Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development

Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development

by Wendy Harcourt

NOOK Book(eBook)

$22.49 $29.95 Save 25% Current price is $22.49, Original price is $29.95. You Save 25%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Body Politics in Development sets out to define body politics as a key political and mobilizing force for human rights in the last two decades. This passionate and engaging book reveals how once-tabooed issues, such as rape, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive rights, have emerged into the public arena as critical grounds of contention and struggle. Engaging in the latest feminist thinking and action, the book describes the struggles around body politics for people living in economic and socially vulnerable communities and covers a broad range of gender and development issues, including fundamentalism, sexualities and new technologies, from diverse viewpoints. The book's originality comes through the author's rich experience and engagement in feminist activism and global body politics and was winner of the 2010 FWSA Book Prize.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848136182
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 04/04/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Wendy Harcourt is a feminist researcher and activist working at the Society for International Development in Rome Italy as senior adviser and chief editor of the quarterly journal Development. Since 1988 she has built up the journal to be one of the most honest and critical quarterly publications on development. Born in Australia she now lives in Italy and is actively engaged in global feminist politics through her work with Women in Development Europe, European Feminist Forum and the Feminist Dialogues. Her work and commitment to global gender justice has taken her around the world teaming up with UN policy makers, research institutes, women's groups and social justice movements. She has written extensively on globalization and development from a gender perspective. Body Politics in Development is her first full-length book and won the 2010 FWSA Book Prize.
Wendy Harcourt is a feminist researcher and activist working at the Society for International Development in Rome Italy as senior advisor and chief editor of the quarterly journal Development. Since 1988 she has built up the journal to be one of the most honest and critical quarterly publications on development. Born in Australia she now lives in Italy and is actively engaged in global feminist politics through her work with Women in Development Europe, European Feminist Forum and the Feminist Dialogues. Her work and commitment to global gender justice has taken her around the world teaming up with UN policy makers, research institutes, women's groups and social justice movements. She has written extensively on globalization and development from a gender perspective. Body Politics in Development is her first full-length book and won the 2010 FWSA Book Prize.

Read an Excerpt

Body Politics in Development

Critical Debates in Gender and Development

By Wendy Harcourt

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Wendy Harcourt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-547-5


What is Body Politics?

Setting the scene

As someone working in international development I spend a lot of time on planes, mostly on the way to conferences, seminars and workshops, with excursions to countries to observe and discuss other people's lives and bodies. Although the topics are often painful – disease, exploitation, violence, death, inequities and injustice – the conversations are usually conducted in considerable comfort. I listen to rather than experience the pain. I do not feel it on my body, though I may see, imagine and write about it. Often participants in the various meetings raise questions about the incongruity between the actual places where the subjects of development live, and the places and types of policy discussions that are held about them. It can seem incongruous to speak about pain and violation in decorous workshop settings. The contrast between the lived bodily experiences of the violated women and the comfortable lives of women leading gender and development debates evokes an eerie sense of dislocation. And for many it raises questions about whether such gender and development discussions, often held thousands of miles away from the subject of debate, actually contribute to real change for the women and men we so earnestly talk about.

When reading for this book the literature on bodies from anthropology, human geography, sociology, feminist theory and philosophy I was cheered to see that in academia there was no such hesitation about the worth of discussing and writing about bodies. Indeed, unlike when I was doing my PhD twenty years ago, the matter of bodies has become a recurrent theme in many disciplines. Just writing about bodies is deemed a political act in the academy. Yet I still think it is important to focus on the question: whose bodies are seen as worthy of scholarly attention?

How do our embodied realities implicate our understanding of bodies? What is the politics of writing about bodies? To begin with, which bodies are producing knowledge about which other bodies? What are the connections and differences between academic feminist writings and the activities of the people advocating for sexual rights, reproductive rights and health, or those fighting for better public health care, an end to violence against women, and scrutiny of nano- and biotechnologies? Such advocacy and policy conversations usually refer, not to leading philosophers and writers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, Gayatri Spivak and Liz Grosz, but to United Nations documents breezily known by the names of the places where the final negotiated documents were signed: Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Beijing, et cetera.

Unlike academic texts such documents do not carry authors' names. The negotiated processes are hard to follow and are steeped in bureaucracy, political plays and power games often completed during late-night and early-morning haggling. The processes that mediate the impact of these statements and policy agreements on embodied experiences of the men and women who are living far away from such discussions are not entirely clear. What is clear is that the subjects of the debates do not have access to the social and economic resources or the languages that would allow them to participate in the negotiation processes. The issue here is that the stated aim of UN discussions is to improve the embodied lives of 'the poor': their health, rights, living conditions and security, and even their intimate, sexual expression. But where do the voices of people defined as poor and marginal fit into a discussion on body politics? There are uncomfortable contradictions at the centre of the body politics of development where those defined as economically poor are treated as objects rather than subjects of their own lives. On paper development is delivered in interventions that are clean, modern, politically free, based on modern technical knowledge, sound public health systems and comprehensive economic planning. The reality is far, far messier.

In this chapter I go deeper into these questions by tracing body politics in feminist texts on the body and gender as well as reflecting on key moments for body politics in gender and development discourse. In this discussion I deliberately keep coming back to the jarring unease I feel about who speaks for whom and to my questions about the methods and proceedings of international development. I try to balance out the positive and negative impacts of the development process. My point is not to decry the efforts to establish good public health systems, education, medical services, reproductive health, functioning economies and prosperity, but to examine the modern development apparatus through which they are meant to be delivered. I hear and see the damage done to local people and places, and the frustrations and difficulties expressed by those involved in the political struggle around the body in gender and development discourse.

The chapter has four main focal areas. After a short introduction on gender and feminism as pivotal terms in the book, I pick out what I see as useful feminist analysis and theory on the body. I then give my version of body politics in gender and development. This leads to an engagement with feminists working in the World Social Forum space who provide some key guidelines to addressing body politics on gender and development. These four main themes set up the key questions and approaches for the rest of the book. If I meander a little in the telling, please bear with me. Given the complexity of the subject, I cross several borders of knowledge and experience as an insider and outsider or, perhaps more honestly, someone trying to reside between feminist theory and politics.


Gender is a key analytical term in body politics. Gender refers to the psychosocial, political-cultural, scientific and economic reading of sexual difference that informs all human relations. Gender is lived differently in different places, bodies and locations (Connell 2002; Sjoberg 2007). Rather than thinking about gender as a biologically determined division between male and female, it is more helpful to see it as a fluid construct that provides the social inscriptions that enable us to identify, learn and live as male or female in the places we inhabit.


I choose to use the term 'feminist'. I recognize from many conversations that the term feminist is not always easily accepted. Sometimes I am asked why I do not use the term 'humanist', for example, particularly as it seems more easily inclusive of men. Feminist for some conjures up images of white elite angry women, and somewhere bra burning hovers in the background. As many stories in this book show, however, a feminist viewpoint excludes neither men nor facets of masculinity, nor is it confined to elite women of the Global North.

Feminism started from struggles against various forms of women's economic, social and cultural oppression (around the world) and recognizes and builds upon (diverse) women's creative resistance to oppression (Basu 1995; Grewal and Kaplan 1994). In doing so it takes into account the many ways women and men relate to their different gender roles. It also questions the binaries that construct men and women as biological and cultural polar opposites, and asks for a more fluid understanding of gendered roles that embraces transgender and other ways of expressing embodied identities. Gendered identities, including those inscribed on the body and sexualities, are variously constructed through languages and a range of cultural, social and economic institutions. In trying to understand and challenge gender power relations feminism has had to move beyond any easy understanding of an essential sexual being and identity, whether woman or man. Feminism queries concepts such as women, female bodies and femininity, and the gender relations constituting these concepts. Imbedded gendered power relations determine women's and men's lives: their identities, behaviours and sexualities. Feminism, in challenging gender power relations, necessarily also shifts understandings of men, male bodies and masculinity (Andermatiz, Lovell and Wolkowitz 1997).

Feminism, then, is a broad political positioning that looks at how to change gender relations, taking into account different gendered aspects of people's lives. Feminism views gender relations not in terms of two opposed poles but as a continuum. In feminism there is ample scope for different expressions of gender identity. Unsettling the apparent norms around male and female lives, it understands biology as a social construct like any other. Reconfiguring sexuality and identity, it opens up ways for new gender positionings and possible pathways for social transformation. This reading certainly helped me understand my surprise when, in a temple in Jojakarta, Indonesia, I was asked by my host if I thought the dancer was male or female. I had assumed the beautiful and graceful person in front of me was a woman, but was told that this was neither woman nor man, but a member of 'the third sex'. I later learned there were many cultures that held a revered space in the arts for such people.


Recent feminist theory questions the binary givens of male and female. Recognizing that gender is constructed, feminist theory proposes that gendered bodies exist along a continuum from male to female with various permutations in between. For example some individuals feel themselves to be male or female even if biologically they appear to be of the other sex. Queer theory recognizes the different gendered expressions of sexuality: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, intersexual and transgender. Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000), for example, proposes that such 'gender variation is normal and, for some people, an arena for playful exploration'.

Going beyond binaries of male or female allows us to consider people who have identities and lifestyles that do not conform to heterosexual norms. The term 'heteronormativity' allows us to question the assumption that 'natural' sexual relations are defined as only between men and women of certain ages and suitability. It highlights the legal, religious, social and political discrimination that assumes we are all heterosexual and all sexual unions are only for reproduction. Feminist analysis brings in the views and experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, intersexuals and queers (LGBTIQ) who challenge and confront reproductive heteronormativity and the sexual oppression that follows from it.

Going beyond essentialism

There is a huge literature on what gendered bodies, sexualities and identities mean in academic writing. Like the term heteronormativity, such feminist writing unsettles what is apparent and obvious about concepts we take for granted. After all, we all have bodies, but in feminist readings of bodies we see that the gendered body is not so easy to define, but instead is a very fluid concept.

An important debate in feminist literature concerns the need to go beyond essentialism, or reducing women or men to a biological essence determined by their biological, maternal or procreative sexual functions. I have been asked why I want to write about embodied experiences, with a focus on women's lives or what others call 'fleshly' feminine experiences. Those asking me are concerned that I will slip into speaking about female embodiment only and reinforce an essentialist notion of women as defined primarily by their biological differences to men. It is precisely this unease around female bodies as determining an essence of women that I want to question. The female body is not as straightforward as it appears. It is a highly complex category constructed in sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. By looking at how gender relations are inscribed on bodies, and then defined in binary categories as male or female, I want to question dominant views of female embodiment. I see this questioning as a strategy that helps us go beyond essentialism. My feminist vision sees understanding more about embodiment and the concepts informing female embodiment as a strategy that uncovers sources of oppression and also of power.

Body politics refuses to see women or men or those genders in between – and all their diversities of history, race, experience and age – as 'being lashed to their bodies' at one remove from a 'true' self as Adrienne Rich (1979), a US feminist poet and writer, described it. Rather, it is in itself a nexus of power and knowledge.

Bodies as a source of oppression and power

To return to one of my earlier questions: which bodies matter? Liz Grosz (1994), an Australian feminist philosopher, takes us further into why female bodies are a source of both oppression and power in her discussion of volatile bodies and corporeal feminism. In her view, the female body is a site of both normalization and resistance where social norms of being female are inscribed on the body. She queries the commonsense understanding of bodies as given biological identities. Instead she analyses them as sites of social experience and political resistance. In this understanding of body politics, power is not always possessed as such, with hegemonic forces determining what one does or does not do. Bodies may endure physical torture, beatings, stonings and rapes, but in the normative construction of gender it is everyday life or micro-politics that shapes our knowledge and experience of the lived gendered body. These constructions include the language and practices of caring, parenting, sexual relations, health, and medical and biological scientific processes. If we analyse how gendered bodies are constructed in different discourses we can then challenge norms and oppressive practices, and understand how to exercise different forms of power that can transform and change such conditions.

Rewriting the truths of the body

An important strategy in looking at female bodies as a source of oppression and power has been to retell narratives about embodiment that unsettle concepts of biological sex and gender. Judith Butler (1993), a US-based academic, asks us to look at which bodies come to matter, and why. She suggests we look for the interesting questions that arise from the gaps between the values and interests of women's lives and those that inform dominant conceptual frameworks. How do young women living in urban slums in Nairobi, for example, experience the values of the Catholic Church, which condemns the use of birth control? Such decisions are lived by these women, who are thereby exposed to chronic poverty marked by overcrowded homes, no water and increased risk of AIDS. Some may have to choose sex work or abortion as ways for themselves and their family to survive, yet be practising Catholics. Such apparent contradictions can be closed by looking at how women's realities are grounded in the sexual specificity of the female body. For example, the 'given' understanding that femininity is linked to the womb is a major way in which heterosexual privilege is presented as the norm. In order to challenge some of the oppressive practices around female bodies, such as judging a woman for becoming a sex worker, it is important to look at the tensions and gaps in the assumed truths around bodies from different situated viewpoints. While it is not enough just to record lived experiences, such knowledge is vital to open up hegemonic ways of seeing. In addition to these narratives based on women's lived experiences it is also necessary to reread the conceptual frameworks that bind male and female embodied experiences tightly into dominant frameworks of politics, economics, culture and society (Scarry 1985; Adebon 1993; Grewal and Kaplan 1994; Butler and Scott 2002; Harding 2006). It is not enough just to tell the story of the sex worker in a slum; one should also position it in the debates around population and development, the George W. Bush administration's policies opposing family planning, and all the macro-economic reasons why those women are living in slums in the first place.

Butler's account of narratives as strategies to reclaim female embodiment raises the troubling questions of who writes, who speaks, who is recorded and by whom. For example, in 2000 the World Bank did a major study on Voices of the Poor (Narayan 2000), recording in great detail the difficulties of living daily with hunger, deprivation, illness, risk and uncertainty, and concluding that good health is a fundamental need of the very poor. In assembling these hundreds of voices, the World Bank became the owner of important knowledge of embodied experiences and used it to frame itself as the leading expert on poverty, which since 2000 has become 'the' development concern. We need to understand in which context, and why that knowledge was gathered. The World Bank as a powerful Bretton Woods institution now dominates development policy on poverty and decision making over resource provision for community health. Voices of the Poor is an example of the troubling use of experience and narrative to support the policy bias of the World Bank. Critiques have addressed the manipulation of the data as well as the ethics of using specific experiences of poverty to form generalized abstract notions of 'global poverty' that undergird World Bank development policy (Rademacher and Patel 2002: 169).


Excerpted from Body Politics in Development by Wendy Harcourt. Copyright © 2009 Wendy Harcourt. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Invisible Bodies
  • 1. What is Body Politics?
  • 2. Reproductive Bodies
  • 3. Productive and Caring Bodies
  • 4. Violated Bodies
  • 5. Sexualized Bodies
  • 6. Techno Bodies
  • Conclusion

Customer Reviews