How can anyone really think that they can change all the sexist practices in the world? No, that’s not a cynical student you hear. The question came from visiting lecturer Jane L. Parpart, who delivered a sharp critique of gender-based development work at the Munk Centre on Friday.Parpart, a professor at the University of West Indies in Trinadad and Tobago, discussed how development policies were suffering from an overdose of “triumphalist language” that promotes gender equality as an achievable goal.The path to empowerment, Parpart reflected, isn’t as simple as women’s entry into places where they were previously excluded. Consider Condoleeza Rice: did her presence produce empowerment and destabilize the sexist bent of the US administration? Parpart argued Rice’s senior position speaks more for her personal qualities than progress for women in general: “[Rice] played the game better than most of them.”While development agencies pursue such easily measurable goals as inclusion into political office, Parpart said they ignore contexts where that inclusion doesn’t produce the desired effect. In South Africa, she pointed out, women’s political participation was among the highest in the world – but so were levels of violence against women. Sometimes women’s inclusion into institutions doesn’t resolve the deep-seated problems of gender equality.According to Parpart, development policies were simplified into technical and measurable goals that prevent nuanced understanding of empowerment. Instead of seeing gender empowerment as a clear-cut issue, to be measured and calculated, development agencies needed to take a cue from feminist scholarship.Parpart said that the women’s movement needs to be seen as subtle and diverse, appearing in places development agencies might not recognize. Empowerment can be seen in young women expressing sexuality and wearing makeup as an act of resistance to their fathers, or in women who choose to wear the veil, she pointed out. Taking into account a variety of resistances, said Parpart, could help achieve the transformative change that development practices have yet to see. Karlotta James, an undergraduate in the International Relations program, went even further than Parpart in criticizing development practices. “We need to see gender mainstreaming in our own societies before we can enact gender mainstreaming in third-world countries,” she said.
After her lecture, professor Parpart sat down with the Varsity to talk nationalism, how cultural differences collide with feminism, and flexible interpretations of empowerment.The Varsity: In your lecture, you mentioned that you see nationalism as having been ‘hijacked’ by masculinity. Can you envision a feminist nationalism?Jane Parpart: While it is certainly possible to have a feminist nationalism, since militarism and conflict tends to be gendered masculine, the tendency is for women in nationalist movements to identify more with masculine values rather than the reverse. The history of nationalism as a means for liberating women and improving gender relations is dismal — unfortunately.TV: How should development agencies and scholars deal with their links to political, economic, and social structures which may have caused or exacerbated the problems which they are trying to remedy e.g. US-affiliated development agencies in Afghanistan?JP: This is a very hard question to answer because it probably depends on situations. Some organizations can distance themselves, perhaps best by linking up with local people/organizations. But sometimes it is impossible. But it is something that has to be thought about — carefully. TV: How would you recommend development agencies address the critique of their gendered development work as a civilizing mission of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (to quote Gayatri Spivak). JP: This again is very complicated because development agencies have certainly used the idea that brown men often mistreat their women as a reason for northern interventions. At the same time, romanticizing all brown (or white) men as angels is clearly a problem. Again, I think this is a type of intervention that needs to be lead by local women and their allies, as they are the ones who have the right to say who is impeding their ambitions and desires. TV: You mentioned that there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of gender empowerment, and that practices which liberal feminists might label as patriarchal could actually be recognized as empowering. Is there a universal standard at which you would draw the line and argue that certain practices can never be empowering? Is it possible to have a flexible understanding of gender equality while maintaining such a universal standard?JP: I know that one has to be sensitive to difference and cultural practices, but it seems to me that there are practices that can be seen as universally detrimental to women — such as female genital cutting, the loss of control over one’s body. I know this is controversial, and my point is that in an imperfect world, women often have to adopt very limited forms of resistance to patriarchal authority (and its female allies), and that that resistance has to be acknowledged rather than dismissed as disempowering, but that does not mean there are no universal standards that can be drawn. This is my own take on the matter as it is a continuing debate.