Microfinance and its discontents: women in debt in Bangladesh

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Texas A&M University Libraries]On: 08 October 2014, At: 14:24Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Contemporary South AsiaPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccsa20

    Microfinance and its discontents:women in debt in BangladeshUday Chandraaa Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and EthnicDiversity, GermanyPublished online: 27 Nov 2013.

    To cite this article: Uday Chandra (2013) Microfinance and its discontents: women in debt inBangladesh, Contemporary South Asia, 21:4, 471-472, DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2013.856608

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2013.856608

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  • the different conceptualisations of space in the Manusmriti and the Natyasastra and whatthis has meant for women. The next chapter analyses the gender dynamic of the BhaktiMovement, while the fifth chapter foregrounds the types of protest around nineteenth-century concerns about womens roles, functions, rights and identities. The sixth chapterengages with questions of feminism in the context of caste as well as the modern Indiannation-state. The final chapter provides a restatement of Jains argument about the indigen-ous roots of feminism in India, invoking the evidence of the previous chapters to under-score its point.

    Indigenous Roots of Feminism is an ambitious book that tries to make an importantpoint that resistance did not come to Indian women only with colonial modernity.While the aim and the intentions cannot be faulted, Jains book suffers from severalflaws in execution. Jains treatment of ancient and modern texts often seems impressionisticand confused sometimes, for instance, modern retellings are uncritically used as expla-nation and description of values and thought processes in the epics. This lack of historicaland conceptual rigour also manifests in how Jain sees women women in Indigenous Rootsof Feminism are always a transparent category whose motives and meanings, even whenthese are not clearly stated, are ever an open text for Jain. The ease with which Jainassumes that the anonymously produced text, Simantni updesh, is written by a woman isa case in point (92). Finally, Jain is guilty of reproducing in her book precisely the over-whelming focus on Hindu religious and cultural narratives which she says whitewashesthe presence and contribution of other religions to modern Indias common heritage andits gender politics in the present (270).

    Substantial problems notwithstanding, Jasbirs Jains Indigenous Roots of Feminismwill be of interest for those researching alternative trajectories for the emergence and con-solidation of feminism in different non-western and/or non-white cultures and commu-nities. Equally, Jains references bring some little known books by and about women tomainstream notice.

    Sharon PillaiUniversity of Delhi, Indiasharon.pillai@gmail.com

    2013, Sharon Pillaihttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2013.856607

    Microfinance and its discontents: women in debt in Bangladesh, by Lamia Karim,Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, xxxiii + 255 pp., ISBN 978-0-8166-7095-6

    Few academic monographs today demand urgent attention as does Lamia Karims path-breaking study of how microfinance institutions ensnare rural Bangladeshi women insocial webs of debt and disempowerment. In Karims painstaking ethnographic explorationof the everyday worlds of the much-lauded Grameen Bank and its chief competitors BRAC,ASA, and Proshika, readers are introduced to the seamier side of rural microfinance as itsbeneficiaries encounter it. Accordingly, what champions of microfinance describe innocu-ously as credit networks are revealed to be debt relations, which generate new forms ofsocioeconomic hierarchy that bind poor borrowers to lenders. Even as non-governmentalmicrofinance institutions funded by international donors raise thousands out of dire

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  • poverty, Karim shows, they place their beneficiaries in new relations of subordination inlocal moral economies of shame as well as in the global neoliberal market economy.

    Microfinance and Its Discontents is, above all, an indictment of the new modes of gov-ernance (30) that hold sway today over poor populations in the Global South. In Bangla-deshs troubled political history, the turn to these NGO-centred modes of governanceoccurred under the military dictatorship of General Ershad and externally imposed struc-tural adjustment policies during the 1980s. Spearheading the new technocratic project ofpoverty alleviation was the Grameen Bank, brainchild of later Nobel Prize winner Muham-mad Yunus. The Bank lent money to poor borrowers in rural Bangladesh according to capi-talist norms of individualism, hard work, discipline, hygiene, and savings (7071). In linewith American and international aid conditions, a focus on gender came to be adopted,though it was taken for granted that rural men remained the primary users of the moneylent (71). Rural centres of forty women, subdivided into eight groups of five each,became the nodes of microfinance operations. Small loans of $100$200 were expectedto be repaid within a year at a fixed interest rate of 20% plus sundry hidden costs, whichwere nonetheless less than the prevailing moneylenders rate of 120%. Typically, dominantrural lineages and those who fitted the entrepreneurial demands headed local Bank oper-ations, maintaining fiscal discipline and pushing through additional products such asmobile telephony and bottled water. These fiscal and societal arrangements, whichsupport debt relations in Karims pseudonymous Pirpur thana, constituted the newregime of governance in rural Bangladesh.

    There are at least four ways in which Karim persuasively demonstrates the challengesposed by the new NGO-centred regime of governance. Firstly, NGO-sponsored microfi-nance has not eliminated rural money-lending, but has, in fact, ended up actively financingcircuits of debt in Bangladesh. A successful rural entrepreneur, by the logic of microfinance,may well be a moneylender who charges exorbitant interest rates in order to repay her ownloans to Dhaka-based organizations. Secondly, those who do not fit the entrepreneurial idealor suffer personal setbacks can fall into a severe debt trap, which can lead to greater depen-dence on lenders and, ultimately, utter destitution. Thirdly, those who cannot repay debtsface the ultimate stamp of dishonor (117), house-breaking by fellow villagers, evenkin, to recover part or all of the money owed. Lastly, since NGOs do, in fact, provide valu-able services, including credit, to the rural poor, they have effectively become quasi-sover-eigns who distribute benefits selectively and structure new relations of dependence in ruralBangladesh. In sum, what appears to empower women does exactly the opposite.

    Uday ChandraMax Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany

    chandra@mmg.mpg.de 2013, Uday Chandra

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2013.856608

    Moving pictures: rickshaw art of Bangladesh, by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and David J. Wil-liams, Ahmedabad, Mapin Publishing, 2010, 96 pp., ISBN 978-0-944142-63-9

    The cycle-rickshaw is an everyday vehicle of Bangladesh, and rickshaw art a panorama ofcolour, creativity and charm. Despite criticisms of its slow movement and the traffic jams itcauses, the vehicle supposedly gives the country an identity. Intrigued by the moving

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