Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.