I was watching last week the new wonder woman of Spanish music, Rosalía, in an interview on TV (in Pablo Motos’ El Hormiguero) and she confirmed that, indeed, her new recording, El mal querer, deals with ‘el poder femenino’ (I’m not sure whether she means female, women’s or feminine power). Rosalía herself is an example of sudden artistic empowerment that I don’t quite understand, as I think that we’re missing crucial information about her family background and her training as a musician. But that’s not my point (to clarify matters: like millions of people around the world, I love what she does, it’s so thrilling and refreshing!). My point is this: why do we speak of power rather than of liberation? When did liberation stop being a keyword for feminism?
The very accomplished article ‘Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse’ by Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (https://www.cairn-int.info/article-E_RTM_200_0735–empowerment-the-history-of-a-key-concept.htm) offers a very useful overview of how this term became so widespread and why. She cites as a major inspiration ‘the conscientization approach developed by the Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968’. According to Calvès, the 1970s were the time when ‘the term formally come into usage by social service providers and researchers’, particularly after Barbara Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (1976).
The current popularity of ‘empowerment’, however, sinks its roots in the mid-1990s, when,Calvès explains, it firmly ‘entered institutionalized discourse on women in development’ thanks to feminist NGOs. Calvès highlights the UN’s InternationalConference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) as one of the main events ‘to give the concept international visibility’. Precisely, the article by Ann Ferguson ‘Empowerment, Development and Women’s Liberation’–one of the few publications linking the two concepts that interest me–appears in a book published by the UN’s University Press, The Political Interests of Gender Revisited (Anna G. Jónasdóttir and KathleenB. Jones, eds., 2009, 85–103. The article itself is not available online but you may easily find the volume’s introduction.
I have serious doubts about the word ‘empowerment’ because it seems to be intrinsically patriarchal. If, as I am preaching, patriarchy is a form of hierarchical social organization characterized by its placing individuals in different ranks according to the power they wield, why is empowerment desirable? If you start from a position of oppression and you manage to empower yourself, you may end up in a higher position but how do you contribute to undoing the very system of power? Could it be that we use empowerment mistakenly and we actually mean ‘liberation’?
Let me go back to Rosalía (born in 1993) to discuss next another young woman also born when the word ‘empowerment’ was become popularized, Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997).
As far as I know, Rosalía has freely taken all the decisions concerning her career and has not been the object of any patriarchal attempts to curtail her artistic creativity. In short, she is enjoying the chance to develop her personal agency in freedom (within the legal and moral limits of current Spanish legislation) like any other young man of her generation and inclinations. Agency, incidentally, is a word that seems to have disappeared from the horizon, though it seemed to be ubiquitous just a few years ago. So, how’s Rosalía a ‘powerful woman’ rather than a ‘free’ or ‘liberated’ woman? And how come ‘liberated’ has taken on this sexualized meaning? It seems to me that the ‘poder femenino’ she invokes and maybe embodies is a position, rather than a reality, a sort of pre-emptive strike against the patriarchal power that might limit her–it’s a way of saying ‘you can’t touch me’,even though, as we know, successful women like Rosalía attract much attention from misogynistic haters. Her ‘power’, then, is in how her popularity and public presence outdo the control that the patriarchal trolls would use, if they could, against her. It’s not power to repress or control others.
Now takeMalala, the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and, thus, also another example of empowerment–or is it liberation? Unlike Rosalía, Malala grew up in an environment dominated by an extreme patriarchal regime, that of the Taliban in her native Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was motivated by his personal and professional circumstances to become an anti-patriarchal activist,willing to sacrifice his own life to give girls in his community an education.His sisters never attended school but he made sure that his daughter and other girls like her would have a school to welcome them: the one he himself ran. Malala learned her own educational activism from her father and almost lost her life in 2012 when a Taliban patriarchal terrorist shot her in the head. The family relocated then to the United Kingdom, from where both Malala and her father continue their task of empowering (or is it liberating?) other girls by providing, to begin with, the inspiration to demand an education.
Empowerment takes, then, as many forms as personal experience dictates and is supposed to act, as I was arguing, as a barrier against further oppression by shifting the relationships of power and introducing a better balance. This is where my misgivings resurface: if power is, say, a cake, the more I eat, the less you eat–which means that empowerment is necessarily finite and also that those in power will always resist giving any away. This is how things seem to be working so far: the oppressed demand a bigger share of the cake, which they seem to be getting but the ones who feel entitled to holding the whole cake under their control do not like the situation a bit (a bite?). Hence all the lashing out, from Taliban violence to online trolling, simply because we cannot all be empowered. In contrast, we could all be free, that is to say, liberated from the restrictions imposed by patriarchy if only we started thinking about who baked the cake and why we have to eat it at all for, you see?, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
Bob Pease writes that ‘The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful while doing the tasks that are not traditional for men’ (30 in Carabí & Armengol, editors, Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World), such as… rearing children, he adds. I think these words encapsulate much of what is wrong with empowerment: what does ‘feel powerful’ mean, whether you’re a man or a woman? Isn’t Pease himself suggesting that being powerful is the same as having the capacity to oppress others? How can you ‘exercise power’ without controlling others? If you ask me, for men to change they should oppose the very idea of patriarchal power to liberate themselves and others from oppression–ask Ziauddin Yousafzai whether being powerful is a priority for him. He is the very example of what liberation is for men and for women under harsh patriarchal regimes. Why, then, knowing as we do that patriarchy survives because it appeals to men with a sense of entitlement to power, we want to empower women? Again: why not liberate everyone from the shackles of power?
Women who manage to choose how to live their lives, whether they’re called Rosalía or Malala, are, to me, not instances of empowerment but of freedom. Power, as we see in patriarchal men, does not free you: it’s the other way round–it enslaves you to living life as others dictate. If you’re thinking that I’m wrong and that only enjoying a great amount of power guarantees your personal freedom then you don’t mean power, you mean agency. Vladimir Putin has plenty of power and he’s not using it for his personal liberation: he’s using it to compete with other men for the title of biggest living patriarch. Angela Merkel also has much power–but isn’t she the counterexample of women’s liberation? Perhaps she’ll feel truly liberated when she retires next year and can finally use her agency to help others rather than uphold, as she is doing, the status quo.
I think I’ve now hit on the key of my own personal philosophy of power, perhaps I should call it anti-power. If being powerful is being in a position to cause things tohappen (and being powerless is being in a position in which you can’t stopthings from happening), then I can say that the only use I see in empowerment is an altruistic ability to make life better for others. Rosalía’s ‘poder femenino’ should ideally translate into lending a hand so that other persons can flourish,as she is doing. Malala is more clearly following this path already, as are others. I don’t mean Bill-Gates-style philanthropy (though this is much better than what he used to embody and now Elon Musk embodies) or charity, not even NGO activism but a rethinking of what power is for. If, as a teacher, I am in a position to use my (very limited) power to benefit the careers of others who will in their turn help others, this is how I should use it. This may sound endogamic but that’s not at all what I mean. Patriarchy will be undone when we,men and women, ask ourselves ‘how can I help?’ rather than ‘how can I dominate?’
I’ll end by suggesting that empowerment is much more popular than liberation because the very idea of power is, regrettably, too glamorous. We also need to recall that empowerment is mainly a US export, pace Paolo Freire and NGO activism, and that in American culture the opposite of being powerful is not just being powerless but being a loser, which is even worse. Perhaps if we free ourselves from the obligation of being a winner that would be a step forward towards true liberation and the abandonment of the current obsession with power, which, trust me, is suspiciously patriarchal.