21/11/2013 07:31 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

India's First All-Women's Bank: Emancipation or Emaciation of Equality?

In a country where crimes against women are witnessing a sharp rise, here's a ray of hope. Or, is it? Sociologists and social psychologists could argue otherwise, saying creating 'exclusive' spaces for women can actually ruin their prospects of achieving social equality. In any case, let's fill you in on this 'only for women' venture, which is a bank that's exclusively for women. Named the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women Bank), branches of the bank across the seven locations in the country were inaugurated on November 19. On the very first day of its operations, the bank branches doled out generous amounts of 'kitchen loans' for their exclusive set of women customers who wanted to redo their kitchen space.

Hailed as a pioneering initiative ever since its announcement in the Union budget, first branch of the bank saw a rather vibrant launch with a corpus of Rs 1000 crore ($160 million). Headquartered in Indian capital New Delhi, opened seven branches in major cities of India, including one in the financial capital of India, Mumbai, the bank hopes to have 25 additional branches and 100 ATMs by end of the financial year, i.e by March 2014.

Apart from being an 'all-women' bank, this effort has many other firsts too, such as an all women board with eight members. The board members are drawn from different disciplines and fields of expertise with finance, administration, politics and entrepreneurs making up for their background.

In a developing country like India, women account for a meager 7.3 per cent of total credit in the financial sphere. Though Bharatiya Mahila Bank is aimed at making banking and its products more accessible to women, there has also been a fair amount of criticism that says this may be reduced to tokenism too, just as it has been happening in politics with men operating the whole show from behind the screens.

Though non-government organizations or NGOs that are operating through small groups extend hand loans on rotation basis (eg: microfinance) mostly for women from economically disadvantaged sections, professional institutions dealing with finances such as banks have remained non-participant in the process. Reason behind this could be many. Women are yet to get property rights and banks in rural areas give loans on immovable assets such as agricultural land is probably family-owned, and (or) owned by the male head of the family. Though not stating so in a candid manner, banks will not extend loans to poor people, and women since they are dependents with no possessions.

In urban areas the problem continues to exist for women from diverse walks of life, and especially to those who live in lower income category and may be carrying a few liabilities themselves such as home loan or education loan of their children. And, in case of women from economically marginalized category living in slums or ghettoed areas, the problem is ever manifesting into something larger which plays a crucial role in denying them their right to equality, education and empowerment.

The idea behind women's bank is to make banking a pro-women institution and create better access to availing loans and other products of the banking sector. It would also create more job opportunities for women, and make their participation in financial sector increasingly 'inclusive' than intimidating. Products such as education loans up to Rs 10 lakh for girls, can give splendid boost to more girls continuing education, than dropping out of schools for want of financial assistance. In an attempt to reduce the gender hierarchy and the hegemony it has created leaving women out of the progress radar, the bank will extend loans to women even when they do not possess the property. In such cases, the relative who possess the property/asset can be the co-borrower. Men and women can deposit money in the bank, but only women would be encouraged to avail the loan.

If the objectives are fulfilled, the concept of women's bank could go a long way in ensuring financial freedom for women. But, if this remains mere representation and a cocoon for women to wrap themselves around with, oblivious to the rest of the aspects, the exclusive space can turn into another form of soft-discrimination.