LSE: Renegotiating Patriarchy: Gender, Agency and the Bangladesh Paradox

Full Text Sharing

This ‘paradox’ has evoked a great deal of interest within the international development community because Bangladesh had been dubbed an ‘international basket case’ at the time of its independence in 1971, seemingly trapped in a development impasse. Previous attempts to explain this paradox have generally taken a top-down approach, focusing on the role of leading institutional actors – donors, government, NGOs and the private sector. In Renegotiating Patriarchy: Gender, Agency and the Bangladesh Paradox, Naila Kabeer starts with the rationale that policy actions taken at the top are unlikely to materialise into actual changes if they are not acted on by the mass of ordinary women and men.  But what led these women and men to act? And why did they act in ways that modified some of the more oppressive aspects of patriarchy in the country? That is what this book sets out to investigate.  

It describes the history of the Bengal delta, and the forces that gave rise to the kind of society that Bangladesh was at the time of its independence. It considers the policy and politics that characterised post-independence Bangladesh and how these contributed to the progress captured in the idea of the Bangladesh paradox.  

But the key argument of the book is that much of this progress reflected the agency exercised by ordinary, often very poor, women in the course of their everyday lives. Their agency helped to translate institutional actions into concrete changes on the ground. To explore why and how this happened, the book draws on a rich body of ethnographic, qualitative and quantitative research on social change in Bangladesh – including studies by the author herself. The book is therefore  about how norms and practices can change in progressive ways despite unpropitious circumstances as a result of the efforts of poor women in Bangladesh to renegotiate what had been described as one of the most non-negotiable patriarchies in the world.  


Praise for Renegotiating Patriarchy: Gender, Agency and the Bangladesh Paradox  


"A brilliant and powerful book that gives voice to ordinary Bangladeshi women, a welcome antidote to ’top-down’ theories of development that shines a light on the crucial role that women play in how social change actually happens."

— Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane and Love Marriage


"In the decades after independence in 1971, Bangladesh was widely dubbed ‘a basket case’ in terms of its development prospects. Its adverse geographical conditions, desperate poverty, corrupt state apparatus, political instability, and apparent drift away from democracy gave rise to the gloomiest predictions. Yet since this inauspicious start and despite ongoing problems, including the steady rise of a particularly orthodox version of Islam in public life, which might be thought likely to hold back women’s contribution, Bangladesh has made impressive progress in many areas of the Millennium Development Goals. Achievement in the teeth of so many odds, the Bangladesh Paradox, is the topic of Naila Kabeer’s scholarly but accessible monograph. An expert on Bangladesh, Kabeer uses her own extensive ethnographic research, along with other quantitative and qualitative evidence to document not only Bangladesh’s surprising performance but the even more astonishing fact that growth has been both pro-poor and pro-women. While acknowledging the importance of structural and institutional factors in this astonishing story, Kabeer’s emphasis is on the ways in which ordinary men and (particularly) women negotiated social and cultural constraints to respond to new opportunities for themselves and their children, thus remaking their world and their lives. Any researcher interested in the interaction between structure and agency and the ways in which individuals can and do effect change will benefit from reading this fine book."

— Jane Humphries, Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences

"In Renegotiating Patriarchy, Naila Kabeer offers optimism to the sometimes discouraging field of development studies.  She draws on years of creative thought, systematic analysis and careful fieldwork in Bangladesh to show that positive social change can outpace economic growth, overcome bad government, and address cultural resistance. This happens when women have agency to change their lives, their families, their communities, and the everyday practices of their work and livelihoods. This is a book I will recommend to students for years to come and that colleagues should celebrate."

— Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Sciences at ASU




About the author —

Naila Kabeer is Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of International Development.  Naila is also a Faculty Associate at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute and on the governing  board of the Atlantic Fellowship for Social and Economic Equity.  She has done extensive advisory work with international agencies (World Bank, ADB, UNDP, UN Women), bilateral agencies (DFID, SIDA, CIDA, IDRC) and NGOs (Oxfam, Action Aid, BRAC, PRADAN and Nijera Kori).  Her most recent projects were supported by ERSC-DIFD Funded Research on Poverty Alleviation: Gender and Labour Market dynamics in Bangladesh and West Bengal.  She is on the editorial boards of Feminist Economics and Gender and Development and on the international advisory board of the Canadian Journal of Development Studies She is also a member of the Inequalities Advisory Group, Bosch Foundation and a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Institute for Global Health.



The Open Society as an Enemy: A critical analysis of how free societies turned against themselves by J. McKenzie Alexander

Australia’s Evolving Democracy: the 2024 Australian Democratic Audit, edited by Mark Evans, Patrick Dunleavy and John Phillimore 

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

About Us

The idea is simple: creating an open “Portal” where engaged and committed citizens who feel to share their ideas and offer their opinions on development related issues have the opportunity to do...


Please fell free to contact us. We appreciate your feedback and look forward to hearing from you.

Empowered by ENGAGE,
Toward the Volunteering Inspired Society.