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The indirect approach
Women and broad-based sustainable development

By Fatima Farideh Nedjat
August 28, 2002
The Iranian

What follows are two different models of what gender equity would look like in a society. Different gender equity models imply different policy priorities. The policies that would be most crucial to social change are described for each of these models.

In making policies to promote human freedom, the individual's well being is the center of the definition for broad based sustainable development (BBSD). Development will fall short of BBSD unless particular attention is given to women, civil society, human rights, and democratic freedom.

To reduce gender-based acculturation, we must examine sources of inequity, and the social changes that will have the largest impact in ending inequality. There are related prerequisites for both gender equity and economic development - to achieve either of these components of BBSD, human rights and governance are essential.

The two models of direct attack and indirect empowerment describe the posture or strategy taken by women in confronting both private and public patriarchy. The direct attack model is used to make all three types of economic sectors (formal, informal and domestic) equal in status. The indirect approach model is used to encourage men and women to migrate freely between the three economic sectors. The tactical difference between the direct and indirect model is that, in the first, explicitly feminist activism is used.

By contrast, the indirect model utilizes terms like "empowerment" and "developmentalist," thus attracting fewer opponents. It is necessary to understand the pros and cons of both approaches. The direct and indirect models differ in their perspective, organization and activities. Female activities as well as men's engagement are important components to evaluate, before any fundamental change can occur.

In the economic equity network, "visible" work is distinguished from "invisible" work. There is a diagonal line, which divides the female work from the male work. If we look at the real economy, ignoring GNP, we can divide the economy into three parts - a formal sector, informal sector, and domestic sector. Work is either women's work or men's work, depending upon the culture.

Studies show that the formal sector typically belongs to males, and the domestic one belongs to females. The informal sector - the macro-enterprise - is evenly divided. This imbalance can be corrected in one of two ways. Either, assign an equal number of males and females to each economic sector, or simply allow men and women the option of doing whichever type of work they choose.

The large, capitalist corporate sector is mostly male. Under such conditions, there are two ways to achieve gender equity. Thus, women are told to do more invisible, domestic, unpaid work, and less work in the formal, visible, paid sector. We also need to make sure that this developmental transition process will not harm the economy. A stronger economy is hoped for under conditions of gender equity, but not at the expense of an extra, unpaid, devalued, unfair work environment.

The other model to achieve gender equity is to make the division of tasks less obvious. Society should not define the woman's task or forbid men to do certain work. This way both sexes have a wider range of choices. This model is called the "choice model." Both of those models are fine.

What is unfair is when the divisions become more conspicuous or unfair, like the situation in America, in which women work in the formal sector and do the domestic work as well. Obviously, we have tremendous development in the U.S., but men do not share the domestic work with women. This is an inequitable development outcome.

The social relation of men and women relative to the domestic economy and access to extra-household income for leisure activities requires discussion of the problematic "private patriarchy" system. A small portion of the labor power of men at home is used for women's consumption and the men use a larger portion.

Men use more of the subsidy made available by woman. Because of this unequal exchange, woman have much less of the subsidy that men provide at home. This is what sociologists call "the support service match," the marriage contract eloquently describing that, "I will earn money to support you and you will service my needs to subsidize me, so I have energy to earn money to support us." What is unfair is that men use the extra subsidy on their own leisure.

Patriarchy is a system of rules, norms, and ideologies. These are legal, religious, cultural, and ethnic forces that maintain private patriarchy as it works to keep women in their place, in a male-headed household. This includes land tenure and property laws; income and occupational inequalities; customs that define unaccompanied women in public spaces as "asking for" male sexual harassment and threats of violence. Therefore, women are forced by these norms, to remain under the protection of their father until they get married. The physical violence, legal restrictions and oppressive norms must be removed, so that women are free to choose to live in a household with or without a man.

As Irene Tinker describes in Women and Shelter, "Woman's access to land and housing challenges male control of resources and lays the base for greater gender equality." The fundamental effect of laws prohibiting women from property ownership or entering into contracts was a limitation on women's choice. They had to live with a man, or at least have a man to sign the lease.

These laws imply that women in the society are not legally people. Until the late 1960s, this was also true in the U.S. No bank would give a mortgage loan to a woman. When laws were changed in the U.S., women could sign the contract but they were not doing the same kind of work as men. This also limited their choice, as the maintenance of private patriarchy became less effective for capitalism.

The women's empowerment process works to change patriarchy. The direct attack pertains to women's movement organizers who fight to change laws and directly change women's financial situations. This is a very confrontational and difficult approach. The negative impact of such a direct attack on patriarchy must be analyzed. The feminist movement attempts to change the culture, belief systems, and ideologies supporting patriarchy. This allows women to enter into contracts, own property, and have the same sexual freedom as men have. Women having access to education would also make this possible.

The work leads to income, and education leads to esteem. With these two important assets together, Ray Blumber, a feminist sociological theorist, believes that psychological empowerment allows women not to be passive, powerless, and fatalistic. The goal is to end that psychology. Empowerment means to be included in important decisions that affect you and others.

Another component of empowerment is to have control over your own self and your own body, property and resources. The indirect approach acknowledges a key insight - the more active we become the more active our opponents become. Opponents will mobilize constituencies such as the poor, the conservative and the religious. The answer to this dilemma is to become active under a less controversial title. Instead of a "feminist" movement, for instance, the movement can be called "developmentalist."

The indirect approach has had success, especially in societies where the values, culture and ideology is rigidly opposed to feminism. This includes religious fundamentalist and traditional Catholic societies. In Catholic churches, 90% of administrative work is done by women. The future of professional Catholic churches depends on these women, who are not allowed to be priests, but nevertheless end up in positions of power. This issue of women's equality in the Catholic church will not go away.

Women's liberation in Islam would only be possible under the indirect approach. In 1986, I went through almost every city and province of Iran, meeting with each city's Imam Juma, i.e. the clergyman who gives speeches in his town's Friday prayer. My indirect approach for change - to simply be present at these events with the goal of being a participant listener - in fact was a promising approach to change, since I represented a potential model for the other women present.

Under normal circumstances, the women's presence in such situations is to be siaahi lashgar, meaning a troop of fighters whose job is similar to that of the scarecrow - to scare away the unwanted crop attacker. The women's presence at these sermons has two sociological purposes; to let the steam out (from the women) and to make a pretense to the cameras of women's participation. This camouflages the passive nature of the women, making them appear active.

The growth of productivity, democracy, and basic human needs (BHN) are the prospective questions of the future. We have to improve household productivity, and a recent study shows that household machinery and technology have lowered household maintenance. The best example is that today people work for money.

Historically, our living standard has gone up, especially in relation to time spent at work. Physical labor became easier due to utilities - gas, water, heat, and sewage systems. These three infrastructures have reduced household work. Decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy in the U.S. and Europe are largely due to better sanitary facilities.

Part of woman's liberation from household work was portable water projects. Economically, more efficient generational reproduction strategies -- fewer pregnancies -- also helped. This way, women spend less time caring for a large number of children. These changes increase household productivity, making it possible for women to educate themselves and become decision makers.

Empowerment processes for woman increases household productivity, increases female participation in the labor force and increased their productivity in paid work. Agricultural productivity increases dramatically where women have access to income, education and health care.

In Women-Oriented NGOs in Latin America, Ken Kusterer argues that women are much more likely to participate in a genuinely democratic social movement than men, who are more interested in participating in patron-client machine politics, which are more problematic and totalistic. Studies show empowering women with high status and education will produce better children. Children are better off when their mothers are empowered. It is hard to think of down-sizing the empowerment of woman.


Fatima Farideh Nedjat, M.A., is an assistant professor of Persian langauge in Monterey, California.

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