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Title Reflections on Gender
Author Shahid Ashrif
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Sexism




Being in India on holiday afforded me the distance and time to reflect upon issues of gender, poverty, social class and of ‘race’. Why is this of relevance to community/youth workers? My analyses are offered to broaden the understanding of readers (- and certainly more extensive reading is required than that offered on the MA/BA courses at De Montfort University-) with a view to more effective service delivery to the groups/communities they facilitate. In the end if we do not take on board the kinds of analyses appearing in the literature, and incorporate its implications in terms of the manner we work with oppressed groups, we are unlikely to be effective and our notions of empowerment remain mere good intentions.

In the first of the series of reflections, I put forward some less conventional analyses of gender.

The Co-operative Movement

While the hurdles facing gender equality in India are huge, it is worth mentioning that India does have a vigorous feminist movement. The feminist movement’s slogan of Jago aur jagao (awake, and awaken others) has been practised through organised protests that have had at times to face lathi (baton) charges from the police. At the political level, the Lower House of parliament, the Lok Sabha has been considering legislation to reserve a percentage of seats for women. The Labour Party in Britain has refused to countenance such a measure despite the fact that several other EU countries have done so and thereby achieved nearly equal representation of men and women in their parliamentary bodies. (It is worth mentioning that female representation in Westminster has actually declined in the wake of Labour’s second term in office.) Women in India have and continue to play a vital role in the strong environmental movement because they recognise that deforestation, the building of dams (and the consequent flooding of villages) has a bearing on family life as well as impacts on women more directly because of the roles they play in the economy of village life. In many rural areas, it has been women who have played a major role in understanding and publicising the impact of environmental degradation on peoples’ way of life and livelihood. The proposed Kaiga-Narendra power line, for instance, will require 150,000 trees in over 520 acres of forest to be felled despite the fact that that the Bedti and Kali valleys are an area of biodiversity that is already under severe stress due to the construction of dams and mining activity (Habbu 2001). Meanwhile, the advice given by the British government’s Overseas Development Agency (ODA) continues along colonial lines and pays little heed to the needs of the either the local Indian working in forestry or the country as a whole (Seabrook IRR). [More about the ODA will follow in a later article.]

The strong co-operative movement in India has much to teach the West and its exploitative forms of capitalism. Even here, there is a gender dimension because co-operatives can empower women through both politicisation as well as their involvement in the market place. For instance, 2 million women across 10,000 villages generate 50 million Rupees through co-operatives producing milk sold to the company Amul. It is noticeable that despite New Labour’s push to enroll more young people in entrepreneurship, there is little mention of the setting up of co-operatives despite the fact that the north of England (particularly Rochdale) has always claimed to be the birthplace of the co-operative movement. Apart from assuaging some of the worst aspects of capitalism, co-operatives should be of interest to youth/community workers since they are community based initiatives that genuinely empower the poor and working class people.1 The impact of co-operatives and their grassroots base is exemplified in the story reported in The New Indian Express of August 15, which tells of village near Pune that 14 years ago produced 250 litres of milk, but now produces 6,000 litres a day. The local people visited the Agricultural University at Rahuri and learned new methods to milk cows and how to market them. Back in the village, every family was asked to donate Rs.11 (more if better off) to support the move to the setting up a co-operative (Datta 2001). The village today has six co-operatives and generates an income of Rs. 60,000.

Recent Indian government proposals regarding co-operatives have been criticised by the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, Mr. Srinivasa who accused the Karnataka State government of tampering with regional co-operative societies and attempting to destroy their democratic character (The Hindu, August 15, 2001). The co-operative institutions generate a revenue of Rs.300 million for the government which has not invested any money in them.

Gender & Cultural Dimensions

While gender inequality exists in every country, it is worth considering that some of the manifestations of gender inequality are dictated by cultural factors. Why for instance in Britain are there so few female cab/taxi drivers despite the fact that a substantial number of women are able drivers? It is noticeable that many traditionally dressed Indian women brave the difficult traffic on motorbikes but in marked contrast women motorbikers in Britain are rare. While in Britain it would be very rare to see women employed in mending roads or working on building sites, in India, these activities are routinely undertaken by women. Of course it could be argued that this has less to do with gender equality and more to do with the fact that the work involved is hard manual labour and women are often the ‘beasts of burden’. (Does this mean that British men by excluding women from work on roads and building sites are actually dictating what a woman’s role is, as distinct from that of men?) Yet the hard work of ploughing fields using oxen is essentially a male occupation in India. Women are very much involved in agriculture but their roles involve tending the crops, assisting in reaping and subsequently preparing the produce for consumption or the market place. The pattern in Africa is similar. In many parts of Africa, however, women are the main market traders – not men! Under the old USSR, women comprised at least half the doctors in the Soviet Union, while in Britain women were and still are more poorly represented in the medical profession. A more sophisticated analysis might suggest that the reason why so many Soviet women were doctors is linked to the fact that, in contrast to the West, the medical profession in the Soviet Union had a low status. That however does not negate my point about cultural factors since they help determine the status of various professions and occupations. The status of teachers in India is very high (- although they are poorly paid-) but the gender balance in the profession is not weighted towards women. 

Unlike in Britain, women’s cricket in India is very popular and in addition, many women not only follow men’s cricket on radio/television but also can talk about it knowledgeably. So how are we to explain this state of affairs in India? What are we to make of the attitude of women to sport, particularly football? The FA still has mediaeval views about women participating in football. When teachers in primary schools try hard to ensure that girls not only have an opportunity to play football and often play in mixed gender teams the FA sets its face against such moves. Physically there is little significant difference in weight and size between pre-teen males and females. In the early years of puberty, females are actually bigger than their male counterparts. These facts however are ignored by the FA in its stance about women and football.   Equally, why in the US, a country allegedly sensitive to gender issues do we still have only young attractive, scantily clad females acting in the role of cheerleaders? Are men not capable of leading cheers? Why is membership of cheerleading teams so highly rated and competition for places so fierce?

What are the implications of that awful American phrase  ‘You guys’ when it is applied to people regardless of the gender mix? Are women being elevated to the status of ‘honorary’ males? – Or if the phrase is an attempt to abolish gender distinctions (in certain contexts) why not say ‘You girls’? How comfortable are men going to feel about that? Why must the ‘standard’ be male? Surely there are gender neutral terms that could be used to address both males and females.


An interesting aside is that among some of the gender roles that do not conform to (Western) expectations should be added that of an Indian male’s attitudes to receiving flowers. In the West, apart from the drama/film set, most males would feel distinctly uneasy about receiving flowers as a birthday gift from a female well wisher. In India, flowers are routinely given and received as gifts by both males and females.  What is the likely response of a young White working class male to receiving a bouquet of flowers on his birthday from one his male friends? Furthermore, we forget that the notion and practice of gender equality among working class White communities is not on par with moves in this direction among middle class families.

The world’s first female Prime Minister was Golda Mier in Israel, and the second, Indira Gandhi in India – long before Mrs. Thatcher ever took her place in British history. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan have all had women Prime Ministers (- in fact the former two countries are still headed by women -) despite all the stereotypes we have about those nations. Why is it that the US which claims to have done a great deal in terms of legislation and changing public attitudes towards gender equality failed so far to produce either a woman Vice President or a President? If one were to examine the gender breakdown of the governorships in the various states of the union, it would become obvious that women are under-represented in these important political posts and yet these posts are the stepping stones to the presidency. Why does this state of affairs continue to exist and just how legitimate is it for western nations to criticise gender inequality in Developing Countries? India has some very strong females heading up the state parliaments, as in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. If there are any lesson in any of this, it is this: the US and the West generally do not occupy any moral high ground from which to lecture other nations about gender inequality; the West’s perceptions of gender inequality outside the First World, are still contaminated with racist perceptions and generalisations. Even assumptions about male psychology that might be interpreted as universal, such as road rage are not valid. One has only to take car or bus ride in any Indian town to realise that despite vehicles weaving in and out of lanes without signaling, roundabouts being a free-for-all, as far as traffic goes, the Indian driver appears to be immune to road rage.

Young People & Gender Equality

As in Britain, the attitudes of young women on gender equality are changing more rapidly than among men. In Britain, the rising achievement levels among young women that are leaving young men far behind, is not automatically converted to success in the jobs market, but nevertheless there has been much written about the impact of this on men’s self esteem, and their traditionally expected role of being the breadwinners. It is easy to become caught up in the stereotypes of Indian women in society and forget that attitudes are changing rapidly there too. According to three studies from market research by NFO-MBL India, 42% boys in the 15-19 age group believe they would have been better off as girls! (This is based upon a sample of 2,000 adolescents across India.) Interestingly 99% of girls expect to work, with 77% wanting vocation-based careers. Over 70% of girls are confident they can become the principal breadwinner. In contrast, boys fear that hierarchical structures biased in their favour are going to be substituted by those favouring women.2 Interestingly, only 41% of young men want professional women as wives. Despite the views expressed by young women about becoming breadwinners, over 50% of them still feel the kitchen is a woman’s domain. While 40% of young women are confident about reaching the top, only 30% of men feel the same. More women are optimistic about opting for higher studies than boys. Nearly 80% women are confident they will own a house with 60% sure of owning a car (Sachdeva 2001).

The reason for drawing the reader’s attention to this is that it is commonly held by various pundits and other White people that Black (- particularly Asian-) communities experience tensions because of the emergent independence and assertion of young women in antagonism to the values of their parents’ generation. Apparently, this newly discovered independence of thought and emergent feminism among Black females is due to the British schooling system. This is just another boast about the West’s alleged cultural superiority. A thorough examination of gender inequality in Britain would demonstrate the fact that despite the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay Act passed during the mid-1970s, women still lag far behind in terms of equal pay for equal work, women are under-represented in positions of political and economic power, domestic violence against women is at levels that require the government to take major initiatives to address the problem.  Gender equality is a task in progress – not something that has been achieved anywhere on this planet.

Girl Power, MTV & Cinema

The slogan of the Spice Girls was girl power3, and although many others jumped on the bandwagon, few people hesitated long enough to examine this idea in the light of the genuine struggles of the feminist movement. These notions of girl power were not only superficially based, but were also racist in their framing. Despite the overwhelming influence of Black American music through Tamla Motown, and later the Philadelphia sound, many young White female singers seem to have forgotten or simply ignored the fact that girl power first manifested itself in all-girl bands like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas etc. This is of course despite the much earlier appropriation of African music and dance (Fryer 2001) and the enormous influence of African American music on White bands in both Britain and the US (Gilroy 1987). Despite this, Black musicians/singers have felt excluded enough from the annual rounds of awards to set up there own MOBO award ceremonies to celebrate Black achievement in the popular music field. It is also worth mentioning that the talk of new ‘boy bands’ forgets to mention that they too have their origins in Black boy bands of the 50s, 60s and 70s. You might have even noticed that the co-ordinated dance moves and gestures are copied from Black boy bands that in my heydays of the 60s and 70s were ridiculed by my White peers.

In the light of the discussion about gender equality, I find it disconcerting that young woman do not appear to be commenting very much about the impact of MTV (and similar channels) on issues of gender equality. (Perhaps ‘ladette’ behaviour leaves little time for such analyses.) It could not have escaped even a cursory viewer’s notice that a great deal of the video footage accompanying pop music portrays women almost exclusively as sex objects. Very often the women are either barely-clothed, or dressed to excentuate sexuality – and always the women chosen are lithesome and writhe provocatively making clear their purpose - mere decoration.4 The music is not necessarily enhanced by these sexual images but they have become de rigeur in pop videos. Perhaps MTV viewers will have noticed the ‘re-branding’ of Kyle Minogue and a few other popular female artistes as far more sexualised performers. Artistes, particularly women are more likely to ‘sellable’ if they conform to a particular look but one that lays a great emphasis on looks at the expense of singing talent. The rise of mediocrity is an apt way to characterise these trends in popular music where many modern bands not only do not write their own songs but also re-record past classics, even if it means ripping out the hearts of them. It was only recently after all that the song “I’m going to Barbados” with its lyrics about estrangement and racism faced in England was converted into some sort of Club Mediterranean anthem, about going to Ibiza. This appropriation serves no purpose other than profit but is a small matter compared to the appropriation of African music and dance mentioned earlier. Young women today who are often very forthright about issues of gender equality might have been expected to be more vociferous about their portrayal as mere sex objects. Or has the popularisation of post-modernist feminist ideas reached the level where women means that they can be equal and be sex objects simultaneously – in order that the capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies through the burgeoning pornography, escort agencies and prostitution can continue? There is little consideration given to the role of MTV in the commercial exploitation of the young, the sexualisation of pre-teens and the role of such broadcast channels in the general trend towards globalisation and the domination of the world by Western musical forms. This can be seen in the penetration of satellite/cable television into India, Japan and China – countries with their own musical traditions and moral sensibilities. However, MTV does not just carry music into the homes of non- European cultures, but also carry values – values that Suraiya characterises as multiple channel credo of “I, me, mine” (Suraiya 2001).   It cannot have escaped the attention of viewers that numerous television programmes, (- many in the guise of reality televisions -) some allegedly in documentary format, are merely thinly disguised adverts for the sex industry catering for the prurient interests of mostly males.5 The pornography industry in the West, particularly in the US, has managed to put forward the view that the women involved in this industry are ‘sex workers’ and that women in the Third World servicing the needs of Western and Japanese businessmen and tourists, fall into the same category.

The major theme of popular music in all cultures has been romance, although the 60s and early 70s saw an upsurge in music addressing social issues like war, drug taking and the environment. Western readers are probably unaware that a great deal of traditional Hindu devotional music in Indians also contains themes of romance, except the subject of love and adoration is often a deity like Krishna. In the context of gender issues, it is known that in the late 1800s during colonial rule, a famous poem about Krishna’s relationship with a woman was re-worked by early Indian feminists to portray the love affair from a woman’s perspective. The out-raged British administrators with their firm Victorian ideas of gender roles and dread of sexuality banned the publication of the poem.6

Indian cinema in the last five years has been particularly obsessed with romantic themes. The heydays of when Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world, was equally concerned about social issues have disappeared. The characters are larger than life while their mantra is ‘enjoy life’ Hedonism is the new credo of Bollywood (Salam 2001). The internalised notions of inferiority compared to the West still leads to many Indians (in Britain and in the subcontinent) underestimating the craft and impact of Indian cinema in comparison with Hollywood. Then again, India has not only ‘mirch masala’ films but also a thriving and admirable alternate cinema that would be the envy of many countries. But what is important is that social issues have been raised in popular cinema despite its formulaic format.7

Post-independence Indian cinema threw itself into social issues and the re-affirmation of Indian identity through the screening of historical and traditional stories, some drawn from the Hindu holy books of the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. The 1950s and 60s saw the emergence of nationalistic and socially meaningful films, with the 70s featuring the angry young man but the 80s and 90s saw a strong return to romance (Shedde 2001). Films like Sujaata explored caste in newly independent India but the theme of women and their independence has been ever present in one form or another. Many films dealt with the issue of poverty and wealth and how these matters were to be tackled. Although this theme was explored in the now classic Mother India, re-released in the 1980s, it also explored the issue of caste, as did the film Do Bigha Zameen. Eeshwar explored the taboo subject of widow marriage, but had been preceded a decade earlier by Kali Patang, dealing with the same subject (Salam 2001). Indian popular cinema has dealt with other women’s issues ranging from violence against women in Daman, dowry deaths in Yeh Aag Kub Bujaygee rape in marriage in Astitva and many other related gender themes. Community/youth workers need to be aware that many of these films and their themes will be familiar to Asian communities in Britain through video outlets and cinemas.

Sex education

Despite the sexual images bombarding young people, the Brooke Advisory Service, Family Planning Association and other organisations continue to lament the lack of appropriate sex education for young people. Young people may have fragmentary knowledge about sexual matters and may well focus on less significant aspects. Community/youth workers frequently address the issue of sex education with the groups they facilitate. However, this work needs to be undertaken with care to ensure anti-oppressive ways of working. Values conflict may arise over the content and pedagogy of sex education, as well as about its ideological premises. Sex education can generate different attitudes and expecta­tions about individual freedom and responsibility when expression, regulation and control of sexual behaviour is raised.

Many books about health and sex education are underpinned by secular and liberal values which stress the impor­tance of developing the autonomy of the individual. It is assumed that individuals have and can make responsible choices. Those who have strong reli­gious beliefs may not regard choice in the same manner as liberals. Until recently, there has been inadequate locus on the complex issues raised for sex education in a plural society. (Amin 1990)

It is helpful to explore some of the ideals and beliefs found in religious traditions about sexuality. With the decline in church attendance and the adherence to strict Christian values within society as well as the emergence of New Age religions, community workers cannot make assumptions anymore about the religious/moral values even of their White clients. This presents genuine problems not only for issues related to sexual relationships and health but also for a whole range of behaviours. In past articles I have referred to the importance of notions of community in mediating certain anti-social actions and I want to argue that this is applicable to sexual behaviour too. There have always been tensions between ideas of individuality and freedom and the adherence and commitment to the community good. Yet without notions of community, collective responsibility and the collective good, there is little point to or basis for society. Because large sections of White society have gone overboard in terms of individuality at the expense of community, it ought not to be assumed all communities necessarily subscribe to such values.  Community/youth workers might find it helpful not to neglect some of the positive ideals found in religions that celebrate sexual expression within committed relationships. It is noticeable that it is the prohibitive aspects of religions in relation to sexuality that are most often remembered by people. However, it is important to look beyond these to the core values that religions point to - such as equality, respect, reverence, fidelity, and trust. It is for community/youth workers to utilise creatively such concepts in delivering sex education, paying due attention to the need for all young people to be able to learn, in the first instance, about such matters in a safe and single gender environment.

In conclusion, community/youth workers need to careful about their assumptions about the communities/groups they serve. Gender roles are more complex than are often realised and they are in a state of flux with many apparent contradictions. Assumptions about certain groups cannot always be applied to all similar groups, because there is diversity of beliefs and practices within faith groups. Stereotypical images of passive Asian women with domineering husbands or fathers need to be jettisoned for a more complex analysis that takes account of ongoing struggles, social class and the impact of racism upon gender relations.

In my next essay I hope to address issues of racism, globalisation and poverty.

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Revised: February 16, 2002 .

References & Recommended Reading


1.                   One of London’s most famous curry houses, Lal Kila, was set up in the 1980s as a co-operative.

2.                   It would appear that notions of reverse sexism are common to both India and Britain.

3.                   They were neither ‘girls’ nor did they have any real power within the music market.

4.                   Good looks in a sexual partner are no guarantee of sexual ecstasy between the sheets!

5.                   What is on offer is not the erotica that some women have extolled over the demerits of male orientated pornography.

6.                   See Open University’s television broadcast, Culture and Imperialism.

7.                   Any analyses of Hollywood cinema would uncover the fact that it also regularly uses set formulae and predictable story lines.


Amin, K (1990) Values conflicts in a plural society: the case of sex education in schools, London: Runnymede Trust

Datta, S (2001) “Little village milks its way to success”; The New Indian Express, Bangalore edition, August 15

Fryer, P (1998) The ‘discovery’ and appropriation of African music and dance; Race & Class Vol. 39, No. 3; Institute of Race Relations

Gilroy, P (1987) “Diaspora, utopia and the critique of capitalism” in There’s No Black In The Union Jack; London: Routledge

Habbu, R.S (2001) “Greens oppose Kaiga-Narendra power line”; The Hindu

Sachdeva, S.D (2001) “Girl power is in, and even boys want it”; The Sunday Times, Bangalore: August 19

Salam, Z.U (2001) “When money alone matters”; The Hindu: Friday Review, August 24

Seabrook, J (1996) Development as colonialism: the ODA in India; Race & Class Vol. 37, No.4; Institute of Race Relations

Shede, M (2001) “No sex, no violence…too drab for box-office”; The Sunday Times, Bangalore, August 19

Suraiya, J (2001) “Illiberal Liberalisation’; Times of India: August 11

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