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.” - ##