the participants and their families. IDSP found that if the women have strong family support, they can survive
[criticism from community] (Barkat Shah, interview 18/07/05). The profound change in decision making processes that some women were able to facilitate within their families is evident in the renegotiation of several marital engagements. In most tribes in Balochistan, fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have the authority to make decisions for and about women including the level of education she will receive, whether she works and where she is permitted to go. Marriage represents a major shift in a woman's life, from living under her father or other male relative's authority and with her birth family, to living under her husband's authority within his family. Although the choice of spouse is critical to a woman's future, she is expected to play a passive role in the arrangement process and not to object to any proposals supported by her family or to communicate with her fiance.
By intervening in decisions over marriage, these young women are challenging one of the most fundamental powers that men in their community have held. Kabeer and Subrahmanian write that poor and marginalised people are often dependent on relationships of patronage rather than solidarity to ensure their survival. For women,
claiming autonomy and defining their own priorities is often dependent on ‘sacrificing the protection of hierarchical familial relationships’ (1999:202). The MGD activities have been redefining familial relationships so that they are increasingly relationships of 'mutual solidarity' rather than patronage – so that families support the women in their activities rather than threatening to cut them off from familial support. However, families operate within wider kinship and community networks that are based on varying degrees of mutual solidarity and patronage. Family support for the women often comes at some cost to the family's own support networks. The women in MGD tried to address the concerns of relatives and community members by inviting them to visit IDSP and to meet with the staff to 'see for themselves' the environment that the women were operating in. Activities such as the collection of folk songs and indigenous medicines helped to allay relatives’ and communities' fears that the women's education and participation in MGD would undermine their culture and alienate the women from their communities. The strength of the MGD approach was that after the process of personal empowerment had begun - developing self awareness and a sense of agency in the safe IDSP environment and surrounded by like-minded people – the women worked on developing support within their own families. There are lots of examples of people’s families becoming their strongest supporters – even in the face of intense community opposition. Thus, the site of women’s empowerment was themselves, but they developed increasing spheres of support beginning with IDSP, the other interns, their families and key members of their community. Claiming public space Requirements for the young women to engage in public activities were particularly challenging to their families and communities. The participants of each district invited their families, communities, local dignitaries and government officials to an initial seminar, where each of the participants presented on topics of self-awareness or gender. The experience was challenging but exhilarating for the participants, and astonishing for many of the audience
members. Few had seen women give public presentations, fewer had imagined that their own daughters and sisters were able to speak articulately and knowledgably. The participants then met with a wide range of people and organisations in order to develop a social, demographic and economic profile of their district. The women's brief was to gather information and to learn from the people they met – non-confrontational strategies designed to elicit support. MGD used research as a way to initiate conversations with community members, political leaders and government officials. In a culture where women rarely move beyond their home, relatives’ homes and schools, and where they rarely travel unaccompanied by a male relative, the young women met with nazims (mayors) at the three levels of local government, with women councillors, local organisations, government departments and visited households to learn about the issues of importance to women. This taught the participants about their local area, as well as how to approach and speak to people, and how to explain and justify their moving about their community without male escort. The women were encouraged to look for allies within the different organisations they interacted with, people who would support and assist them. Many of the officials the
participants met became firm supporters of their work, although others felt threatened, particularly when the women identified mismanagement or questioned the principles and ethics behind district development plans. One participant recalled her local nazim berating her for speaking in public. The following year the same nazim asked why they had failed to run recruitment seminars for the program’s second phase in his own village. He was now upset because he felt that the women from his own community were missing out on this opportunity. The women ended their first field practice session by running a public seminar with the other participants from their district on their experiences, what they had learned in IDSP, and what they had learned about their district, including the key issues they had identified (MGD first progress report:36). They arranged venues with support from local government or political leaders, and the seminars were attended by thirty to one hundred men and women. The primary issues that they identified were different in each district, but included unhygienic water, violence against women, lack of employment opportunities for women, reproductive health, the education system and poverty (MGD first progress report:36). The women were politicised by their experience and their research findings; the research process also lent credibility to women's voices and concerns that had been excluded from public arenas.
MGD differed from many programs by not using collective action. Collective action usually refers to action in the 'public' sphere, where women’s ‘collective strength is seen as the most important transformatory resource at their disposal’ (Kabeer 1994:253). Collective action is understood to have several values. Firstly, by working together, women's confidence is bolstered by being part of a shared project and having opportunities to try new roles such as group leadership or to experiment with new ways of organising. Secondly, some argue that structural change requires collective or mass action. The women in MGD gain strength and confidence from learning with and supporting each other and developing learning networks within IDSP and with their families and communities. They position themselves as learning from and working for the family and community, rather than presenting themselves as opponents. Working individually or at most in small groups, they do not appear to present a threat in the way that visible collective action might. There are plenty of issues in Pakistan that probably require collective action to change – such as discriminatory laws – and these are being challenged by women's groups in the major cities. However, there are also numerous opportunities for women that have not been realised, including the right to access a wide range of university courses, to get government jobs and to form women's Citizen Community Boards. If the goal is feminist social change, the question is whether change in a conservative environment such as Balochistan is most likely to begin through collective action or through women negotiating and role modeling alternatives within their own communities. Most of the women in MGD have generated strong support from within their family and a network of supporters in their community and in other organisations, a different form of collective strength that is less exclusive and threatening than traditional collective action. I am not arguing against women's collective action or political campaigns; I am suggesting that they do not necessarily have to be at the heart of programs for women's empowerment. My contention is that when women's empowerment programs focus on collective action and political campaigns, they may fail to pay sufficient attention to the skills and support needed by women in their own homes. The role of the family may be particularly prominent in Balochistan, however, people live within families and kinship relations everywhere to some degree. Rather than leaving the dimension of empowerment within close relationships
largely unexplored and unsupported, the women's empowerment literature should look at this as a crucial site for sustainable and 'deep' social change. MGD offers strategies for women to
take their families through a learning process and to initiate social transformation from this most fundamental site of social reproduction.
Challenging the 'mobility myth' and leading by example Norms restricting women's mobility were one of the most pervasive problems that the women in MGD faced. Limitations on women's mobility dramatically restricts their participation in schools and employment, their political and social engagement and contribute to a sense of isolation and powerlessness. Many endured insults and some had stones thrown at them as they travelled to the IDSP centres each day, but this was outweighed by the self-affirmation and confidence they gained from learning and working with other young women. When they were challenged, the women would explain that they had work to do in the community, and that they did not require male escort to monitor their behaviour – they were answerable to Allah. To some degree, limitations on the women's mobility had already been challenged with assistance from IDSP staff to enable the women to travel to Quetta or their district offices for the theory sessions. However, it was an ongoing challenge for the women to gain the support and trust of their families in the face of widespread community pressure. Where families were reluctant to allow the women to undertake their fieldwork, it was generally due to pressure from relatives and community members, rather than inherent objections. Relatives will freeze relations with each other to protest actions they disagree with, and some families have greater leverage and ability to withstand community pressure than others. On almost every occasion that families restricted the young women's movement, the young women, with support from IDSP, successfully challenged the restrictions through reasoned argument and persuasion. One intern from the second phase recalled: my brother used to drop me [to escort her to the office]. When we were invited to Quetta to stay in the hostel, my family was shocked, so I gave them more and more information about IDSP until they agreed. Now my brother says ‘if I can go outside alone, why can't you?’ I now come to the office by myself (Nabila, interview). Another woman explained I said to my family that the first step is very difficult, but someone has to take it, so why not me?. The women strongly believed in leading by example and felt it was not acceptable to promote behaviours that they were not following in their own lives. The participants hoped that their own increased mobility will increase the mobility of other girls and women in their communities, and most had begun to see changes within their own families.
Being a role model, and hoping to create change through one's example is a heavy burden. There is a fine balance between being respected for doing things differently and losing support. IDSP participants and staff alike often find themselves having to balance or choose between personal and professional opportunities and maintaining their relationships with their families. MGD tried to make these choices less stark by helping the participants to bring their families with them on their learning journey and encouraging synthesis between the theory and participants' practical experience. The women's empowerment literature
recognises the costs to women of family and community resistance, but is largely silent on strategies to mitigate it. Becoming activists MGD was an intensive course with requirements and assessment rather than a conventional self-directed empowerment program. The women's full-time commitment to the program was expected, and they were at a stage in their lives where this was possible – generally posteducation and pre-marriage. MGD's activities were designed to give women exposure to and confidence in a wide range of settings, as well as to increase women's opportunities by role modeling alternative behaviour. The practical activities increased the women's skills and understanding of their communities as they saw in practice some of the issues they had studied in theory. The women were unlikely to have initiated this process themselves and required encouragement and support, but many have continued to engage with local government and community leaders, to run public workshops and to establish citizen community boards. They learned in a variety of shared and collective fora with other participants, with family and with community members; they took action both independently and with a diverse range of people. Encouraging women to take action and exercise their agency, then to reflect on and share the experience with other women, is a common dimension of women's empowerment strategies. Becoming professionals MGD was intended to create a cadre of female development professionals in Balochistan. During theory sessions the afternoons were used for the development of professional skills including learning to use computers, to write reports and proposals, to understand budgets and basic project financing, and research skills. The participants had many assignments to complete including research reports, creative work and seminars, and an individual
presentation to an assessment panel at the end of their internship. These activities and MGD's packed schedule required the women to learn to manage their time and to produce high quality work. In the second phase of MGD, the first group were challenged to work with the other participants from their district to replicate the course. The participants managed all accounts and adminstration for the program in their districts – the first district offices in Balochistan to be run solely by women. In some districts, the participants shared office space and resources with staff from other IDSP projects, challenging them to develop professional relationships with young men from their own area. The staff reported their unease thinking about whether the young women could ‘handle the various cultural, religious, social, familial, logistical and scholastic responsibilities’ (MGD third progress report:11). However, the women repeatedly exceeded staff expectations. For example, one of the regional centres where the program was being replicated was threatened by armed men claiming the program was un-Islamic. The issue was resolved by the young women approaching the mullahs to discuss Quranic interpretation (MGD third progress report:13). There are numerous examples of mullahs being impressed by the young women's interest in discussing Islam with them, and becoming supportive of the program, disarming a potent source of opposition. Conclusion There is little literature on strategies for women’s empowerment in highly conservative and traditional environments and in religious contexts, and most organisations in Balochistan shy away from addressing issues of gender directly. However, MGD demonstrates that programs for women's empowerment in highly conservative environments can be effective. MGD demonstrated that: • Women’s empowerment is not necessarily a topic that is ‘too challenging’ for highly patriarchal environments. Societies that are seen as traditional or conservative may embrace change if presented in the right way; • Approaches to highly patriarchal societies do not necessarily need to be made through men, but they may need to enable men to feel valued, informed and welcome; and • Culture and tradition can be seen as assets to be built on where confrontational strategies may create resistance. Working to value, build and strengthen families and
communities may ultimately be more empowering than taking women out of their context. Kabeer writes ‘cultural contestation will only occur when dissent is possible’ (1999:9). MGD creates space for dissent – firstly to form and be articulated within the organisation through discussions, reflection and seminars, and then to be replicated in families and communities. Through MGD, women are challenging the notion that they are custodians of tradition and culture and cannot participate in modern spheres of economics and governance without sacrificing traditional values. MGD's most distinctive strength was its focus on including the participants' families and communities in the learning experience, so that the learner grows with rather than away from their kin. Reflecting on initiating gender programming in Pakistan's Sindh province, Maryam Iqbal wrote ‘to really bring about change, advocacy for gender-fair development must be homegrown. It is not just a matter of entering the spaces between the weave, but also of growing in that space, and evolving from the vast and rich fabric of everyday life’ (1999:89). Iqbal had primarily grown up out of Pakistan but with Sindhi parents and first language. She used her language skills to engage in conversations on topics of interest to the community, introducing gender awareness slowly over time. The women in MGD were even better placed to develop space and ideas from within their communities. With one hundred women from six provinces and nine language groups engaged in creating spaces and initiating discussions, IDSP has a wide network of specialist entry points into communities – effective advocates for social change.
A detailed version of this paper is available from the author firstname.lastname@example.org and IDSP welcomes correspondence on email@example.com Acknowledgements. The author wishes to thank Jethro Pettit, Katie Curchin, the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and the staff and participants of the Institute of Development Studies and Practices in Pakistan.
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