Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South-Asian Studies: Bina Agarwal

March 19, 2012

5:30 pm, Rapaporte Treasure Hall

Bina Agarwal is a prize-winning feminist economist who studies gender, development, and agriculture in India and throughout South Asia. She writes about changing the framework of traditional economics to include women and implicit power relationships in decision making found in patriarchical societies.

The Soli Sorabjee lecture series engages with themes of “justice” — broadly defined to include the interrogation of human rights, historical narratives, literary and political representations, gender and social justice, citizenship and democracy, and cross-border connections between the nations of South Asia. Our goal is to expose students at Brandeis (and the larger public) to the scholarship being conducted in the multidisciplinary fields of South Asian Studies, both in the United States and in South Asia itself, as well as to the vast range of South Asian intellectual and artistic traditions. The series is sponsored by the South Asian Studies Programand the Brandeis-India Initiative. It was named after the honorable Soli J. Sorabjee, former attorney general of India and a friend of Brandeis University.

13 Replies to “Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South-Asian Studies: Bina Agarwal”

  1. I thought that Bina Agrawal presented a very compelling case for the inclusion of women onto the Executive Board of the CFIs of India and China. She started her lecture off with a metaphor, comparing the Entwives from the Lord of the Rings to the women in villages in India. She completed her comparison with the suggestion that, like the Entwives, women living in villages were made “invisible”—so much that there was no effort to invite the two female species to participate in the Council for forest conservation. Since the Ents did make an effort to find their Entwives and failed because the wives disappeared, this comparison is incorrect. However, despite the faulty comparison, Agrawal goes on to explain that women—who happen to be the ones who depend on the forest most—were mostly unrecognized in the law-making process. For example, anticipated effects of the 1965 Forest Act—which restricted forest use—said that “villagers” (not women, who Agrawal has argued are the ones who use the forest for food and firewood most) would face some hardship. They were largely unrecognized, and despite the fact that women were able to lobby successfully for the right to vote and to contest elections, they were limited from participation in village councils. In essence, the decentralization of the Indian government did not mean that there would be a decentralization of the forest governance and thus a more expansive inclusion of women on the CFI Councils, especially on the Executive Boards. However, she proves that women’s presence on these committees drastically affect the conservation of forests by improving the condition of the deteriorating forests. Therefore, women are essential—in terms of ideas and physical presence—to the CFI forest conservation decision-making process.
    What is most interesting and more relevant to our class is the CFI’s implementation of modern technology and alternative resources. While the preservation of forests seems to be a more “traditional” perspective, contrary to industrialization and modernization, the villages are actually utilizing modern technology to make their conservation process more efficient and “greener”. There are plans to use alternative energy sources—such as biofuels—to heat up stoves and thus conserve energy and create a sustainable environment. Although the villages themselves do not have the resources to come with up this idea, the knowledge of it shows how even globalization affects small villages whose main goal is to conserve local forests in Southeast Asia. Agrawal commented on how gender composition, because of the two genders’ ability to communicate and share different ideas, positively affects forest composition. This same sharing of ideas applies to biofuels and globalization—these villages seem to be an essential part of India and Nepal (thus, it is part of their national identity), but they are still able to gain hold of modern ideas and implement them to make their job much easier and more efficient.

  2. I found Bina Agarwal’s presentation of the rural women of India’s dependence on forests to be quite interesting. She was able to catch my attention right off the bat by referencing the Ents from Lord of the Rings, a great segway into the discussion of the gender division of labor and economic resources (for those who know the series well, anyway). She brought up great points as to why women should be more involved and included in meetings regarding the forest, and also had charts of information to back up the points she was trying to include. My favorite part of the discussion however, was chart she showed us called, “The Typology of Participation”. I like how she broke down participation into levels: Nominal, Passive, Consultative, Activity-Specific, and Empowered parts, each section having gradually more power and influence. This is great because it not only applies to the women of India, but can be applied to meetings anywhere in the world, and to any socioeconomic group. Eco-feminism is a topic that was new to me and I didn’t know about the plight of Indian women in rural India. Even though women are allowed to attend meetings regarding the future and preservation of the forests, they have a limited role and aren’t allowed to speak up (which relates to the typology of participation which I discussed above). Once women were allowed to have a more active role in council meetings, Agarwal put up slides with quotes showing that women cared more about the conservation efforts of the forests and the efforts put into the conservation process were much more diverse and creative. Her work is definitely captivating and I’m curious to see what else she can do with it in the future. Eco-feminism and Ents definitely makes for an awesome seminar.

  3. What I found most interesting about Bina Agarwal’s lecture was the unknowingly pivotal role that women play in terms of forest conservation. I found especially fascinating that CFIs with two or more women showed vastly significant improvements in their areas of forest. Additionally, the forests that these women started out with were in much worse conditions than those that belonged to groups without more than two women. These results truly prove that, when women are given the chance to actively participate in certain areas, they will earnestly try to improve whatever it is that they must handle. I believe part of this success was due to the fact that not only were women less likely to break the rules when asked to perform a task but also forest conservation directly affects women and their day to day routines. Daily activities in India such as firewood collection require female participation. Without female aid, forest conservation does not operate at the same level as it should. Hopefully, in the future, India as well as other countries will continue to allow women to participate in political, economic and social projects. Although it has and will continue to be initially difficult for women (due to longstanding male predominance) to transition into a more active role, eventually they will grow accustomed to taking the initiative and helping transform India for the better.

  4. As I am minoring in Women and Gender Studies, Bina Agarwal’s presentation was very intriguing and relatable. I was really inspired by her work in a patriarchy oriented society. She highlighted that women were crucially dependent on the male figures because they essentially had no rights and opportunities. Although women protested, they had little influence.
    Agarwal extensively touched upon the history of women’s participation in government. Women were absent in foreign and local government. They were excluded from councils and were instead represented by their relatives. They also had little voice in public forums. During the early 20th century, women participated in the anti-colonial struggle and lobbied for the right to vote. In 1983, women gained 1/3 of the seats in local government. Later, as forest management decentralized, there was a shift to community forestry- limited to the inclusion of women.
    In her presentation, Agarwal also highlighted that there are different types of participation including normal, passive, consultative, activity-specific, active, and empowered. Relating to these different types of participation, she revealed that men refrain from telling women about political meetings. Furthermore, several questions arise regarding women’s participation. Would women participating in political matters really impact the outcome of the meetings? Would a women’s class have to be considered?
    I learned that rural women depend on forests more so than men do, causing more gender differences. Women’s daily encounter with the forest affect their opinion on the conservation of forests, their ability to conserve. They especially gain significant knowledge about plants and specifies. Gender differences primarily occur because of the different gendered labors. From research and statistics, women’s presence has a significantly positive effect on the forest. Hence, I really hope Agarwai’s efforts gain wide support and success.

  5. As a feminist, it’s always interesting for me to see how feminism is applied to different fields. Previous to Bina Agarwal’s lecture, I never thought about the connection between sex and green issues; however, Agarwal did explain her ideas clearly and it’s understandable why gender is often overlooked, and yet important in conservation. She did not just explain her theory, but she also included a chart and data that isolated other factors and proved that women lead to more improvement of forest conditions than men. Evidently the green interests of these women and their ability to even reach the ears of the women of the nearby villages lead to more success. Hopefully, there will be less restrictions on women so that there can be more even more progress in the conservation of forests.

  6. In her lecture, “Women Governing Forests: A history of Absence, the Impact of Presence,” Bina Agrawal discussed the role of women in forest governance and conservation. I was extremely interested in her research on women’s impact on forest conservation because I had never considered a correlation between the two. Historians in general do not pay much attention to the woman’s role in forest governance, besides elections and the right to vote. Agrawal discussed how the inclusion of women in decision-making in these communities is extremely weak. Women did not have much of a say in public forums, were excluded from councils, and did not have a place in either foreign or local government. During the 20th century, women began to participate in the anti-colonial struggle, and were successful in lobbying for the right to vote and to contest elections in emerging democratic institutions. When India gained independence, it’s government became decentralized. However, the decentralization of the government did not necessarily mean the decentralization of forest government. 1993 was a pivotal year in women’s rights in forest communities, as women gained 1/3 of the seats in local government. The eventual decentralization of forest government brought about a shift to community forestry, along with the limited inclusion of women. Agrawal repeated a quote that she was told by one of the village women in Gujarat, who said that “Men don’t stop us from speaking, but they do all the talking.” I found this quote very interesting, as it shows that these women are aware of their sub-par status in society, and the irony of this statement. I found it extremely interesting when Agarwal showed the pictures, which depicted the changes in the Malekpur forest area prior to protection, and after protection. This example further proved Agarwal’s thesis that the presence of women in forest communities has a significant positive effect on forest conservation. I agree with Agarwal that women need to gain more recognition of the positive effects of their efforts, which would lead to the spread of improvements in forest conservation.

  7. I found Bina Agarwal’s presentation very interesting it how it fused the seemingly disparate fields of feminism, ecology, and economics. Her study of the interplay of women, the forests of Southeast Asia, and community groups gave insight into the relationship of humans and their environment in a very unique and insightful light. She coined terms for elements of the interplay for which is was easier for the government to ignore. For example, “participatory exclusion” in which women may physically attend community meetings yet not actually contribute. Therefore recorded gendered attendance and reality tell a different story. She clearly highlighted the flaws of the status quo by explaining how the government often often conflate gendered subjects into general categories (such as “villagers”). She explained how women and men have differing relationships with nature which cannot simply be regarded in the same light. Agarwal talked about how women must be brought from “nominal participation” to “empowered participation” where they actively contribute to the decision making calculus. I thought it was very interesting how it is most often landless women who are vocal in these community groups because they have nothing to lose and the most to gain from maintaining the forest. They have no private property and therefore rely on the maintenance of the forests for resources. Conversely, they may be the most likely to exploit the forest for exactly the same reasons.
    I very much appreciated how Agarwal acknowledged both the negative and positive effects of including women in these community forestry groups. Her recognition of the potential harms gave credence to her argument as a whole. She describes how these women have conflicting choices; there is the immediate need of subsistence and the hope for long term preservation. She also describes the characteristics of the unique nature women have with the forests in this contexts. She talks about how they often have greater knowledge, ability and stake in the forest then men. Also how the nature of the women’s dependance is daily and often women do not have access to private property. Therefore women are more easily adversely affected by the degradation of the environment.
    Agarwal also describes the nature of CFIs. She talked about how women are often excluded from meetings, and when they do attend they are not listened to. Information is often gendered in that men don’t share it with the women, even in issues (such as forestry) in which women can contribute just as much if not more. She made clear that there is a “critical mass” where 1/3 of the members must be women for a difference to be made. She describes the many benefits of greater inclusion such as: a greater compliance with rules, a sense of ownership, greater information, and increased solidarity and conflict resolution. Overall, the inclusion of woman leads to improved conservation. Changing the nature of gendered participation in decision making groups is very important in that is sets a precedent for other areas of governance as well.

  8. In her lecture, “Women Governing Forests: A History of Absence, the Impact of Presence,” Bina Agrawal discussed the problems faced by the women in a male-dominated society. She highlighted how women had little influence and were essentially dependent on their male counterparts. I also learned that women depended more on the forests than the men did and this caused a greater struggle for power which led to more gender differences. Women were domesticated and had a greater ability to conserve. These gender specific roles resulted in women being passionate about the forests and claim their rights more effectively. Agarwal touched on how women started gaining power during India’s struggle for freedom. They did not have much of a say in the foreign or local government, international forums and were excluded from councils. Sometime during the 20th century, after lobbying for their rights, these women gained the right to vote and to contest elections. India was slowly shifting from a male dominated society to one where women’s rights were respected. I was surprised to learn about Agarwal’s research on the women’s impact on forest conservation and the relation between the two was not expected. I was shocked when Agarwal showed the pictures, which depicted the changes in the Malekpur forest area prior to protection, and after protection. This proved that presence of women in forest communities has a positive effect on forest conservation and that men shouldn’t suppress the women and “do all the talking.” I agree with Agarwal that women need to gain more recognition and support of the citizens of the positive effects of their efforts, which would lead to the spread of improvements in forest conservation and a change in the way things work. In her presentation, Agarwal also stressed on how men refrain from telling women about important meeting and try to curb their participation. This raised a lot of questions regarding the smooth transition to a society where everyone’s opinions are respected.

  9. Bina Agarwal’s perspective on the structure of power relationships, from nominal participation to empowered participation, is interesting. I think it is applicable to many different institutions, and it is beneficial to closely examine the levels at which people are involved in policy shaping and the ways increased participation impact it. An interesting point Agarwal made is that the percentage of women in a committee makes a difference in terms of women speaking up and effectively influencing policy. Her research showed that 25% to 33% membership is needed to make a significant impact. I also found it interesting to look at gender studies in a different context than the social sciences. Agarwal notes that most facts and statistics on environmental issues are presented in a gender-neutral fashion, and similarly, in my personal experiences, I had not considered environmental studies in relation to gender. However, the two are extremely interwoven, and Agarwal’s work proves it is beneficial to consider the environment with insights from both genders. In reference to forest governance and conservation in India, the inclusion of women in executive committees makes a significant, often times beneficial, difference. This is partially because men and women have different roles that interact with the forest in different ways. Women make use of different resources, and often have a better knowledge of different species and practices involving the forest. This allows for a more comprehensive knowledge that is beneficial in efforts to create conservation laws and to enforce them. Subsequently, Agarwal found that villages that include women in local government, have seen great improvements in matters of the forest. I think that Agarwal’s lecture really brought to light the role gender plays in environmental studies, and I think it would be greatly useful to consider the effect gender has on other natural sciences and issues not typically associated with it.

  10. I found Bina Agarwal’s talk based on her new book “Gender and Green Governance” fascinating and surprising. Agarwal discusses the duality we face today; of the existence of women with knowledge over forests, and yet an absence of bodies who make use of this same knowledge. I would never have guessed how differently men and women may be affected by climate change, and how different their participation in reversing these effects may be.
    I found it interesting how she started off with a historical example of the exclusion of women from various institutions with Tolkin’s “Lord of the Rings” and his imagined Middle Earth. In this place there was a democratic form of decision making, yet still there were no women in the forest or council; women and their work had been made invisible. Here Agarwal made the connection to her coined term “participative exclusion” – the exclusion of women within seemingly participative institutions. Women are crucially depended upon in most Indian societies but have no say in various affairs.
    The presence of women in Community Forestry Institution committees has a great impact on forest conservation efforts. Even if the land women receive to protect is in much worse condition than that of the men – younger forests, degraded plots, etc. – areas looked out for by women had a 51% higher improvement than those of men! Agarwal argues that this is due to a greater compliance amongst women to the rules, as well as more information sharing of the rules with other women and a persuasion to follow them. Finally, there is greater solidarity and conflict resolution amongst women.
    Agarwal’s presentation was surprising and interesting since it made me think about environmental issues from a whole other perspective –that of gender inequalities in certain parts of the world such as India.

  11. Being a woman Bina Agarwal’s talk further demonstrated the inequalities that women face worldwide. Women have the back breaking task of collecting the wood from the forest yet they are not deemed worthy of having a say in politics. Also they are the most affected by the any reforms that are done concerning the forest. It aslo was proven that women are able to manage the forest more efficiently than men. It is crucial to empower women and make their voices heard.

  12. Bina Agarwal presented a compelling case for the greater inclusion of women in forestry. She took her audience through the general history of forestry in India, presenting three trajectories, “from absence to limited presence.” She explained that women were gaining an increasingly active role in forestry and politics until recently, when forestry was decentralized. With this decentralization and shift to community forestry, woman’s position began to devolve, moving from a one third seat in the local government to a limited overall inclusion.
    Agarwal also explained the typology or spectrum of participation, from nominal involvement, or mere membership, to empowered involvement, or active influence. She used this scale to explain that, in CFIs, women were not given even nominal participatory opportunities. Women suffered through many of what Agarwal calls “participatory exclusions,” in which men might not have directly excluded them, but did not include them either, in regards to forestry meetings. Agarwal argued that this inequality is not only hurting the women involved, but also the forests. It seems, she explained, that as women are more dependent on the land than their male counterparts, gathering firewood and such, while men use timber they can purchase, women are more likely to take care of the forests. Agarwal backed her theory with regression results, showing the mathematical evidence behind woman’s positive impact on forests. Given this information, it seems that women should be given at least the same opportunity as men in regards to forestry, if not even more, as warranted by their superior performance. Agarwal also suggests including landless women in these conservation efforts, and moving to clean biofuel gas.

  13. She began her presentation by connecting her subject matter to the Ents from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Her presentation, “Women Governing Forests: A History of Absence, the Impact of Presence,” could not have been introduced any better as it immediately captured my attention. It was interesting to observe, as she pointed out how the Ent culture demonstrated an absence of Ent-wives and the importance of having Ent-wives around, the feminist approach toward Tolkien’s fictional tale. I never took a minute to consider how important the Ent-wives were or how crucial their gathering skills are in the wooded culture whenever I watched the movies or read the books. Her continuation in discussing how women were so depended upon, but had little say in governance made me rethink the whole patriarchal culture/lifestyle that some cultures still continue with to this day in age. Overall, Ms. Agarwal’s presentation regarding the women and their forest life in India was very thought-provoking as she presented her subject using an interesting, albeit fictional, example to demonstrate her point.

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