Is Empowerment an Empowering Term?

Is Leadership a Fair Indicator of Empowerment?

In the literature of development, empowerment is a tricky term to navigate. Scholars and researchers have devised different, oftentimes complex models to calculate a woman’s level of empowerment. Social science has sought to figure out quantifiable and scientific methods to definitively arrive at a conclusion of empowerment, as though it were some final point- a destination that a person arrives at. This research project has averted a more scientific and exact method for a more qualitative and discussion-based analysis of the term empowerment as it pertains to the Tibetan women entrepreneurs in the winter market. 

One question that was of interest in this project is how does entrepreneurship enable women to engage in leadership and whether leadership is a reliable indicator for empowerment. Based on observations, formal and informal interviews with subjects, and surveys conducted across the four markets, one can deduce that in the specific case of women in guntsong, engaging in these economic spaces alone did not directly translate to assuming leadership roles in the market associations. Although working in the market space didn’t directly lead to more engagement in leadership roles, it has however helped women become more comfortable speaking to customers, and more confident in handling trips to and from Ludhiana, whereas before, these new experiences may have intimidated them. 

It is also important to note that the survey defined leadership in the more limited and constrictive terms of leadership positions in the market association. Perhaps the research could have explored a broader idea of leadership, one that doesn’t just recognize public roles but other more collective efforts that women might be contributing to. Unfortunately, the scope of the research did not include such an expansive term for leadership and thus didn’t seek to explore more flexible notions of leadership that may have revealed more women-led contributions.

While leadership may be used as an indicator of empowerment, it in and of itself may not be a reliable indicator of said empowerment- however one may define it. The brief research conducted across the markets certainly showed gender disparities in leadership, yet to the many women we had spoken to about the status of women in Tibetan society, they didn’t see themselves as any less empowered. In fact, they viewed women as in fact more jon-po, more wang-chenpo than men. In the discussion of empowerment, how women see themselves certainly matters as much, if not more, than how others see them.

Group of women in a circle in Gurgaon

In the discussion on empowerment, one woman’s comment, in particular, stood out. Jigme, from Dharamsala, who is a mother of a six-year-old and a five-year-old, said:

“We’re in this circle, see things as fine, but from the government circle, they say there’s not a lot of women. They have different ideas. We hear, see things as the same. We see empowerment. Maybe if I was in that environment [CTA], I’d feel different. First of all, as a mother, I think about my family. Acha who is in TWA, she has time, kids are older. Whereas me, I have younger kids. It doesn’t cross my mind to take more outside responsibilities. It’s not that no one is letting me, it’s that I choose not to take it. Maybe if I were to work in the government, I might feel different but here, in this context, with business, I don’t see any particular issue.”

Jigme’s comment is important and illustrative in that it suggests a keen internal awareness of her own positionality as a woman and how that lines up with or against how external bodies like the CTA perceive women like her. In this statement, she is asserting her agency. Essentially, that it’s not because no one lets her take up these leadership positions, but that she is choosing not to. In other words, she is directly stating that although you may not see us empowered, we in fact are. 

A young child pushing a baby stroller through the market in lal Quila.

The brief research conducted across the four markets certainly shows a lack of equity between men and women leaders in the market associations. And in this specific market context, the research suggests that entrepreneurship alone might not enable leadership perhaps because leading requires a set of skills that entrepreneurship alone might not cultivate. Perhaps then, only leadership experience begets more leadership. Considering that as many as 46 women who I surveyed listed no experience as one of the reasons for not getting involved in the market associations, the question that arises then is how do we bridge that gap that would encourage women to get their foot in the door. Perhaps workshops that cultivate a specific set of leadership skills such as public speaking, communications, network-building that would make women more open and less intimidated by leadership positions may help women emerge more prominently in these spaces. 

So is leadership an apt indicator of empowerment or the lack thereof? It may not be. Yet, it is still an important gap to bridge in the guntsong market and into the wider folds of the Tibetan community. And discussing empowerment as it pertains within this specific social, cultural, and economic niche, raises important questions in regards to the term empowerment. Is empowerment even a useful or empowering term? How do we decide what are the proper indicators to establish whether a community of women is or isn’t empowered? While this research focused on the question of leadership, many researchers have delved into other indicators. Can these assessments be carried out in a way that isn’t reductive and doesn’t lean on cultural biases? And finally, can such assessments and categories of empowered or disempowered fully flesh out the full complexities in the lived and embodied experiences of women?

Part Three of this three-part series on the Tibetan winter itinerant trade will dig deeper into the term empowerment and what a community-based model of empowerment could look like. Stay tuned!

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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