The Power of Association, by Naila Kabeer

The power of association: reflecting on women’s collective action as a force for social change

Guest post by Naila Kabeer, Professor of Development Studies, SOAS University


We live in an era of growing individualism as the doctrine of the free market takes hold in country after country across the world. The only form of power celebrated by this doctrine is the power we exercise as consumers, a very limited form of power for most of us since it depends very directly on how much money we can bring to our desire for consumption. While Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families’ may have been replaced in the UK by Cameron’s rhetoric about ‘the big society’, both are motivated by a similar hostility towards the state and a similar refusal to acknowledge our collective responsibility for each other.


Flying in the face of this rising tide of individualism is the very different notion of power embodied in the continued collective efforts of women across the world to bring about change in their own lives and in the societies in which they live. The power of association and collective action, its capacity to transform the lives and livelihoods of marginalised groups, particularly poor women in poor countries, has been a continuous thread running through the history of these countries. It has also been one of the constant themes in my own research on gender issues in development over the last 25 years or so as I have struggled to understand what it is about collective action that gives it its transformative power.


There is an uplifting element to collective action. I was reminded of this when I attended the twelfth International Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) held in Istanbul earlier this year.  Over 2000 women attended – many more would have come if the conference venue could have accommodated them. What was uplifting about the forum was the sheer diversity of issues around which women – and men – across the world were organizing: from the struggles of Kurdish women to the fight-back against anti-trafficking laws by sex workers’ organisations, from women struggling to find their voice in the trade union movement to the disability groups’ demand for recognition and rights.


What was equally inspiring were the efforts of the conference organisers to be as inclusive as possible, to ensure respect for difference. It is one of the commonplaces of the women’s movement that ‘women are not a homogenous category’, that they are divided by their class, race, location and all the other markers of difference. That they can nevertheless come together and gain strength from gatherings of this kind is testimony to the power of a shared and inclusive politics.


Such gatherings are important. They remind us that what appear to be isolated struggles against seemingly insuperable odds are part of a worldwide movement for change. They provide the energy that people need to embark on such struggles and sustain them over time. Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Network, UK, and part of the MUSAWA movement, was quoted in Open Democracy earlier this year as saying: “When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions’. Versions of that sentiment must have been expressed not only by many of those million women she is talking about, but by many, many others over the history of the women’s movement as they discovered the power that comes with not being alone.


One of the panels I attended at the AWID Forum was in fact organised by MUSAWAH.  MUSAWAH, which means equality in Arabic, was founded in 2009. It describes itself as a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. As MUSAWAH points out, men’s authority over women within the Muslim marriage contract rests on their responsibility as family breadwinner. Yet the reality is that across the world, men appear increasingly unable or unwilling to discharge these socially ascribed roles. MUSAWAH plans to use the life histories of ordinary men and women in 11 countries across the world to show the disconnect between Islamic law and the everyday lives of men and women and to use new forms of feminist knowledge to engage with classic jurist interpretation of Muslim family law. The ultimate aim is to reconstitute Muslim family law along more egalitarian lines.


A much older example of women coming together to challenge injustice is that of the Self Employed Women’s Association in India. It was founded in 1972 in reaction to the refusal of the Textile Labour Association to fight on behalf of the casual larger female workforce that provide labour to the textile mills. While SEWA began out as part of the women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, its refusal to remain within the confines of ‘social welfare’ programmes usually assigned to women, and the willingness of its leaders to speak out on behalf of women workers from the ‘untouchable’ castes, led to its expulsion from the Association and the beginning of its journey to becoming the largest organisation of women workers in the informal economy in the world.


An important part of its struggle for the official recognition of its status as an organisation of workers has been conceptual: battling against trade unions and government bureaucrats who defined workers and workers’ organisations in terms of their relationships with identifiable employers, not by their struggles with a range of different actors, including middlemen, subcontractors, police, local government officials  and municipal authorities,  all of whom had the power to determine how these women fared in their struggle for bread and dignity.  Today SEWA has over a million members spread out across the different states of India but it was only in 2007 that it was finally granted official status as a national trade union.


The sheer power of numbers is one obvious dynamic through which collective action works.  “We are poor, but so many” is the title of a book about SEWA. Or as women in a grassroots organisation in Bangladesh put it: ‘one stick can be broken, a bundle of sticks cannot’. But I am also interested in some of the more subtle transformative dynamics that seems to come into play when women come together around some common agenda. One insight into this is to be found in the Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women in India brought out by the Government of India: ‘women’s engagement in collective action to claim rights and resources not only generates bottom-up pressures on the structures of power, but the process of self-organising can have a transformative effect on women’s sense of selfhood, their confidence in the public domain and their ability to negotiate the terms on which they sell their labour’  (Government of India 1988) . What is significant here is the recognition that that the exercise of collective agency by subordinate groups has an experiential value of its own, quite separate from the instrumental value of achieving tangible goals. This point is made in many different contexts. Analyzing the power of collective action, the Swedish feminist researcher, Maude Eduards said: ‘it can be a liberating, identify-shaping, empowering process, a confirmation and a strengthening of the self’ (1992: 96). It was also made by Ma Wai, a Burmese migrant worker in Thailand who participated in a strike by her factory: ‘ I have learnt what it means to win. It is not about the outcome but to win is to dare to start the fight for your rights’.


Some forms of collective action may be spontaneous but many have a long history of effort on the part of committed organizers before women like Ma Wai ‘dare to start the fight for their rights’. This is particularly true when the women and men in question occupy very marginal positions in society and where collective action may be fraught with risk.  In the case of Ma Wai, the support came from the Migrant Assistance Committee, a small NGO in Thailand, who worked with Burmese migrant workers, men as well as women, to inform them about their rights and to provide them with the legal support to fight for them.  Burmese migrants in Thailand have a highly precarious status: they come from ethnic minorities who have fled the repressive military regime in their own country and have reason to fear anything that might lead to their deportation. It was the solidarity offered by MAP that provided migrants with the courage and solidarity that formed the basis of their willingness to take action.


One of the problems that MAP faced was that many years of brutal military repression in Burma had meant that most migrant fled to Thailand with no experience of collective organisation. My own research in Bangladesh has been with organisations that faced a different version of this challenge, that of creating a sense of injustice among women who believed that their lesser worth as human beings was a matter of divine will, their biological inferiority or simply ‘the way things have always been’. I have sought to understand the alchemy that transforms the resignation to their fate once expressed by many of these women into the courage and willingness to fight for their rights.


These are all organisations that work with women and men from low income households to promote their collective capacity to protest injustice and fight for their rights. Of special significance in the context of Bangladesh is the fact that these groups offer their members the possibility of a chosen affiliation instead of the given affiliations of family, kinship and religion that have defined – and limited – their social interactions for much of their lives. In some of my early encounters with these groups in the 1980s, many women told me that these group meetings were the first time since they got married that they were addressed by the name they had been given at birth instead of being referred to as their husband’s wife or their son’s mother.


What emerges out of my research is that the changes brought about by these group activities do not follow some linear trajectory whereby women go from a state of powerlessness to one of empowerment. What emerges instead is a variety of different processes and critical moments – in the lives of individual women and of their groups – that interact and spark off each other until they solidify into a coherent movement for change.   Some women drop out along the way, while others join. The development of a critical consciousness is an important part of this process, the realization that the injustices that they experience in their daily lives does not have to be accepted in unquestioning silence but can be discussed, debated and challenged.  The knowledge that that the constitution of their country acknowledges their equality before their law helps to reinforce this process, however qualified this acknowledgement may be in practice.


Such knowledge and self confidence in turn sows the seeds of grassroots leadership at village level so that these women become a resource for others who want to advice, support  and guidance. Over time, many of these women have become active leaders within their communities, protesting corruption on the part of government officials, demanding justice for victims of rape, acid attacks and other forms of male violence, demanding that they get paid a fair wage for their labour. With the introduction of political quotas for women in local government, a number of these women have stood for and won elections. Bangladesh has made remarkable progress on a number of gender-related issues, including maternal mortality, female education and political participation. Grassroots mobilisation by women’s groups of the kind that I researched is an important part of that story but it has taken many years to build up this kind of momentum.


At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that many important forms of change can be brought about by women’s collective action over a shorter period of time. Let me conclude with some examples of this. The Millennium Development Goals were adopted by the international community in 2000 to co-ordinate its efforts in developing countries. By adopting the reduction of maternal mortality as one of its 8 goals, the international community has helped to highlight the dangers that women in the world’s poorer countries face in giving birth. The difficulties of achieving this goal, described as one of the hardest to reach, has served to demonstrate the intransigent nature of the obstacles that have to be overcome.


Yet there are some remarkable stories of progress from Colombia, Nepal and the poorest states of India, all of which highlight the power of association. In all three contexts, the interventions focused on using participatory learning methods with women’s groups. The achievements have been significant in terms of bringing down infant and maternal mortality rates and, in the case of one intervention, reducing maternal depression. Unfortunately because of the quantitative nature of these studies, we do not really know a great deal about the alchemy at work that allows such changes to take place. What we can safely say is that there is something about the nature of the relationships built through participatory group learning processes that appear to overcome barriers to safe motherhood more effectively than the more conventional health-worker led approaches.



Government of India (1988) ‘Shramshakti. Report of the National Commission on Self Employed and Women in the Informal Sector’, New Delhi: National Commission of Self-employed Women.

Maude Eduards (1992) ‘Against the Rules of the Game. On the Importance of Women’s Collective Actions’, in M.Eduards, I. Elgquivst-Saltzman, E. Lundgren. C.Sjoblad, E. Sundin and U.Wikander (eds), Rethinking Change. Current Swedish Feminist Research, Upsalla:
Swedish Science Press.

Naila Kabeer and Lopita Huq (2010) ‘The power of relationships: love and solidarity in a landless women’s organisation in rural Bangladesh’ IDS Bulletin  Vol. 4 Issue 2: pages 79-97.

Naila Kabeer (2011) ‘Between affiliation and autonomy. Navigating pathways of women’s empowerment and gender justice in Bangladesh’ Development and Change Vol. 42  Issue 2: pages 499-528.

Naila Kabeer, Kirsty Millward and Ratna Sudarshan (Forthcoming) Organising women in the informal economy: beyond the weapons of the weak. Zed Press: London.


For more information about Professor Naila Kabeer’s work visit

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