Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, October 27 2016 - Sardenberg (2010) sees women’s empowerment as a process of ‘gender rebellion’ leading to break with traditional gender roles and norms. [See reference below.] Rebellion can be seen as a refusal of obedience or order. It refers to the open resistance against the orders of an established authority.  


Building on Sardenberg’s postulation one needs to distinguish between rebellion within existing status-quo (liberal rebellion), and rebellion which challenges existing gender norms and power relations (strategic rebellion). An example of liberal rebellion is a boy or girl asserting that they would not go to school unless, ‘father’ buys them a toy gun or doll.  Strategic rebellion, on the other hand, challenges the status-quo and gendered power relations.  To give an example, a 17 year old girl in Afghanistan subject to forced marriage with a 60 year old man (as third wife) ran away from her marital home with her tailoring machine within the first week. With the assistance of the women’s group she was a member of before marriage and a brother who supported her, she was taken back by her parents. The understanding was that she would repay what was spent already as bride price through earning from tailoring (learnt with support of a NGO)   This girl rebelled against norms of forced marriage, girls not being accepted in parents’ house after marriage and girls not earning income of their own. The norms of institution of marriage and family were being challenged, through changes in individual consciousness of the girl, brother and group.  

At the same time, there are instances were women rebel against one norm collectively, and on another they become divided.  For example, women of a group in Tamil Nadu, India came together in a village on a case of sexual harassment against a woman from Backward Classes at work site, and held the man accountable. Cases of such harassment declined at least during the year that followed. Thus norms around the local work site changed at least for some time. However the same group was divided on saying no to giving or taking “dowry” (the practice of bride’s family giving cash and assets to the groom’s family). Some had only sons, some had only daughters, and some had both. The first group of women did not want to take a stand against dowry. This brings us to the point that strategic rebellion by women has to be consistent on all gender issues, and not just on some which are favourable to all. 

Another aspect is that women have multiple identities of race, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, (dis) ability, sexual orientation, gender identity etc. At times women are willing to challenge gender norms, like contest elections to local government, win seats and over time even take decisions. However, it is not uncommon to find that upper caste elected women and men make Dalit women and men elected candidates to sit on the floor during local government meeting. This is not strategic rebellion by the upper caste elected women.  Strategic rebellion entails ability to stand up for all forms of discrimination and inequalities against all women and men. 

Finally, strategic rebellion is not only about outcomes but also about process. In Bangladesh women and men were organized by the government with external support into water user’s groups and brought into market management committees. Women were formed into exclusive Labour Contract Societies who took up construction contracts. These efforts broke norms on gender division of labour and roles, gender based access to resources and brought women into decision making in markets. But it was not a bottom up rebellion by women, and how far it would be sustained remains to be seen.  A good case of women’s self-initiated rebellion is women in entertainment (singing, dancing) in Kathmandu who had organized themselves (registered body) and demanded that they are not touched without consent, get decent salary and are dropped by taxi home.  Their capacities were built by a women’s NGO for such negotiation.

To sum up, women’s empowerment can be seen as strategic rebellion, against several gender norms, against other hierarchies which affect marginalized women and in different institutions of society.  This rebellion has to be bottom up process, individual & group based and supported from outside if necessary. Alliance with gender-sensitive men may also be beneficial.  Exposure of women to such strategic rebellion by women in similar contexts needs to facilitated through media strategies and supported (not managed) from outside if necessary.   SDG 5 on “Gender Equality and Empowerment of All Women and Girls” can only be attained when spaces for women’s and girls “strategic rebellion” are facilitated. Otherwise targets on ending discrimination, ending violence, equal rights to resources, sexual and reproductive health and rights, equal access to technology etc would be elusive


Sardenberg, C. M. B., 2010, Family, Households and Women's Empowerment in Bahia, Brazil, Through the Generations: Continuities or Change? Institute of Development Studies, IDS Bulletin, 41: 88–96. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2010.00127.x, 

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