When Naila Kabeer entered the academic world of economics, she found herself in what she calls a gender-free zone. Feminism was something to learn about outside of the classroom. Today, she is one of the founders of feminist economics, working for integrating gender and development perspectives into policy processes.
Across the world, women shoulder the majority of unpaid household and care work. They are less likely than men to hold paid jobs and when they do, they often find themselves in low-paid, vulnerable conditions. As a result, the majority of people living in poverty are women. Their lack of economic rights is a major barrier to achieving gender equality: it prevents women from entering politics, escaping abuse, and influencing decisions that impact them.
For Naila Kabeer, this is at the heart of feminist economics:
“I didn’t always use the language of economic rights or economic empowerment. But from the very beginning I saw material dependency as one of the foundations of patriarchal subordination.”
Patriarchal subordination: a system that assigns disproportionate power and privilege to men as a group and a subordinate position to women as a group. Women’s lack of economic rights and their economic dependency is a central part of this system.
Born in Kolkata, India, in the turbulent years following the end of British rule, Naila Kabeer had to move to Bangladesh with her parents at a very young age. When asked how she ended up in the field of economics, Naila thinks back to her mother:
”I grew up with a very activist mother. She always thought that she could be as good as any man. One of the reasons I think I chose to study economics was that it was a very male dominated subject. I didn’t know anything about it, but I quite liked the fact that I was going to enter male territory.”
Today, Naila is Professor for Gender and Development at the London School of Economics—an institution that she first joined as an undergraduate student of economics four decades ago, when it was what she described as a ‘gender-free zone’.
“There were lots of men and lots of women there obviously. But it was a very masculine learning environment. I had to learn about feminism outside the classroom, on the streets, in the bar, coffee rooms and so on,” says Naila.
By the time Naila had registered for a PhD, the highest academic degree, she had become involved in feminism and realised that the traditional models and theories she was being taught in the economics department did not resonate with her.
“They had no bearing on the real world,” she says. “It was all formal models and survey data—and not even survey data you had collected yourself.”
For Naila, mainstream economics refuses to see the world as it is—instead, it tries to capture it in numbers, focusing exclusively on things that can be measured and monetised. This means that categories such as women’s unpaid work or the environment have been largely excluded from economic models.
After finishing her PhD, Naila joined the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex. This allowed her to combine her experiences having grown up in Bangladesh with her interest in feminism. It was here that Naila became involved in developing pathbreaking approaches for integrating gender and development perspectives into policy processes over the coming years.
Unlike mainstream economics, Naila explains, feminist economics tries to acknowledge the world as it is. It operates with the assumption that it is in the interests of those with power to constantly define the status quo as natural or God-given—or, as in mainstream economics, the product of individual effort and initiative.
This means that power structures are made invisible, as is the value created by those without power. This includes the unpaid work that women do to sustain and reproduce their families and the labour force. Feminist economics also takes on an intersectional perspective: it recognises that categories such as class, race or sexuality can lead to women, as well as well as men, being affected and excluded in different ways.
“Gender is never absent from any aspect of our lives, but it operates differently depending on where we are positioned in the socio-economic hierarchy,” says Naila.
For Naila, the economic—or material—dimension is one of the foundations of women’s subordination across the world. Material resources are critical for people to make decisions about the things that matter to them, both in their homes and in the larger society. That is why women’s rights in the economy are a root pathway to empowerment even in other spheres of their lives.
“[Traditional] economics refuses to acknowledge that choices are not always a choice, that they are a response to the lack of choices. They refuse to understand that a lot of things that women do, they do because they have been denied the possibility of realising that another world is possible. That is why creating different vantage points for women to reflect on their situation is crucial.”
One example Naila uses frequently to illustrate this comes from the Dominican Republic:
“When farms there began to grow flowers for the emerging export market, a lot of women worked as unpaid labour on their family farms. But as some also took up wage labour on neighbouring farms, they began to realise the market value of their labour. They started to claim part of the proceeds from their family farms as a form of ‘wage’. These claims were not made by women who only worked as unpaid family labour.”
This, says Naila, is a very simple example of the importance of different vantage points from which you can start to question the routine, taken-for-granted practices.
Both individual and collective empowerment are crucial for creating change when it comes to women’s economic rights. External actors, such as development NGOs and women’s rights organisations, can be useful allies in providing support for marginalised groups to engage in collective action: for example, by offering space for reflection and the resources they need to act on their own behalf.
But to create a truly feminist economic future, we must re-think our understanding of the economy. Putting the care of people and the care of the planet at the centre, Naila says, a feminist well-being economy would have to rest on a bedrock of democracy. It would have to include as key elements the investment in human care and capabilities, universal social protection, fiscal justice, and the reconceptualization of growth as a means to achieve these ends—rather than as an end in itself.
”So, our struggle is both to imagine a better world and then to sell it.”