Kavita Ramdas on women’s rights and social entrepreneurship

Kavita Ramdas spoke beautifully and eloquently on the topic of women’s rights and social entrepreneurship. I meant to take comprehensive notes, but didn’t. Instead of comprehensive notes, here are some highlights of her talk:

— Kavita likes to broaden the definition of “social entrepreneur.” Typically, a “social entrepreneur” is someone who works in the social sector; that is, a risk-taking innovative social entrepreneur is more concerned with changing and improving culture and society than with making a profit. But she would like to broaden the definition to include social activists. To make her point, she pointed out that an activist like Gandhi was a risk-taking innovator who worked to change broader culture and society.

— She said that in the United States, we have made great progress in women’s rights. Even though we never managed to put the Equal Rights Amendment into the U.S. Constitution, women’s rights are enshrined in law. Compared to her home country, India, the U.S. has made great progress in women’s rights. However, there is another aspect to feminism, and that is allowing persons to have both feminine and masculine characteristics, and in this respect she feels India has done better than the U.S.

Thus, a national leader like Gandhi did not have to be hyper-masculine; he was comfortable with his feminine side; whereas in the U.S., men and boys feel they cannot express the feminine sides of themselves. So in U.S. culture, the only emotion men are really encouraged to express is anger; U.S. men cannot cry or hold hands with another man (which men can do in other cultures). In this respect, U.S. feminism lags behind other cultures.

— During the question period, I said the culture of entrepreneurship seems to value a macho and hyper-masculine attitude, and asked if she would speak about women and social entrepreneurship.

She said that we tend to define entrepreneurship is a narrow way. Thus, even though there are a great many very creative and innovative people working for Apple, we say that Steve Jobs is responsible for Apple’s success. We adhere to the “Great Man” theory of leadership, and we even define successful entrepreneurs in terms of single strong leaders. In her work she has seen a great many successful women entrepreneurs — but successful women entrepreneurs (at least in the social realm) tend to build networks very quickly, so instead of one person there will be a group of women. When we see such a group doing successful social entrepreneurial work, our cultural bias does not let us understand this as entrepreneurial, since entrepreneurs, by our cultural definition, must be single Steve-Jobs-type persons. Thus we need to change our understanding of what an entrepreneur is — though she said that she did not have an answer of how to make that change in perception.

— She spoke quite a bit about culture change: how do we change cultures (ours and others) so that women and men are treated as equals? She made clear that there is no easy answer to this question. Some change can happen in individual families; her husband grew up in Pakistan as a Muslim, but his mother raised him to be a nurturer, so he has been the main parent to take care of their daughter while she has worked — his mother raised him to be a feminist. But there are other ways to bring feminism into cultures. She mentioned women in a Mexican village who banded together and convinced the men to stop beating them because the women needed to be strong to work in the fields and be working partners to the men. She mentioned a village near Kosovo where the mothers didn’t want their girls to get an education because no man in that culture would want to marry an educated girl; but the men got together and promised that they would make their boys marry educated girls, if all the girls were educated; they even put this promise into writing. So there is no one path to culture change.

— I can’t resist saying that Kavita mentioned how much she enjoyed being part of our congregation. She first started coming to join the choir, but liked the values that she heard expressed, and wound up feeling a part of the congregation.

3 thoughts on “Kavita Ramdas on women’s rights and social entrepreneurship”

  1. I work a few cubes down from a very orthodox Muslim from Mumbai who left India for Illinois over 30 years ago. His Dad worked for Congress after independence on rule of law training for the Police. Gandhi’s no hero though. The horrors of partition still pretty fresh and reinforced by episodes like the Gujarat massacres of 2002. The Mumbai attack by radical Islamist (an attack planned from Chicago) just created more worry about family back home and retribution from Hindus over the attack. I’ll mention the stuff on the need for hyper-masculinity and lack of it in India but I have a feeling the response is going to be that’s a pretty Western (i.e.Christian) take on his homeland.

  2. Bill, you write: “I have a feeling the response is going to be that’s a pretty Western (i.e.Christian) take on his homeland.”

    Except this comes from a woman who was born a Hindu in India, and is married to a Muslim, so I’m not sure I’d call it Western — certainly not Christian.

  3. We in the U.S. have made enormous progress in allowing girls and women to have both feminine and masculine characteristics. We definitely have a long way to go in liberating boys and men to do the same. Cool to have India as an example of the possible. Mexico, for all its machismo in some respects, has a lot to teach us there too.

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