A Masculine Water World: The Politics of Gender and Identity in Irrigation Expert Thinking


Zwarteveen, Margreet. 2010. “A Masculine Water World: The Politics of Gender and Identity in Irrigation Expert Thinking.” In Out of the Mainstream: Water Rights, Politics, and Identity, edited by Rutgerd Boelens, David Getches, and Armando Guevara-Gil, 75-89. London: Earthscan.

Author: Margreet Zwarteveen


In this chapter, Zwarteveen argues that one of the main reasons for the continued omission of gendered analysis in mainstream water analysis is the fundamental incompatibility of water realities as understood by water experts and by gender experts, especially given the tendency of the former to conceive of scientific knowledge about irrigation in isolation from social impacts or environments. She identifies three fundamental conceptual problems in irrigation thinking. First, water experts tend to operate on the positivist assumption that given the proper technology and incentive structure, human beings everywhere will display the same behavior-- thus conceptually removing actors from the context of place and culture. Second, they tend to construct oppositional spatial dichotomies between the masculine (irrigation / work / public / production) and the feminine (domestic water use / households / private / consumption), thus ignoring the overlap in these sectors. Finally, Zwarteveen argues that envisaging irrigation as a functionalist factory (as experts are wont to do) isolates actors from their social contexts and overlooks multifaceted pre-existing informal water management systems (that contain their own set of gendered power relations). Zwarteveen concludes with two rhetorical strategies for increasing women’s visibility: 1) enumerating their presence amongst irrigators and farmers (thus de-emphasizing their non-irrigation gender identities) and 2) discursively treating them as a distinct group with specific needs that differ from those of men (which has the danger of making masculinity the ‘norm’ and femininity the ‘other’).


“The difficulty of understanding the role and position of women and gender relationships in irrigation is most often attributed to the symbolic, discursive, and ideological construction of farmers, irrigators, and engineers as masculine and to the fact that being recognized as inhabitants of, and actors in, irrigation worlds requires rights, abilities, and character traits that are seen as belonging more to men than to women.” (76)

“Through irrigation knowledge, those in control of water are provided with agency and subjectivity, a discursive construction that is conditioned upon the simultaneous denial or severe limitation of agency to users, irrigators, or farmers.” (79)

“The use of gendered dichotomies is also problematic because the ‘masculine’ pole of these dichotomies tends to be valued much more positively and tends to be attributed more power and status that the ‘feminine’ pole. Some feminists and some streams of eco-feminism have therefore argued for a reversal of this hierarchy, and for a revaluation of the feminine. Others, in contrast, have argued in favor of strategies that would facilitate and encourage women’s entry into the masculine world of production, politics, and reason. Both positions, however, tend to neglect the importance of critically questioning the ways in which the poles are defined. The boundaries that separate nature from culture, private from public, work from home, and so on, are not fixed and a historical, but are contingent and socially constructed.” (82)

“While not often directly gendered, the conceptual delimitation of what what counts and matters in irrigation, of what belongs to the irrigation domain, and the definitions of what is ‘good’ irrigation behavior are deeply colored by gendered images and connotations. Using such delimitations may have the effect of reinforcing and further legitimizing such gendered divides, rather than questioning them.” (83)

“A proper understanding of gender within irrigation systems depends on thoroughly rethinking the metaphorical and spatial, and sometimes ideological and normative, images used. One must overcome, or at least question critically, the dualistic conceptual framework founded upon an opposition between the economic, rational irrigation world of production and politics on the one hand, and the affectionate emotional world of the home and the family, on the other. This can...be done by recognizing that men are not just irrigators and farmers, but also husbands and fathers, or by acknowledging that women’s identities are not confined to those of mother and housewife, but also often includes those of farmers and decision-makers.” (84)

“Conceiving of the irrigation management domain to include all that irrigation experts consider to belong to the irrigation system, and nothing more, is not conducive to making women and gender visible. To ‘see’ the social and gender factors in water management requires understanding that what happens ‘within’ the formal water management domain is shaped and influenced by what happens ‘outside’ it. It also requires a realization that events and decisions that have to do with water do not just take place within the formally defined water management domain. Insulation of the formal water management domain from its environment is based on the idealized views of experts rather than on-the-ground realities reflected in women’s experiences as participants in user organizations.” (86)

“‘Seeing’ gender in water management, then, not only requires allowing women to enter into the already defined and ideal-typical domains of irrigation decision-making. It also requires rethinking the boundaries and functions of these domains. And it includes a critical enquiry into how drawing boundaries between identified domains serves to maintain or erode existing modes of gendered power and gendered identities.” (89)

Topics: Gender, Women, Masculinity/ies, Femininity/ies, Gendered Power Relations, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation

Year: 2010

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