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Modernization: A Hegemonic Discourse to Development

A Feminist Perspective

Popular discourse suggests that modernization theory has only one pattern of western development that needs to be followed otherwise societies will essentially be considered non modern or traditional. Critics of the modernization theory have suggested that modernization theory fails to recognize the concept of multiple modernities or the simultaneous existence of different definitions and patterns of modernities. This has also led feminist critiques to recognize how the gendered aspect is sidelined in modernization theory and development process thereby trivializing the struggles of the female gender in the process. This essay looks at the gendered aspect (or the absence of it) in the modernization theory and development process.


According to Marx, modernity is defined by the intensification of capitalist accumulation and capitalist mode of production while Weber defined modernity as an abstract principle of rationalization of world. Modernization theory is a homogenous and hegemonic concept that exudes only a westernized idea of modernity and development. There are certain distinct features that defines modernity which include transformation of the economy from feudalistic setup to capitalist production modes, growth of contemporary state institutions, rise of democracy and a fall in the feeling of community with an erosion of religious sentiments and an increase in secularism and ethics. The western countries are the hubs of the hegemonic concept of modernity from which it spreads to the rest of the world. This idea of modernity is seen as the only acceptable form of modernization. Hence, any society that doesn’t follow this popular discourse of modernity is not recognized to be modern or progressive.

Feminist approach to modernization theory

The limited dialogue that modernization theory creates around gendered aspect of development is a reflection of the mainstream assumptions about the development process thereby highlighting that the idea of development is linear and is a cumulative process where the debate between traditional and modern is the principal point of focus. Some scholars have highlighted that the development process only has had positive effects on women thereby encouraging their progress in the society. For instance, industrialization is increasingly seen as a factor responsible for bringing down the social footprint of biological differences between the physical strength of men and women by inculcating in women a sense of self respect by making a wider variety of employment opportunities available to them and empowering them financially as well as socially. The idea of societal progress as a part of the modernization process introduced birth control for women that could give them respite from the endless loop of biological reproduction. However, the discourse around social reproduction in the entire development process has been somewhat limited which has been highly criticized by feminist scholars.


According to the standard liberal theory, women’s progress in the process of development is a part of modernization where we move from a subsistence economy to a cash economy and there are decreasing differences in the physical strength of men and women. Any deviations from this standard process is not seen as a failure or shortcoming of the process as a whole but rather a shortcoming of the thoughts and attitudes of the traditional societies where women are seen as subordinate to men and that people take time to break their conditioned thought processes.

Some feminist scholars such as Boserup have highly criticized the central idea of technology being responsible for women’s progress in the development process by highlighting instances from Africa where the farming system after being exposed to technology actually put women’s labour at a disadvantage by doing away with the traditional communal system of farming using techniques like slash and burn as against the male labour’s farming methods of being able to hire other labour and using the plow on their privately owned land. Even under colonial rule in various colonized countries, the administration made limited progress in terms of women’s development. Apart from addressing the extremely apparent forms of discrimination (such as sati in India), the rulers didn’t really walk on the path of inclusion of women in the mainstream development process. Access to resources were made easier for men who were seen as the breadwinner and head of the household than women who were only treated as the “other” or subordinate to men even under the rule of seemingly progressive and modern western rulers.

The debate surrounding the position and role of women within the nationalist movements and nation building process is pertinent for understanding alternative approaches to the development process in the post colonial world that was put forward by the elites of the nationalist sentiments. In the post colonial world, nationalism and nation building formed an important basis of development practices in the erstwhile colonized countries. However, a gendered perspective to the nationalistic sentiments was largely unacknowledged and pushed into the dark which further posed problems for women in the mainstream development. Modernization played a significant role in creating fractures in the feminist discourse in the post colonial period as well. Feminist discourses in the west assumed that patriarchy had the same extent of effect worldwide and thus failed to recognize the individual identities and struggles of women in the colonized countries thereby trivializing or negating their struggles and imposing a hegemonic discourse of universal feminism. This led to women across the colonized countries dissociate them from the westernized feminism.

In most of the countries during the period of the 20th century, there was a dominance of the bourgeois liberal nationalist elites whose idea of where a woman should be placed played an important role in law and policy formulations, most of which had largely political connotations. Some of these reforms included ensuring equality for women in the legal aspects, removal of seemingly apparent or extremely visible form of discriminatory practices, universal suffrage and right to education and also laws against violence against women and ensuring property rights to women.

Early feminist critiques[1] of the mainstream development tried to include women in a world that has been conditioned to prefer men as the head of every aspect of society. With passage of time, feminist scholars[2] realized that women were continuously being relegated to the position of the ‘other’ in a man’s world where they were only marginally included in the development practices and as a consequence, they were constantly seen as a victim of patriarchal oppression from which they needed to be freed. However, with the change in the discourse, feminist critics started viewing women as agents of change or actors against oppression rather than only as victims to shackles of patriarchy.

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Post colonial period in India and Feminist struggles


The period that followed the national emergency in the 1970s saw the transformation of the women’s movements that now came into picture with new vigor and resilience. The freedom struggles and the reform movements post national emergency laid the foundation of the women’s movement that is relevant and is continuing even in the contemporary times.  An important to note about the Women’s movement in the 1970s was that it received immense attention and support from the media which further strengthened their movements and protests against the Mathura rape case in 1979-80 which was a defining incident that was to change the course of history for women’s movements in the days to come as it led to the coming together of various protests against violence meted out to women in various pockets of the country. For the first time in a long time, violence against women became a focal point of these struggles and protests. Consequently, what these protests aimed to do after the Mathura rape case verdict was to bring a change in the rape laws. However, when these protests began, Mathura’s consent to whether she was in support of the protests were not taken into consideration even though later she mentioned that she had no objections. The point whether the victim wants the protests or not was something that was not taken into consideration initially.

What is important to note here is that feminist struggles are not isolated rather there is an intersectionality of law, caste perspectives, political lineages, and gender identities. The protests in support of Mathura demanded certain reforms and amendments in the rape laws which included the fact that women’s sexual history should not be used as evidence in the trials and the onus to prove anything should be on the perpetrator rather than the victim. However, in reality it was only the latter that was incorporated partially only in case of custodial rapes. The campaigns were not able to break the stigma that revolved around rape victims and question the societal construct of shame and honor that was attached to women on the basis of their virginity or chastity. Irrespective of all the drawbacks, the campaign was the starting point of feminist struggles in India which was to take various forms in days to come.

With this movement, another aspect of violence against women that came to light was the dowry incidents where women were killed or tortured after marriages for dowry with the most common form being burnt to death while cooking in kitchen and then making it look like an accident. These incidents became extremely common especially in the late 80s and the 90s which brought to light the fact that violence against women was way more than anyone could imagine and urgent attention was needed to mitigate such incidents. These incidents also highlighted the linkages between violence against women and their status or position at home and in the society at large. When these movements vocalized the concerns of the victims of dowry, the need to bring in law reforms further intensified which led to the amendment of the 1961 Act thereby changing the definitions of dowry from ‘as considerations for the marriage’ to ‘in connection with the marriage’ in 1984. Further amendments were made in 1986 to make the punishments for perpetrators more stringent thereby making the offence non-bailable and putting the burden of proof on the perpetrator.

However, all of this seemed way more positive than they actually were as there were hardly any changes in ground realities. There have been multiple criticisms of the campaigns and the protests which had occurred during this time. The campaign failed to identify family as the breeding ground of patriarchy and point out the flaws in marriage as an institution with women’s right to property being the focus. These criticisms gradually changed the discourse of women’s movements by showing women as agents of social change rather than as victims.

The work of sociological literature is to show that what is made to look normal is actually problematic and that the foundation of a family’s existence is laid on the grave of women’s freedom of choice and their voice. Feminism in Indian sociology reopened new ways to study caste, gender, and the role of family and kinship while studying the role of women in various aspects. Various feminist writings highlight that the role of women and their contribution to the household was taken for granted and they were relegated to the position of mere vending machines of fulfilling desires. This was particularly relevant in the Asian households where women’s contribution was central to the sustenance of the social reproduction process but their contribution was unacknowledged and taken for granted.

Kamala Ganesh argued that initially women’s studies focused only on the role of the women in the household and the family and was restricted within the four walls of the house. However, gradually in the 1960s, the focus broadened to include the study of working women and their interlinkages with cultures, attitudes and other preconceived notions and then towards the 1970s, the focus shifted to include the increasing unemployment and the increasing percentage of women in the informal sector. Towards the 1980s and 90s the focus of feminist studies shifted to the black and third world feminist approaches. The increasing invisibility of the women from the marginalized sections especially Dalit women in the Indian context led scholars to study the struggles and movements of Non-Brahmins especially the women. The 1980s were the years when the struggles of the ones who were deemed voiceless sparked a new debate on the intersectionality of caste, gender, and identity politics. Towards the 1990s, more and more Dalit women’s organizations asserted the need to voice their concerns against the brahminical feminist politics and the patriarchal practices within the Dalits. However, over the years the debate has only come to be one of the many approaches to feminism rather than it being a focal point of the main idea of feminism. Presently, there are three different standpoints that have stemmed from the struggles and activism of Dalit women. One standpoint was the Marxist Phule-Ambedkarite position emerging of the Satyashodak Mahila Sabha. Another standpoint was the position of the Dalit Bahujan Alliance stemming from the Bahujan Mahila Mahasangh which criticized the Vedic and Brahminical tradition and stressed upon community based justice and customary law. A third position was that of the Dalit Mahila Mahasangathan who criticized the dominance of Manuvadi tendencies amongst the patriarchal society. However, Dalit feminism should not be seen as an isolated one. It is important to understand the intersectionality of various aspects with respect of Dalit feminists and also brahminical feminists should not speak for them but rather the voices of the Dalit feminists should be recognized as their own.

The present state of development process through a gendered lens

In spite of the popular discourse of urbanization being beneficial for people across all class, castes, and gender, increasing urbanization has proved to be detrimental for women to some extent. Boserup who had argued in her book, Women’s Rule in Economic Development, that with more advancement of the towns and cities, greater number of women than men have been pushed into the informal sector with little to no social security safety net and that formal sector opportunities have been somewhat limited because of the sex discrimination where employers perceive women to be less productive or having greater employee turnover owing to their commitment to the social reproduction process (unpaid household and care work), conditioned by the society, that is seen essentially as a woman’s responsibility irrespective of whether she is employed or not.

In the present contemporary times, there has been a lot of progress for women in terms of inclusion in the processes of governance. For instance, at present at least 185 countries are a part of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) where they are legally committed to implement all the clauses. Similarly, more than 90% of the countries across the world have formal policy agencies or governance processes in place for women’s empowerment and their inclusion. However, despite these formal advancements on paper, the reality is much worse and far from being perfect for women. Globally, 40% of the women make up for the total workforce but the gendered differentiation of work and the wage gap is still a cause of concern as women earn only 10% of the world’s total income. Less than 5% of the land worldwide is owned by women and only 1% of the world’s property belongs to women. According to a report by Oxfam, at least two thirds of the children who drop out of primary education are girls and out of 876 million illiterate adults, 75% of them are women. Even today, preferences for son over daughter in most parts of the global south are a reason for increased female feticides, and death of pregnant women. 


Even after more than three decades of the varied perspectives and agitations, various feminist movements across the globe especially the ones in the developing and underdeveloped countries including the Indian feminist movement is still accused to be westernized that have failed to identify all the intersectionalities of feminism with respect to the Indian society. Apart from being women, the protagonists of these movements also have their cultural, linguistic and sexual identities which we need to understand and at the same time, we also need to be aware of the intersectionalities of various social identities with feminism. It is important to recognize that feminism and its struggles are multifaceted and there are various local movements concentrated in different pockets all across the country which needs to be recognized and included in the larger feminist movements to make the struggles inclusive and just for all. Therefore, what most feminist critiques have also failed to recognize to a great extent is the existence of multiple intersectional feminist struggles of caste, class, and gender just like the popular discourse of modernization that has failed to recognize the multi faceted struggles, ethnicities, and indigenous ideologies in the process of development.

“Given that feminism as a political ideology and theoretical critique relativizes the status of existing gender categories, a simple privileging of feminine over masculine norms cannot provide an unproblematic grounding for feminist perspectives. Feminism has been forced in recent years to confront existing criticisms of its own race and class blindedness which is concealed by appeals to a unifying substratum of female identity. There can be no single feminine truth which can hope to succeed a deposed patriarchal wisdom.” (Felski, 1989)

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Bernstein, H. (n.d.). Modernization Theory and Sociological Study of Development. EBSCO publishing .

Chaudhuri, M. (2016). Feminisms and Sociologies . Contributions to Indian Sociology 50, 3 , 343-367.

Eisenstadt, S. (2000). Multiple Modernities. Daedalus, Vol. 129, No. 1 , 1-29.

Felski, R. (1989). Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Critique of Modernity. Cultural Critique , Autumn, 1989, No. 13, The Construction of Gender and Modes of Social Division (Autumn, 1989) , pp. 33-56.

Ortner, B. S. (1974). Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? Women, culture, and society , 68-87.

Phadke, S. (2003). Thirty Years On: Women’s Studies Reflects on the Women’s Movements. Economic & Political Weekly .

Rai, M. S. (2008). The Gender Politics of Development. Zubaan.

[1] The first wave of feminism occurred in the 19th and early 20th century. It mainly focused on women’s right to vote. It advocated against treating women as property of husbands after marriage, and fought for equal contract and property rights of women.

[2] The second wave of feminism was in the period between 1960s to 1980s that was concerned with equality and discrimination of women. This wave is referred to as the Women’s liberation movement and went by the slogan, “Personal is Political” to highlight the interlinkages of women’s personal lives with the oppression in the power structures that they faced.

Ishita Bagchi
Ishita Bagchi
Ishita Bagchi is a policy enthusiast and a writer who is keen on working in the area of gender, sustainability, and public policy. She is an Economics graduate and is currently pursuing her M.A in Development and Labour Studies from JNU, New Delhi.

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