Naila Kabeer is joint Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of Gender Studies and the Department of International Development. She is President of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) for 2018-19 and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2013.
Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work at LSE?
I was born in Kolkata in India, and moved with my parents at a young age to Bangladesh. I attended an Irish Catholic boarding school in the hills of India before coming to England for my A-levels.
I studied for my Undergraduate degree in Economics at LSE, did an MSc in Economics at University College London and then returned to LSE to do a PhD in Economics. But I realised halfway through that I wasn’t cut out to become an economist - I didn’t have the temperament! So I switched to Population Studies which was an interdisciplinary department.
When I finished, I went to the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, where I started to get involved with feminism and gender as part of my professional life. I came back to LSE as a Professor in 2013.
You are a Professor of Gender and Development. What attracted you to these areas of research?
When I was at LSE doing my Undergraduate degree, I took Development Economics as my option as a way of trying to keep a connection with ‘home’ but, of course, what they teach you is actually very abstract. It didn’t feel like home at all. Also I became a feminist as an Undergraduate and did not see any trace of feminism in what I was being taught.
I was attracted to the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex at that time as it was beginning to develop path-breaking theoretical approaches to feminism in the economy, particularly in developing countries, and I wanted to be part of that. Going into the Institute of Development Studies therefore made sense – it gave me a way to connect my interest in feminism with my desire to keep a connection with my origins.
At LSE, I teach courses in both Gender Studies and International Development. I’ve always been someone who likes to bridge things so I’ll take my feminism into Development Studies to try and unpack the patriarchal injustices that permeate all aspects of development. Similarly, I use my research in Development Studies to critique forms of feminism born in affluent countries and not necessarily sensitive to what feminism might look like to people living in conditions of scarcity.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
I think the highlight is the very first book I ever published, Reverse Realities. I had started teaching at the Institute of Development Studies and I wanted to write a textbook that reflected what I was trying to teach.
The response to it was overwhelmingly positive and it took me aback. But I’ve had students come up to me over the years and say it was their ‘bible’ in their Gender and Development Studies - so that’s very rewarding. I don’t know, maybe they say that to everyone they read, but they also said it to me!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Research that is intellectually challenging in its own right and which constantly engages with policy and practice has been at the core of all my efforts. The other central motivation of my research has been to position myself with those in the Global South who normally don’t get heard in feminism and development. A lot of my work has been with men, women and children from very poor households and from socially marginalised populations, such as indigenous people, the poorest castes and informal workers. Being able to bring these interests to my teaching is very rewarding. Teaching allows you to locate your research and experiences in the wider literature on the subject and it gives you a particular standpoint, the standpoint of students, to bring it all together and make sense of it.
And what would you say is the most challenging aspect?
A lot of the material I have to teach is still very northern. Hence, it is literature born of affluence, of the welfare state, of taken-for-granted privileges. I often find myself having conversations at cross-purposes with people because we think we’re talking about the same thing but we’re not. For example, we may think we’re talking about poverty or inequality but poverty and inequality here is different in both their causes and consequences to what they look like in India or in Bangladesh.
So I may find myself disagreeing with feminist colleagues about how to interpret political priorities or with colleagues in international development who may not take gender very seriously. I always seem to fall between the cracks.
You are currently President for the International Association of Feminist Economists (IAFFE). What does that entail and how did you get involved?
When I first started going to IAFFE conferences back in the 1990s, it was a very US focused organisation as that’s where it started but over the years it has made a real effort to become more diverse and the more diverse it gets, the more interesting it becomes and the wider the range of topics that it discusses.
Being President for a year is both an honour and an obligation. I have gained a great deal in both personal and professional terms from being a part of IAFFE and I guess this is my way of giving something back. And you get to shape its direction for a brief period. At the moment, I’m helping to organise the next conference which will be in Glasgow in 2019. It will be on the theme of gender at the intersection with multiple inequalities, a theme which I think resonates across national boundaries and generational divides.
IAFFE also have an excellent journal called Feminist Economics. It has a very deliberate policy of being inclusive, to make sure that its articles are written for a global audience not just for readers in the US and Europe. It has tried to provide a lot of support for scholars who are new to publishing in journals through mentoring schemes and workshops.
What leading woman or women inspire you?
There are a number of academics who inspire me. One of them is US feminist economist Nancy Folbre. At a time when I was studying economics and complaining about how narrow I thought it was, she was actively taking on some very heavy weight economists for precisely this reason. Reading her critique was the birth of feminist economic consciousness for me. I admire her courage and her way of bringing together different strands of economics in a constructive rather than antagonistic manner.
Another person who inspires me is anthropologist Ann Whitehead who I worked with early on at the Institute of Development Studies. As a British anthropologist working in Africa she brings an unusual nuance and sensitivity to her work. She makes an effort to try and understand the culture she’s working with in its own terms and to use this understanding to inform her own analysis. It’s a very respectful stance. I have tried to learn from her.
A third person is Deniz Kandiyoti who works on the politics of gender and development. Her work inspires me because it combines the analysis of the larger political forces that structure how patriarchy works in Islamic societies, that have features in common with my own, with a grounded understanding of how people in these societies seek to accommodate, subvert, resist and challenge it. In all her work, you find this constant struggle to comprehend the politics of gender in all its complexities without descending into the kind of polemics, stereotypes and defensiveness that seems to characterise research on this topic. All three inspire me because there is an integrity and courage to their work that makes them stand out.
However, there are also three women from Bangladesh I would also like to mention who have a different kind of courage and integrity. They put their heads above the parapet every time they see an injustice. To do that in Bangladesh or India or in some other parts of the world can be a matter of life or death. You could be killed, you could be picked up or could just disappear. But I know that every time there’s an injustice, they’ll be there. They are social mobiliser Khushi Kabir, feminist activist Shireen Huq and the feminist lawyer Sara Hossain. I don’t know how well known they are to people here at LSE, but for those who know them, they are hugely brave and very inspiring.
Alumnus Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia said:
I nominate professor Naila Kabeer in recognition of her valuable contribution and influence as an academic and researcher raising awareness of the structural obstacles women face to path their own way out of poverty. Beyond denoting these obstacles, Professor Kabeer has further developed and made practically operational the concept of women's empowerment advancing the global gender equality agenda by revealing ways in which social efforts, policies and poverty reduction programmes promote or prevent the agency and voice of women. Personally and at my work, among colleagues, high-policy makers and practitioners in the 'developed' and developing world, United Nations meetings I've first-hand witnessed the value of her tirelessly and passionate work. She has inspired many women - and men like me - to take action, remain critical and progress the status of women. She was one of the main reasons I joined LSE, continue to work in international development and gender and I am proud to call her my professor.
Department of Gender Studies
Department of International Development
International Association for Feminist Economics