Monday, April 07, 2008

Breaking the Box in Nepal

Four days after the elections for the Constitutional Assembly in Nepal, ten women, including a 77-year-old, will climb Mt. Qomolangma in the Himalayas. That seems a strange way to commemorate a new political development but in this tiny country wedged between India and China, it is characteristic of the way Nepali women are breaking centuries-old traditions and pushing their way toward the 21st century.

Last week, parliament revoked a law that gave men the right to divorce their wives if they don’t bear children in ten years, never mind if the cause is male infertility. Some time ago, Nepal recognized the gender designation M/F, neither male nor female, for the transgendered. And in the coming Constitutional Assembly, Dalits (who used to be called untouchables) will sit with higher caste representatives to write the Constitution that will formally end the 269-year Shah dynasty.

The ten mountain-climbing women come from different castes and ethnicities, thus symbolizing the hoped-for national unity, in the face of a disintegrating kingdom. Already, its interim government has stripped King Gyanendra of his powers, canceled his annual $3.1 million allowance and taken away 10 of the royal palaces. Royal wealth seems excessive in a country where the literacy rate runs between 35-40%, and where the poorest of the poor, mostly women, own literally nothing.

Gyanendra, a businessman, ascended the throne following the murder of his brother, the old king, and eight other members of the immediate royal family, allegedly by a prince, over a thwarted romance. This story was, of course, widely disbelieved. Gyanendra assumed the throne in the midst of a burgeoning people’s war waged primarily by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or the CPN (M), with the twin political call to end the monarchy and liberate women. I confess that when I was first made aware of the latter, I nearly jumped out of my skin, having been engaged in debate for 20 years over class, gender and liberation.

Sometime in the early ‘90s, I was introduced by a mountain-climbing friend to a Nepali man who seemed terribly – and to me, inordinately -- interested in discussing women’s rights, issues and women’s struggles. I can’t remember his name now but this was at the time when the first pro-democracy movement was occurring in the country. Because I was chair of a national women’s organization then, he wanted me to meet a visiting delegation from an all-women’s association of Nepal. I begged off, knowing very little about Nepal and afraid I would say something stupid. But also because my mind simply couldn’t wrap itself around why a man would be interested in women's rights; I'd never met one before.

The call for emancipation appeared to have inspired a dash among Nepali women to join the revolution. From various accounts, women comprise anywhere between 36% to 50% of the armed fighters of the CPN(M), with the aggregate membership of women’s organizations numbering 600,000. This was dizzying, indeed. Then from the turmoil came one woman's clear and strong voice. an essay on women’s leadership in Nepal’s people’s war, written by Comrade Parvati, head of the CPN(M) Women’s Department.

Parvati is running in the Kathmandu Valley, under her real name Hisila Yami. She’s one of only 373 women among 4,000 candidates contesting the 240 seats to be determined by direct vote. Under the proportional representation system, though, over 3,000 women are contesting some 5,998 seats, carrying their political parties’ banners. Nearly 10,000 candidates in total are running in these elections.

By mandate, women are supposed to occupy 30% of the Constitutional Assembly. But political parties have fielded very few women for the direct elections or have them running in areas where they’re sure to lose. The CPN(M) has the largest percentage – 20%; it’s second-in-command said that the Party wanted 50% but couldn’t find enough women. That sounded like the usual excuse but with women’s literacy running to only about 26%, not finding enough to meet eligibility requirements seems plausible. Indeed, Nepal’s Election Commission threatens to disqualify 49 women candidates for lack of documentation.

In a move that resonates, CPN(M) fielded 100 candidates who each had lost a family member in the course of the 13-year people’s war. 80 are women, widowed in the struggle for Nepal’s national liberation. What better way to honor the dead of a movement than to give their kith and kin the right to have a say in governance?
That a Maoist party finds women’s emancipation to be of major interest is explained by Parvati thus:

It is interesting to observe that revolutionary communist women have always been on the offensive when they are fighting against the revisionists. The reason may be because they are painfully aware that revisionism breeds bureaucratization, which in turn strengthens patriarchal values, ultimately negating women in politics.

It should be noted that in third world county like Nepal, where class differentiation is not sharp enough, inner-party struggle may often appear in the form of gender, ethnic, regional struggle. Hence the gender issue becomes quite an important component of the class issue. In such a case dismissing the gender issue as an alien force will ultimately affect class struggle.

True, one large box – feudalism -- has to be broken in Nepal but that box contains many little boxes in which women are held captive. Officially, 80,000 Nepali women work in 65 countries, mostly as domestics, contributing roughly 10% of total remittances to the country but many more work in clandestine situations, especially in the Gulf countries. 10,000 are (sex) trafficked annually to India, creating some 200,000 women exiles. Among the Dalits, 60% are married before the age of 16. And while widows are no longer automatically immolated at their husbands’ funeral pyre, they are not allowed to re-marry. Property rights are also by male lineage, leaving widows and daughters impoverished. Nepal's women have a shorter lifespan than men --an anomaly in this world.

A civil war may seem a drastic way to break traditional boxes but as one woman fighter put it, being engaged in an actual liberation movement has brought about more political, cultural and ideological changes than “if universities had taught equality for a hundred years.” - ##


Anonymous said...

How can you? Communists, especially Maoists, have the worst politics when it comes to women. Forced pregnancy in Eastern Europe, girl fetucide in China! Mistresses left and right for the Communist gerontocracy! How could you?

babo said...

Thank you for writing this.

The long oppressed women of Nepal are storming the heavens!

Worried Nepali said...

Amazing isn't it? - if you insist on looking at complex problems from only one obsessional point of view - the fashionable US "empower women (otherwise we won't give give your NGOs any money!)" idea, everything seems so wonderful! You can ignore the Maoist smashing people from other parties to death with sledgehammers in front of their own families, kidnap and rape of schoolgirls (we had to move my little sister-in-law out of the village to Kathmandu), kidnap and brainwashing of schoolboys, whom they put unarmed in the forefront of their attacks as human shields, then cut the heads off the dead bodies so it couldn't be seen who the cowards had murdered in this way! It's all so lovely for women's empowerment in your tinted, or should I say tainted, world - maybe you'd better stay there and hibernate.
Then when the army was cut off due to the sustained anti-King and Army propaganda campaign in the papers they own, and they ran out of ammo, the Maoists came back to the villages and murdered anyone they said had collaborated even when they hadn't. I suppose you wouldn't know what a palpable sense of relief there was when the King took over and threw out the rotten politicians who had bled Nepal dry - it was not the King the Maoists first rose against but those rotten politicians!!! Inconvenient fact, that is, isn't it?
Finally after the greedy politicians allowed the Maoists into Kathmandu (as apparently they naively thought they could take back power through them), the Maoists fought all round our flat and through Kathmandu, with no mandate from the people whatever - indeed by that stage they were generally hated in most of the Country - you didn't know anything about that, I suppose!
After they seized power and dumped the King, we finally had an election in which the Maoists sent 100 thugs to every booth in the countryside, who checked what people were voting and are still attacking and looting people and villages who voted against them, even now! Two days before the election they said they would not accept any result if the vote went against them (that's power to the people/women isn't it!), and would immediately go back to "the people's" war and capture Kathmandu in 10 minutes if people did not vote for them!! They also beat up any politicians from other parties and did not allow them to go to their constituencies to campaign. Naturally the Maoists won, though fortunately not an absolute majority - but they have threatened war again on every issue since - they have also now forcibly and by bribery recruited half a million youths, the Young Communist League, who, with nothing to loose, have been capturing people's land and farming it themselves, threatening businesses who don't want to be run by them, etc. etc., stealing houses, evicting opposition politicians from the villages etc. Many escaped ex-Maoist girls, commonly underage, have escaped to children's homes in the capital and tell how they were made into sex-slaves and work-skivvies and forced to marry combatants as rewards for them - if that's empowering women, it's not a very nice sort of way way to do it.
I'm afraid I lost my vaguely friendly feelings towards a Mr. James Carter who came over here, stayed in a 5-star hotel in Kathmandu (like most of the other blind election "observers") and went to see a voting booth in Kathmandu next to the British Gurkha Regiment HQ - and declared what a free and fair election we had - not sure if he actually realised he wasn't in the USA any more!! The election commission disagreed with his profound analysis, but were told by you-know-who ("the fierce one" alias Prachanda of the Maoists and other party members) to shut up, and the newspapers are having their journalists' lives threatened every time they expose the thuggery of the Maoists all over the Country - the big M now say they will enforce a new Code of Conduct for the media - and we all know what THAT means!
So here we are comrades - the opposition parties have tried to ensure the Maoists don't take over and destroy the neutral Nepal army, replacing it with their indoctrinated people, but to no avail, and tried to insist they don't keep their arms and PLA ("People's Liberation Army"!) separately while in power, or run things with the paramilitary YCL, sidestepping the law - but they have failed on all concerns, the PM was thrown out yesterday (well that was a good move, at least!), the King last week (even with 50% wanting a monarchy in a poll, and people weeping at the gates as he was pushed out and the bandana'd unwashed walked into the Palace and yellow journalists laughed as they sat themselves in the Royal throne, insulting the people of Nepal). Let's see what happens - Nepal definitely needs a complete shake-up, no one would disagree with that but these thugs are nicknamed the Khao-party (means eating up everything) and beat and kill anyone they don't like, or who doesn't agree with them, or with their enforced take-over of people's land etc. They said last week, as a sop, they will stop these violent and undemocratic activities - only to capture more land etc. all this week - but who can stop them? We were sold down the line by the US (they always were an ignorant lot), UK (that's appalling, given the Gorkhas help to Britain), EEC etc. - despite the previous and wise US ambassador, Mr. Moriarty, warning the US of chaos to come if they didn't help the Nepal army in time. Only the Chinese helped Nepal against the Maoists (can one imagine such an irony!), but are now out of the running. The Mahadeshis, Indian Immigrants from during the British time after the Gorkha War, down in the lowlands now want a separate lowland state, thanks to big brother India's "help" to keep a weak Nepal and eat whatever bits it can get.
I wonder what it will be like in future - Cambodia??
But I'm sure if Prachanda's wife (you didn't say that), Hsila Yami, can get into power by her husnband's coercion and terror, all you rosy-spectacled ignoramae from US-style, women's organisational backgrounds will all be able to congratulate yourselves on the great women's advancement hypothesis! Isn't that just great!
Worried Nepali.

Ninotchka Rosca said...

Hisila Yami is married to Battarai, not Prachanda. She is also known as Parvati of Nepal. Please fact-check.

Worried Nepali said...

Yes, of course - with their instructions to the media to change their noms-de-guerre back into names so they look more acceptable internationally, I made a small slip. Babu Ram Bhattarai - the no. 2 in the hierarchy.
Yami's nom-de-guerre, by contrast is hardly known to anyone of the general populace. Whether or not she's in as no. 1 or no. 2 wife of the Maoist Socialist Republic is not of great significance - though we all know that even though the monsoon is in full swing, we only get water for an hour every third day at 4.00 a.m. and this is the first time anything like that has ever happened during Monsoon under the Water Ministry she now runs.
But as for getting facts right I wonder how you could simply have ignored all the shocking facts of the rise and conduct of the "New Nepal" you espouse - as opposed to simply mistaking someone's nick-name? Please get real and look at what's been happening and is continuing to happen. I also wonder if you would be so happy to empower women (surprisingly few actually when it comes to the number they put into the CA) through the same sort of things going on in your own country? Here in Nepal the whole people, male and female, families and singles, seek empowerment - it's not just a biased one-gender view that's needed - as the people in general see it all slipping away from them yet again. As for the "third gender" the Maoist policy so far has been one of unprecedented brutality, including beatings of any they can catch, no different, if not even worse, than the police are. So now they have two brutal organisations on top of them and the gains they made in the Supreme Court (nothing to do with the Maoists) are being taken away in practice.
I wouldn't be proclaiming how wonderful it all is at this juncture - after all, you don't have your business and family under threat, I don't think. If such people as have imposed themselves on the people of Nepal could really turn out to be good we'd all be happy and would even vote them in genuinely, but the signs so far are pretty alarming and don't look much like Women's or anyone else's achievements yet! What people here are mainly wondering now is whether there will ever again be any democratic freedom at all.
Worried Nepali.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how some Nepalis are suddenly "worried" now that their businesses are threatened. Before, they said nothing when majority of the population were the ones threatened and the Dalits lived lives of continuous brutality under the theocracy. And said nothing when even when the royal family they so idolized was nearly wiped out by other royal family members in a murderous rampage. Heh!

Ninotchka Rosca said...

Please see for update.

Per my experience, it is easy to be shocked and threatened by the sporadic/episodic violence that accompanies the transition from one social order to another and yet be desensitized to sustained violence, especially when that has lasted 200 plus years. Sustained violence then becomes unremarkable, ordinary, expected, a lifestyle, as it were -- most especially when sustained violence affects most grievously women, who are after all "not quite human."