Masculinities among irrigation engineers and water professionals in Nepal

J. Liebrand

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



This thesis documents my attempt to study masculinities among irrigation engineers and water professionals in Nepal. It is based on the recognition that more than two decades of mainstreaming gender in development research and policy have failed to come to grips with the masculine subject. In this thesis, it is hypothesized that there is something intrinsically masculine about the irrigation and water management profession, both in the West and in Nepal. This hypothesis is based on personal experience, being a male researcher myself and being trained as an irrigation professional in the Netherlands, and having travelled to India and Nepal to meet irrigation engineers and water professionals in an intercultural context. The hypothesis is also based on academic questioning of masculinities in irrigation. The aim of the thesis is to scrutinize a taken-for-granted association of men with organisational power, authority and expertise in irrigation. To facilitate investigations, two domains in the world of irrigation are conceptualized: the domain of the irrigation professional and the domain of irrigation expert knowledge. For each of these domains, a set of research questions has been formulated. First, how does one become an irrigation engineer in Nepal, employed in the Department of Irrigation, and what masculinities might be involved in becoming one; and second, how might masculinities be implicated in irrigation knowledge and water expert thinking. To answer the first question, this thesis analyses the institutions of engineering education, professional associations and regulatory bodies, and the Department of Irrigation. To answer the second question, this thesis analyses the use and presentation of irrigation data in policy making and it examines histories of irrigation expert thinking in Nepal.

The conceptual backbone of the thesis is to see professional performance in irrigation as cultural performance, drawing inspiration from the work of Victor Turner in particular. In Chapter 1, I explain that he metaphor of performance can be read as technical performance and cultural performance, and is conceived in this thesis as two sides of the same coin, mutually constituting professional performance. In the process of research, I have come to see the concept of cultural performance as particularly apt for this thesis. It has enabled me to conceptualize linkages between the gender of engineers, professional cultures in irrigation and technical representations in irrigation knowledge, without having to exclude myself from the writing process. The latter is important in research on masculinities because identifications of masculinities and femininities are unavoidably interpretative, situated and partial.

Chapter 2 presents historical contexts of irrigation development in Nepal, highlighting the main state interventions in the sector and some of the changes in professional practice in irrigation. It also presents a background on the education system and the civil service in Nepal from the 1950s onwards, highlighting gendered aspects of these institutions and revealing that they have functioned as closed institutions of the high-class, upper-caste elite in Nepal. It also documents a history of women professionals in rural development in Nepal from the 1950s onwards, in an attempt to understand why there are so few female irrigation engineers in the Department of Irrigation. In this account, I briefly re-visit the introduction of ‘social organisers’ in irrigation in the early 1990s in an attempt to figure out why social organiser positions were not taken up by women professionals as community specialists. The analysis reveals that the position of women professionals, from the 1950s onwards, has been defined in terms of their ‘feminine capacity’ to deal with ‘women’s issues’, marked by their non-involvement in broader issues of development.

Chapter 3 presents feminist histories of the main institutions that constitute the roadway for becoming an irrigation engineer in Nepal. The first institution is engineering education, focussing on Nepal but also mentioning the places abroad (mainly in India) where Nepalese men (and some women) have gone for engineering education. The focus is mainly on diploma (overseer) and bachelor (engineer) level education in the disciplines of civil – and agricultural engineering. For these disciplines, I have collected gender and caste segregated enrolment data of students at engineering colleges in Nepal (going back to the 1980s). A second set of institutions are the regulatory organisations for the engineering profession in Nepal and the professional associations that exist in relation to the field of engineering, water, agriculture and irrigation. It presents an analysis of about 40 professional associations and also discusses some of the incipient networks of women professionals in natural resources management. The third institution is the Department of Irrigation, describing its history from 1952 onwards (year of establishment) and presenting an analysis on who is employed in the organisation. The analysis of the institutions reveals that they mainly have been the world of men.

Chapter 4 focusses on the informal milieu in the Department of Irrigation to understand how one becomes a ‘real’ irrigation engineer. The analysis is based on the assumption that getting an engineering degree, and becoming a member of an engineering association and securing employment in the civil service of the Department of Irrigation, does not automatically make a person a ‘real’ irrigation engineer. It is hypothesized that junior engineers need to participate in the informal milieu of the institutions, develop agency and acquire the desire, skills and perceptions that ‘fit’ a normative and gender authentic performance of a ‘real’ irrigation engineer. The development of agency and desire is conceptualized to occur through two distinct yet interrelated processes, which I call ‘self-normalization’ and ‘transitional performance’. The analysis reveals that the informal milieu of the Department of Irrigation is infiltrated with social stereotypes and cultural norms that prevail in (elite) society in Nepal, causing barriers, particularly for women, to perform as ‘real’ irrigation engineers. The analysis also identifies two periods in the lives of engineers that can be conceived as rites of passage for becoming an irrigation engineer: ‘the college’ and ‘the field’. It is suggested that participation in these rites of passage is a pre-requisite to become a ‘real’ irrigation engineer.

Chapter 5 discusses the performance of women engineers and ‘other men’ in the Department of Irrigation. Other men are conceptualized as a broad category of men, from professionals with a disciplinary background other than engineering to men of ‘low caste’ and men with a particular ethnic background. The analysis focusses, however, mainly on the performance of ‘lady engineers’ as women engineers in the Department are known. Their marginalized position in the organisation is highly visible whereas subordinated positions of men in the Department are more difficult to detect. Apart from the presence of (male) Madhesi officers, class, caste and ethnic issues among men are difficult to understand ‘within’ the Department, because staff with a Dalit background, for instance, constitute only 2% of staff in lower management positions in the organisation. The taboo for women to perform in the field is discussed in relation to the performance of the lady engineer. Also an overview is presented of the disadvantages that lady engineers tend to accumulate in the pursuit of a career in the Department. The analysis reveals that most women engineers come to face a career plateau in their life, causing them to accept office work that is considered of secondary importance, switch jobs or quit service altogether.

Chapter 6 analyses the performativity of irrigation data and their use in policy making in Nepal. In the recognition that technical representations of reality help to enact professional credibility and claims of truths of irrigation engineers and water professionals, the focus is on understanding how irrigation data might support (and help to enact) professional performance in irrigation. It is analysed how irrigation data breathe life into particular representations of reality, reflecting and structuring a particular experience in irrigation expert thinking. It is suggested that the ‘show’ of irrigation data can also be considered a ‘cultural expression’ of authority, professional identities and masculinities in irrigation. This is not to say that women professionals in irrigation would use and construct irrigation data in a different way, but to point out that authority ‘sticks’ more easily to male engineers when they use irrigation data, than to female engineers when they use irrigation data.

Chapter 7 presents a self-portrait of ‘our knowledges’ in irrigation. Speaking about ‘our knowledges’ in irrigation – something that is deeply contentious from a feminist perspective – is done as a way to acknowledge my subjectivation as an irrigation professional and to invite fellow members of knowledge and policy elites in development to participate in an exercise of self-discovery. I reconstruct a history of irrigation expert thinking in Nepal based on 60 years of state irrigation interventions in Chitwan District (1950-2010). It is an explorative study, rich in empirical material, also presenting a fresh look at irrigation practices in Chitwan before the 1950s and re-constructing an account of how images of the Tennessee Valley Authority in America served to conceptualize multipurpose watershed management and new irrigation projects in Nepal. Through the use of photos, I also show how engineers have acted as negotiators of knowledge and masculinities in the act of building irrigation systems in Chitwan District. The investigation is based on the assumption that it is worthwhile to scrutinize our expert knowledges in irrigation because our performances and identities of ‘ourselves’ – as male and female engineers and professionals – are somehow implicated in it. Treating the historical account as a self-referential experience or self-portrait of professional performances in irrigation, I explore how masculinities have been associated with our expert knowledges. The analysis is also an account of professional performance and practices of masculinities that I have negotiated (and performed) myself, in the act of doing research in irrigation on masculinities.

In the last chapter (general discussion and conclusions), I conclude that masculinities are deeply embedded in professional cultures in irrigation – not just in interactions between irrigation engineers and water professionals but also in our knowledges in irrigation. Professional performances and expert knowledges in irrigation are an enactment of ‘projectness’ – a particular experience of reality (in projects) which reflects and structures ‘our’ understandings of the world in a gendered way, and in which ‘we’ hardly have been able to date to accommodate feminist perspectives on irrigation and water management. I also point out that qualifying behaviour or practices of people as (partially) masculine or as an effect of masculinities is controversial among irrigation engineers and water professionals. Irrigation and water management historically is a field of applied engineering, and the argument that masculinities are implicated in professional identities and in irrigation expert knowledge, is disputed. Irrigation engineers and water professionals generally have internalized a conviction that science and engineering is rational and universal, and they propagate the view that engineering itself is disconnected from meanings of masculinity and femininity.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Vincent, Linden, Promotor
  • Zwarteveen, Margreet, Co-promotor
  • van der Burg, Margreet, Co-promotor
Award date10 Dec 2014
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462571419
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • irrigation
  • engineers
  • gender
  • professional education
  • nepal

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    Genders of scale and scales of gender

    Liebrand, J., Vincent, L., Zwarteveen, M. & van der Burg, M.


    Project: PhD

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