For decades we have seen a range of politicians, international organisations, and now even large corporations, claim to be championing the rights of women. Yet, gender inequalities continue to persist. One major reason why progress on women’s empowerment remains so modest is that the notion of gender equality has been repeatedly hijacked by those in power to serve their vested interests.
People in South Asia already know that the rise of individual female political personalities does little to change the lives of women and girls in their societies. The prominence achieved by women like Benazir Bhutto, Indra Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, or Khalida Zia has done little for the cause of women’s empowerment in their respective countries. The reason why women reaching the highest political office in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh did not help empower other women is because they were propelled to power by elitist political dynasties. Political dynasties are more interested in trying to safeguard their own power and to protect the status quo of patronage-based politics rather than make political processes more democratic or ensure greater space for women in the socio-political sphere. Women in many countries have also made their mark in varied sectors, yet the individual achievement of women can often reinforce power structures which are inherently exploitative and perpetuate inequalities. Consider, for instance, how making a woman a CEO of a big multinational corporation does little for women’s empowerment in general. Women who are appointed to such high-powered position may try to portray their own ambitions as a win for women’s rights at large. However, just because a woman is now heading a corporation which sells carbonated and sugar-filled beverages, which are known to cause obesity and waste a lot of plastic in its bottling processes, does little to improve the lives of women and girls.
Over these past few decades, the demand for gender equality has become increasingly entangled with neoliberalism, which in turn has mobilised feminism to advance market penetration. Take the example of Priyanka Chopra, the famous Indian actress, who was also named a UN goodwill ambassador. Alongside using her star-power to shed light on the need for girls’ empowerment, Ms Chopra used this same star-power to endorse skin whiting creams which undermine girls’ confidence in how they look, for which she no doubt received a hefty fee. Major brands like Dove or Pantene have also spent much time creating a brand image which aims to cast their companies to somehow be empowering for women. The advertisements for their beauty products emphasise the need to focus on “real beauty”. Yet, the brand of soap or razor we buy has little to no impact on anything other than Proctor and Gamble’s profit margins.
In the same way that capitalism undermines labour movements by bribing labour union leaders, notions like gender equality have been tainted and coopted whereby tokenistic women will experience personal gains to further ruthless corporate interests that exploit or marginalise most of the world’s women. Hester Eisenstein’s ‘Feminism Seduced’ provides a critique of liberal feminism. It points out how economic liberalisation was meant to dismantle patriarchy and help improve the lives of women around the world, but all it has offered them is measly wages in agriculture, the informal sector, and in export-oriented factories. The use of microcredit as a path to women’s empowerment has also become a tactic to continue exploiting women’s labour in the name of empowering women.
Market processes and the lopsided phenomenon of globalisation may have enabled more women a chance to earn money, but it exploits their labour, and it places a double burden on women to earn a living to help supplement household incomes while continuing to perform their domestic chores and traditional social obligations.