When I got married some decades ago, I switched from idly and unobservantly watching my mother and her generation of women lead their conventional gendered lives, to more carefully watching the gendered behaviour of my mother-in-law and her generation of women. As an outsider to the family, I suddenly became more aware of the incongruence between what women of my mother’s and mother-in-law’s generation said and what they did. In their speech, they were all active or passive (usually active) supporters of the patriarchy, vehement that they lived by the instructions and the expectations of their fathers, husbands and sons.
And yet, out of sight of their supposed heads of households, these women seemed to make numerous decisions on matters big and small. From what to cook for dinner, to how much to spend on curtains for the drawing room to what colour the new family vehicle would be, it often seemed to me that the men were under the false illusion that they decided these things. Thus my mother-in-law would declare that rohu was being cooked rather than katla because her husband preferred rohu to katla; and, soon enough, my katla-loving father-in-law also believed that this was so.
It is true that these were usually small victories, and there were (and are) indeed plenty of (especially younger) women who rightly surmise(d) that rocking the patriarchal boat can come with grave costs. However, after years of anecdotally watching as well as gradually grappling intellectually with the now trendy question of women’s empowerment, I think that many women, all over the world, are as good at performing gender as at actually practising gender. I think of this as camouflaged empowerment.
And thank god for this camouflaged empowerment, if it means that, by pretending, to themselves and to the world, to obey a boss, women are actually assuming some of the rights of the boss. Of course, in an ideal world, we want a gender equality that is vocal, visible and taken for granted. But while we fight for that world to arrive, it also helps to appreciate that a little bit of the gender inequality one sees everywhere and especially in women’s survey reports on their decision-making ability is a manner of speaking rather than a manner of being.
In a classic paper in 1988, the sociologist Deniz Kandiyoti theorised what she called Bargaining with Patriarchy (journals.sagepub.com), where she described women’s agency as both accommodating as well as resisting male dominance. In my example, such accommodation happens through submissive language and perhaps such language itself then enables resistance through purposeful action. Kandiyoti later critiqued her own work as being simplistic, but the kernel of it can be applied to so many levels of gender performance. This kind of doublespeak, so to say, often maintains domestic and societal peace while at the same time opening up spaces for women to occupy that potentially increase their real agency and empowerment.
It is true that these increases are incremental, often frustratingly slow, and sometimes socially or economically half-hearted. Recent qualitative research on women micro-entrepreneurs in urban Ghana (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii), for example, documents how these women frequently make sub-optimal business decisions in order to reinforce their husbands’ primary role as family breadwinners. So they prioritise savings over investments, hide their profits, are extra cautious in their investment choices and think about long-term security rather than immediate profit.
These women and many other working women probably know that not only is half a loaf better than no bread, the half loaf itself is in danger if they more boastfully display their business or other income-generating skills. For the few studies that demonstrate that women’s economic activity increases their ‘bargaining power’ in domestic relations, there are several more which suggest that women’s labour force participation can lead to increases in domestic violence; more often psychological than physical, but violence all the same. Many of these studies on both sides are methodologically problematic and the technical field is still evolving. However, the theoretical literature on this subject agrees that men might use violence as a way to get women to give up these bargaining strengths (i.e., leave the labour force) and/or as an expression of their own insecurity as they fear the loss of the one source of clear male advantage — the control of the purse strings.
The propensity to violence against working wives seems to be greater in men who lose their own jobs or whose wives earn more than them. Relative income matters — the largest resentment is unleashed when the woman’s income exceeds her spouse’s.
And nor is this male rage confined to poor countries. A recent analysis of US data (journals.sagepub.com/doi) finds that men’s discomfort with working wives is at its lowest when their wives earn about 40 per cent of the income they make; beyond that, it rises steadily. Not surprisingly, the stress of low-skilled men losing their jobs in the country in recent years has reportedly worsened with their wives becoming the primary earners.
No wonder women all over the world frequently find it much easier to keep up the façade of acceptance of and allegiance to gender inequality even as they quietly exercise their camouflaged empowerment. I am using the term gender performance somewhat differently from its use in Judith Butler’s radical theory of ritualised and repetitive gender practice as performative gender. Instead, I use the term to refer to the frequent verbal and self-attested enactment of loyalty to unequal gender norms simultaneously with behaviour that actively resists and challenges these norms.
Alaka M Basu is Professor, Cornell University, Department of Development Sociology
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column
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