Spices and women’s empowerment: I have been surprised


Devika MenonDevika Menon

I’m currently undertaking a work-based learning placement as part of the IDS MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and it has been one and a half months since I have started working at the Masala Center, or Spice Center, located in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. The aroma and feel of the spices is making this experience even better. My favorites are cumin seeds and dry mango powder.

I have developed bonds of friendship with the 14 women who work here. I have been documenting oral narratives, trying to gauge whether working here leads to their empowerment – at an individual and collective level. Many women at the center have been working here for over 15 years, spending most of their adult lives at the center. I had come in with many questions and the notion that the center would have sub-standard working conditions, the workers would have no knowledge of their rights, and would be completely disempowered. My time here has proven me wrong and I have been surprised by the women’s empowerment through their jobs

To begin with, working at the center is economically empowering. Through the money they earn, women are able to both run their households (in the case of female headed households), as well as support their family income. Expenses include rent, rations[monthly provisions], school fees, etc. They also have bank accounts, with savings facilities. As said by Roopa Devi, 40 years, ‘(Out of a monthly salary of Rs. 7900-approx. 88 pounds) I spend it all on rations, Rs. 500 (approx. 6 pounds) goes to the bank. I will make a house in my village with this money’.

Apart from these routine expenses, women are also able to use this money for themselves. Seema Devi says, ‘I can say that I am no longer dependent on anyone for money, I don’t need to look elsewhere. I can make my own clothes and jewelry now’.

This suggests that working at the center has enabled their children’s education, given them freedom of choice and made them more economically independent.

Another facet of individual empowerment is the value and respect these women get in society for their work. As Seema Devi further says ‘My relatives actually respect me for this work, because I can run the house with the money I earn at the centre. I am no more frightened of anyone, whether it is someone senior or junior to me’.

She is supported by Prem, 40 years: ‘No one is desperate once they start working, they can stand on their own two feet, and my children are being educated and well brought up. It’s good that I work, my needs are being met’.

This work is also emotionally empowering as well, as the center provides a space forinterview picture resized these women to vent their frustrations and share their joys and sorrows. Some of them come from troubled homes or from single income families, others they have children with health problems and some suffer from depression. By coming together and talking openly about their problems, these women are able to overcome their grief.

In the words of Gyani Devi, ‘When I come here, my tension reduces. When I go home, the same problems start again. A married son should be able to run the house, but there is no one to do that as he is ailing. All the money goes in his treatment. Laughing and crying is a part of life. But why should we cry? What is the point of that? When I come here, we laugh and make jokes together. That is why I never take holidays’.

The physical space is quite large and airy. The women have individual grinding wheels and enough mortar-pestles and sieves to work with. They also have a courtyard where spices are packed as well as a terrace for drying them. This goes against my initial viewpoint that they have sub-standard working conditions.

As far as workers rights are concerned, many of these women have joined the organised sector for the first time. They are able to raise their issues with the management, and have managed to considerably increase their wages over the years. This clearly shows their collective empowerment.

Apart from working at the center, I have also interviewed other women like my grandmother, two female chefs, one domestic help, and one working woman. Their views have also provided interesting insights into preparing and sharing food. All these women gain respect through sharing and preparing food, but for those whom cooking is livelihood, the relationship is different. They feel that cooking is a job for them, whereas for women who cook at home, it is also seen as an avenue to release their tension.

I still have a lot more questions to ask – do these women at the center have any attachment to any specific spice? If they were not doing this work, what would they like to do? Is there anything else that they want to tell me?

I hope these questions are answered by the time I write my next blog entry…

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Watch a short video about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change and read other recent blogs:


The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality


Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

As legislative battles for same-sex equality have rumbled on in western countries over the last fifteen years, each successive victory has concentrated attention increasingly upon gay marriage as the lodestone issue around which everything else orbits. This narrow focus is becoming increasingly problematic for sexual rights movements in the Global South and for those of us concerned with gender and sexual plurality within the UK.

Significantly, those working to rid the statute books of discrimination are increasingly crossing party-political borders. Current Conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron, facilitated last week’s attainment of legalised UK same-sex civil marriage. The British Government are not outliers in this regard – in the teeth of unexpectedly robust opposition, France also legalised gay marriage in the last couple of months, and the US Supreme Court successfully ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), opening up space for state by state marriage equality to blossom. Political discourse around homosexuality has been transformed irrevocably in the West and is prized increasingly as a signifier of modernity amongst politicians.

The passing of this Bill hasn’t stymied scepticism around Cameron’s motives by equality activists, bloggers and in the Twitter-sphere. Yet in fairness to him, Cameron has invested more political capital in this issue than he needed or could afford. Alongside the continuing antagonism towards European Union membership, gay marriage has become a significant rupture point between him, his backbenchers and party activists. I’d argue, however, that supporting gay marriage could prove in the longer term to be an astute call for social conservatives in sidelining the radical edge of sexual minorities.

On a personal note, I have mixed feelings about last week’s news. Whilst dismantling inequitable laws that discriminate against same-sex individuals is always laudable and something I’ve personally championed in my own activism, there is a nagging feeling that alongside the positive and affirming evolution this will bring to wider society’s acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage could succeed in closing down debate about alternative relationship models and family structures, already struggling to gain acceptance and airtime.

Folding same-sex monogamous marriage into a state-sanctioned model that provides institutional clout, tax breaks and economic advantages could serve to homogenize groups that have traditionally represented a challenge to established thinking around the family. The political struggles of the LGBT movement have always been grounded in an existential challenge to gender essentialism and a heteronormativity that suffocates heterosexual people just as completely as queer folk. Twenty years ago, our opponents attacked us for our promiscuity, now they oppose us for aspiring to a relationship model that has become increasingly problematic. Alongside the growth of individualism, consumerism and globalization, an interchangeable western gay identity ‘The Gay International’ is taking root that is squeezing out the economically disadvantaged, ossifying gender behaviours and invisibilising alternative models of sexual-ness from the Global South.

Similarly, Cameron’s off the cuff comments in the last few days about ‘exporting the bill team’ who worked to help pass the legislation into law has already drawn the British Government into another round of conflict with southern sexual rights activists, who are already seeing the first signs of a renewed media and political backlash in their home countries against perceived western imperialist intervention. In truth, Cameron was talking about supporting those states going down the same route as the UK rather than opponents of homosexual equality, but his poor memory over his similarly misjudged comments around aid conditionality two years ago points to him playing to the domestic audience at the expense of those at the sharp end of homophobic injustice.

Worryingly, I’m keenly aware that this stance can resonate with even the most progressive LGBT people in the UK, hearing weekly reports of violence and oppression in countries such as Russia, Uganda and Malawi. Those of us fighting for more nuanced political strategies around global sexual rights need to urgently examine how we can both hold the UK Government’s feet to the fire on these issues, but also influence the expectations and strategies demanded by ordinary constituents to reflect the needs and priorities of our partners in the Global South.

So, as the dust settles and same-sex couples begin celebrating their first marriages, we must not lose sight of the less helpful political implications to arise from same-sex marriage. Are sexual minorities becoming incorporated into a new moral straitjacket? How do we retain spaces within and without political discourse for the protection of sexual freedom, such as polyamory? Are political parties and LGBT organisations becoming imbedded in hegemonic privilege and identity politics, divorced from the marginalised, poorer voices of sexual minorities and their very material concerns? Marriage equality isn’t the end of the road for the gay rights movement, but the start of a much more complicated conversation.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:

Egypt: Growing anger with western opinion


Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

This blog has previously been posted on Open Democracy.

Selective reporting by the western media, and expert opinion predicting Egypt’s future based on the familiar pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street, are producing strong anti-western sentiment.

Which ever camp you talk to in Egypt right now, the pro or anti 30th of June revolution, there is a very strong anti-western sentiment being expressed. The supporters of former President Morsi feel betrayed by the West, who did not insist on reinstating the ‘democratically elected’ leader, and for not sufficiently defending the idea of electoral legitimacy. On Sunday pro-Morsi protestors organized marches to the US, German and other Western embassies to denounce the ‘shameful role of their countries facing the military coup’.  The supporters of the uprising against Morsi believe that the reference to the uprisings that led to the ousting of President Morsi on the 3rd of July as a ‘coup’ is an insult to the Egyptian people who rose in their millions. There is now a campaign to press for the removal of Ann Patterson, the American ambassador to Egypt.

The initial response of policy-makers, the media and analysts, to the events in Egypt and their aftermath, has galvanized large sections of the population to take a strong stance against those who work in policy influencing spaces in the west. During the past two weeks, I have been receiving commiserations from people around me in the UK regarding the state of my country, Egypt. And no wonder, western policy makers have us believe that the country is on the brink of a civil war, the media tell us that there is a backlash against democracy, and academics insist that this is déjà vu: coups ousting democratically elected governments are bound to produce the most virulent strands of dictatorships.

That the initial American response to the ousting of President Morsi was to use all measures to try and reinstate the status quo is no secret. According to El Watan newspaper a meeting was held between Ann Patterson, the US ambassador in Cairo, and some Salafi groups, shortly after the uprisings of  30th June, 2013. According to the article, Anne Patterson asked the Salafis to obstruct the moves towards forming a new government until the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned to negotiate, assuring them that in a matter of days Morsi would be reinstated. The Watan article also mentioned a conversation between Ann Patterson and Abdul Fattah el Sissi, Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, in which she asked him to hold negotiation talks with the Brothers. He objected and told her that she was just an ambassador, and neither she nor her country had any right to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. Patterson answered that ‘this puts us closer to the Syrian scenario’.

Egypt on the brink of a civil war has been one of the main messages conveyed by the western media.  The country is portrayed as divided into the pro and anti factions, as if they have roughly equal followers and are of the same political weight. However, this is a distortion of the situation on the ground. The fact that is that the spatial quarters in which the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers protested (Rab’a el Adaweya and Midan el Nahda) can at best hold no more than a few hundred thousand people.

This cannot be compared to the millions who took to the streets on 30th June. This should not be a numbers game, because its outcome can only be a majoritarian mentality, and democracy should be inclusive of all political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, one must be cautious not to exaggerate the political weight or constituency of a political force in order to justify why a civil war is likely.

The signals from western policy makers have not only been threatening, but punitive as well. The EU has decided this week to cancel a number of grants and loans to Egypt of more than five billion euros because of its current political scene.

The selective reporting by the western media on human rights violations in Egypt amounts to a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth. There has been a popular backlash on some of the streets of Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood which has sometimes been quite violent. The murder of 51 protestors at the Presidential Guards has been condemned by human rights organizations as being a case of security use of excessive force. The shooting of three Muslim Brothers female protestors in Mansoura by so-called thugs is a horrendous crime that has received widespread condemnation. It is also true that the security clampdowns have been sometimes ruthless and this is categorically unacceptable.

However, what the media has chosen to leave out of the equation are the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers since the 30th of June. There have been frequent assaults by militant groups on army barricades in Sinai-which have left several soldiers dead. While some may argue that this has nothing to do with the Brothers, it may be too much of a coincidence that Mohamed el Beltagui is recorded on television as saying that ‘what is happening in Sinai is a response to the military coup and will stop the minute that the…President’s powers are reinstated’

Moreover, while the Western media regularly reports on the assaults on the Brothers, there has been minimal coverage of the reprisals by pro-Morsi constituencies against the youth revolutionaries and the Copts. While sectarian violence against religious minorities increased under Mubarak and had reached new levels under Morsi, part of the targeted violence after the 30th of June was a reprisal from Muslim Brotherhood sympathsizers. In Minya on the night of 3rd July after the military had declared the ousting of President Morsi, guns were fired in the city centre of Minya by members of radical groups chanting ‘Oh what shame, the Copts have become revolutionaries‘ (ya lel ‘ar, al aqbat ba’ou thouwar). This was in reference to the role that the Copts had played as Egyptian citizens in joining in the protests calling for President Morsi’s ousting. A few days later, their properties in downtown Minya were also marked with a special sign – and threats were made that any protests in favour of the new government would  be met with attacks on the Copts.

The skewed representation of what is going on is a political act of omission. Mohamed Salmawy, one of Egypt’s most prolific writers and renowned member of the country’s intelligentsia, recently wrote in his column that he was approached by a writer for the New York Times who suggested he contribute a story with a human face about the uprising. When she received his article, she turned it down: his story of the death of a member of Tamarod did not meet the newspaper’s criteria for objectivity – yet the stories of the Brothers’ fear of persecution met the criteria.

And in the UK, it is not much better. The Guardian published a stream of articles sympathetic to the argument that with the ousting of the Brothers, the country no longer has a future. In the first two weeks, there was but one single article written from the perspective of Egyptians who have endorsed the uprising.

The same bias has been reflected in Western academic and expert opinion analysis. The argument goes that ‘political scientists are familiar with a pattern: when elected institutions with some support on the ground are removed by force, the outcome is almost never friendly to democracy. Outright military dictatorship, military domination of politics, civil war or a mix of all are all possibilities.’

Certainly one cannot rule out the possibility of all kinds of non-democratic scenarios unfolding in Egypt, but to predict that there is only a doomsday scenario awaiting the country is to fall into the trap of teleological pathways of change that political scientists seem so often to get wrong. The construction of this thesis implicitly implies equating elections with democracy. Historically this has not consistently been so, and neither has the world’s response been consistently to adopt such a stance.

The insistence on the overthrow of a democracy in Egypt omits one small fact: the same features of authoritarianism characterizing the Mubarak regime were very much reproduced during the reign of Morsi. In November 2012, President Morsi issued a presidential decree which essentially monopolized executive, legislative, judiciary powers in his hands –  which even his predecessor Mubarak had not dared issue. Even President Morsi expressed his regrets for the impact this declaration had, in his interview with the Guardian on the 29th June, 2013.  It is true he later revoked some of its articles, but only after he had managed to force through a constitution that has the support of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but which was rejected by almost every single other political force in the country.

Morsi’s year in office does not exactly boast of a respect for the basic tenets of democratic rule: press and media freedoms were constrained, women’s rights severely restricted, the country’s religious minorities saw the worst assaults on them ever, and there were highly disturbing encroachments on the independence of the judiciary. The same precursors to the January 2011 revolution could be identified in the period up to June 2013.

Further, the ‘overthrow of the people’s will’ argument is also difficult to swallow if one does basic arithmetic. According to official estimates, 13.2 million voted for Morsi, representing 51.73% of the total number of voters (though there have been serious questioning of the extent to which the elections were free and fair). This hardly amounts to a sweeping majority vote. While there is no agreed figure regarding the number of people who went out on the streets on 30th June, the fact is that the squares were packed with people across the country and not only in Cairo, suggesting perhaps that the numbers may have surpassed those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections of 2012.

Another problem with the experts’ prediction that Egypt is inevitably headed for a gloomy political predicament, has to do with the discipline of political science’s ability to make futuristic projections. Political scientists have not always got it right, in fact, many a time in history, they have got it categorically wrong. Let’s take the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Conventional political science told us for many years that the political culture in Egypt had become so depoliticized by the forces of authoritarian rule that there was no way for us to expect people to rise against the regime, and then the 25th January uprising happened. This should have been sufficient to humble the entire discipline into rethinking its methods of capturing the pulse of the citizens -yet instead we are back again to the same pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street.

The anger with the west’s media, policy-makers, and some scholars (in particular towards those associated with the US, the UK and other European countries and Turkey) may seem irrational to some, but ultimately, it raises alarm bells as to the deep rifts that are created when people practice democracy in a way incommensurate with a western transition blueprint, and are then told they are in the wrong. In this globalized world, they can hear you.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Reading riots


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain
For researchers of popular politics, at least, it is no curse to live in interesting times. The past weeks have seen:

  • The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) recognition that popular discontent derailed Greek austerity;
  • The mishandling of protests in Turkey;
  • The shaming of Rousseff in Brazil; and
  • The ouster of Morsi in Egypt.

These events are dense with meaning and hard to read (see Mariz Tadros on Egypt). How are they read? And whose readings count? A group of us have been thinking about this as we get into fieldwork for the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights project. Some stylized reflections:

  1. Clever politicians read riots closely

A politician worth her salt has an ear to the ground and an eye on the limits to popular tolerance. Governments know that energy subsidy cuts can provoke riots, and that food price spikes mean disaffected slum-dwellers or farmers. States plan for riots, bringing out the special units and sharpening their weapons and laws. Some dream up gifts for the masses, as did the Indonesian Government  when it cut the fuel subsidy in June. Politicians and governments tend to read riots closely, even if they lack the power or resources or even the desire to respond.

  1. International agencies can’t read riots

International bureaucracies don’t seem to read riots, or perhaps because they are unbothered by unpopularity, fail to interpret them correctly. This is despite the view that popular opinion can deter ‘good’ policies. The IMF acknowledged on 5 June that ‘bouts of political turmoil left doubts about domestic support for the programme’ of austerity in Greece; one wonders what standard of proof the IMF would require to be confident that its programmes lack domestic support.

  1. The media writes the riots – but with different scripts

International news media magnify riots, but without the backdrop of domestic politics, they often give a one-dimensional cartoon account (‘hunger’, ‘desperation’, etc). National reports are more politically up-close and complex (see Sneyd et al’s excellent new paper on this). The two often disagree on whether said event was a ‘riot’ in any meaningful sense.

  1. Researchers read for motivation, opportunity and response

Researchers like ourselves try to understand when and why riot-type events occur, and where and what they change. Our interest in this is much like everyone else’s: riots fascinate because they rupture the foundations of political life: they reject public authority, re-set limits reached or breached, dramatise discontent through direct action. But do they change anything? If not, why do protestors bother?

Frankly, we don’t yet know. But we will get back to you with some answers in June 2014, when our comparative research will be completed.

In the meantime, for some more blogs related to this project, see Alex Shankland’s thoughts on protests and democratic innovation in Brazil, Patta Scott-Villiers’ comments on recent threats to food rights in Kenya, or my post on the Oxfam blog about the politics of inflation. You can also follow our research on Twitter @FoodRiotsRights.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Moving beyond the North-South ‘development divide’


Katy Oswald image

Katy Oswald

Over the last five years I have visited Madrid several times each year, normally staying for a week or two with my in-laws. In the autumn/winter of 2011, I lived there for four months. My first visit was in May 2008, shortly after the start of the ‘crisis’, as it is referred to in Spain. Therefore, I have witnessed, albeit sporadically and as a visitor, the changing face of Madrid as the financial crisis of 2007/8 has morphed into an economic, social and political crisis.

I have also observed the inhabitants of Madrid, known as Madrileños, dealing with these crises in a multitude of ways, whether it be the now infamous 15M movement’s occupation of Puerta del Sol, the protests against housing evictions by the Plataforma de Afectados Por la Hipoteca, or the rise in popularity of alternative economic practices, such as time banks and cooperatives. I’ve also witnessed the more ugly face of the crisis, widespread youth unemployment, a visible increase in homelessness, a marked rise in the use of food banks, and an undercurrent of anti-immigration discourse. In the newspaper the other day, I read that unemployed men, mostly immigrants, wait on the street corners of Madrid to be picked up in trucks by gang masters who offer them low-wage work in perilous conditions, like one sees on the streets of Johannesburg, or, as my father-in-law said, as you saw on the streets of Madrid 60 or 70 years ago, in the period after the civil war.

Meanwhile, there has been an apparent crisis of governance, with the ruling Popular

citizens of Madrid protesting with placards

Citizens of Madrid protesting in Puerta del Sol against Government corruption, 9th July 2013

Party embroiled in a corruption scandal that goes to the very heart of the Party, resulting in the recent arrest of the Party’s Treasurer for embezzlement, and, for the first time, the President addressing the public via a video link! Talking to my Madrileño friends and in-laws, one gets the impression that, whilst corruption has always been tacitly accepted as part of everyday life, the level of corruption now being revealed is well beyond that tacit acceptance: a threshold of morality has been breached.

I have been witnessing all this, whilst simultaneously working on issues of ‘development’ here at IDS: poverty, inequality, accountability, food security, social movements and citizen participation. For example Patta Scott-Villiers blog on how rising food prices let to protests in Kenya, or Naomi Hossain’s work on how poor people in various country adjust to food price volatility. Yet always in what we tend to refer to as the ‘global South’.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the geography of the world has changed. Of course there are still big differences between countries in the global North and South, and being ‘poor’ in Spain is very different to being ‘poor’ in Malawi. But poverty is relative, and why should we ignore structural poverty and inequality in Spain or Greece for that matter? The issues we at IDS are interested in affect people in every country, and do not respect the artificial boundaries we create between the global North and South. So, as I sit in the stultifying heat of Madrid in July, I pose the following question to my colleagues in IDS and other ‘development’ institutions, when are we going to get over this ‘development divide’?

Katy Oswald is a Research Officer in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter: @ogmog

Read other previous blogs by Katy Oswald:

Is this that time? (Será este aquele tempo?) – Images from Brazil, words for everywhere


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Poem by akshay khanna
photographs by Luan Citele and Renan Otto

Is this that time?

Será este aquele tempo?

Is this that time?
That time foretold
in our sweaty dreams
That time
When the earth trembles
Beneath our feet
The rhythm of
A billion
Trampling underfoot
The delicate glass
Of ‘That’s just how things are’

Is this that time
When we realise
That the door
which the guard stood
Guns and towers
And coca-cola signs
Was already
And we just needed to walk through?

Is this that time when
We feel the blood
No, Not pumping through our veins
But splashing
On faces bodies gritted teeth
Like so many colours
Of a riotous holi?

Is this that time
That we will look back upon
Hear a song
And cry
Tears of neither joy nor sadness
But tears of something
That cannot be named

Come clench my hand
And let me hold yours
In this time of
Tectonic shifts
flashes of
Smoke bombs
and the screeching sound of metal
Being crushed

For this is that time
When another world is not just
She is
Already here.
Listen. Carefully in the noise.
You can hear her laughing.

Será este aquele tempo?
Aquele tempo pressagiado
em nossos sonhos suados
Aquele tempo
Em que a terra treme
Sob nossos pés
O ritmo de
Um bilião
A esfera delicada
De vidro
De ‘É simplesmente assim que as coisas são’

Será este aquele tempo?
Em que nos apercebemos
Que a porta
a qual o guarda estacou
Armas e torres
E placards da Coca-Cola
Esteve quem sabe
E simplesmente precisávamos

Será este aquele tempo em que
Sentimos o sangue
Não, Não correndo em nossas veias
Mas salpicando
Em caras corpos dentes cerrados
Na profusão de cores
De um caótico carnaval?

Será este aquele tempo
Ao qual voltaremos
E ouvindo uma melodia
Lágrimas nem de alegria
nem tristeza
Mas lágrimas de algo

Venha apertar minha mão
E me deixe segurar na sua
Nesse tempo de
Mudanças tectônicas
lampejos de
e o som estridente de metal
Sendo esmagado

Pois é este aquele tempo
em que outro mundo é não apenas
Ela já
Está aqui.
Oiça. Cuidadosamente no ruído.
Pode ouvi-la dando risadas.

akshay khanna, tradução de Pedro Miguel Patraquim