A feminist ethical commitment to empowerment relates to a belief that research conducted for women should “honour the voices of participants…create opportunities for reciprocal learning, and most importantly… empower participants to change the conditions of their lives” (Kirsch 1999, p. 3).
In the case of feminist research, commitment to empowerment often involves fostering opportunities for individuals and groups who have historically been denied access to power, including women, as well as those marginalized along lines of class, race, sexuality or ability to represent their own realities and redress the harmful effects of patriarchal, imperialistic and other oppressive social structures (Falconer Al-Hindi and Kawabata 2002, p. 105).
However, ‘empowerment’ is a complicated idea. Think critically about the power relations operating when you try to practice this principle.
In her book, ‘Muddying the Waters’ (2014), Richa Nagar draws attention to the need to question “the discursive practices associated with projects of poor women’s empowerment”. Specifically, she challenges the “agendas of donor-sponsored global feminisms” and the ways in which ideas of “professionalism and expertise” serve to reinforce “elitism, casteism, and communalism in women’s development organisations…in the name of saving the monolithic “woman-as-victim” – the new globalized, subaltern “woman” who is the subject of justice (through “expert” intervention)…” (2014, p. 127).
Reflecting on her experience of working with the Sangtin Writers Collective, a group of nine grassroots activists in Sitapur, India, to co-write the book Sangtin Yatra, Nagar explains the process of “empowerment through dialogue”:
“The collaboration finds its shape, substance, and meaning through an evolving process that challenges the framing rationales of donor-driven NGOs. The idea that poor women must be empowered through “feminism” – as defined and taught to them by “experts” – is challenged by a process in which everyone’s needs and priorities are continuously interrogated and negotiated with the goal of creating a level playing field, however impossible it might be to create such a field” (2014, p. 131).