This IDS working paper is one of a series arising from the Pathways to Participation project which was initiated in Jan 1999 by the Participation Group, with the aim of taking stock of the first 10 years of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). There is a tendency to call any development practice that in some way involves local people 'participatory', and a huge diversity of meanings and practices can be hidden under this umbrella term. Additionally, the term 'participation' has become uncritically associated with 'empowerment'. Such oversimplified representations ignore the fact that participatory practice will vary greatly according to the context within which it operates. The paper analyses one particular approach to participatory development developed by SPEECH, an NGO working in Tamil Nadu, India, focusing specifically on gender relations. The paper draws on fieldwork from two communities - Kottam and Maniyampatti - in which SPEECH have been working for a lengthy period. The authors suggest that SPEECH's participatory practices are shaped by how both the staff and the local actors understand participation. As a result, the two communities have developed different participatory processes. The paper describes the notion that empowerment through participation is a relational and varied process occurring in spaces where people are able to interact according to an 'unusual' set of rules (i.e. during PRA workshops). The authors contend that such a process can have wider effects on social relations in everyday life, although, in this particular case study, certain aspects of gender relations have remained unchanged.