19 MIN READ
In February 2021, at the Women’s March in Kathmandu, Hima Bista proclaimed defiantly that “My vagina will vote you out”. This declaration led to much commentary, supporting Bista but also censuring her. While many commended Bista’s women-centric affirmation, others criticized her for centering the ‘vagina’ in feminist discourse. The criticism did not just come from conservative men who took issue with Bista’s use of the word ‘vagina’ but also from mostly younger women and non-binary individuals who said that an appeal to a woman’s biology alienated women who weren’t born with a vagina and failed to take into account ‘intersectionality’, a term that has become increasingly more prevalent in the ongoing global feminist movement.
Intersectionality, a term coined by American civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw, refers to an acknowledgment of an individual’s varying social and political identities that influence their own experience of privilege and discrimination. In this particular instance, Bista, as a woman, is oppressed by various forms of patriarchy in Nepali society, but as an urban, educated ‘upper-caste’ woman, she is also privileged in many ways.
“My seniors criticized me for using the term vagina. They thought it was vulgar, but on the other hand, I now understand that not everyone identifying as a woman may have a vagina,” said Bista, who is executive director of WomenLead, a feminist training organization. “I am willing to unlearn from preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman and a feminist.”
Intersectionality has become one of the rallying cries of third and fourth wave feminism, both of which seek to expand the discourse around feminism to marginalized and third world individuals while also including LGBTIQ issues and individuals, sex positivity, and transfeminism. Third-wave feminism especially sought to supplant the privileged role of white and western women in the discourse and empower experiences, theories, and perspectives coming out of the Global South and from marginalized races, ethnicities, and castes.
In that vein, February 2021’s Women’s March was also emblematic of intersectionality in the Nepali feminist movement. Poet Sapana Sanjeevani recited a Maithili poem titled ‘Hum ab Sita nahi banbau’ that contrasted the hallowed position that female goddesses like Sita, Laxmi, and Saraswati have in the Hindu pantheon with the actual position and status of women in largely Hindu societies. While Sanjeevani too received much criticism for her poetry, particularly from conservative Hindu men, her presence and recitation displayed the changing face of Nepali feminism, which has long been led by ‘upper-caste’ women from Kathmandu.
As such, intersectionality and the privileging of diverse voices within the mainstream Nepali feminist movement is a recent phenomenon, led primarily by a younger generation of feminists.
A Nepali history of feminism
A cursory look back at the history of women’s rights and activism in Nepal can help shed light on the discourse surrounding the mainstream feminist movement and the need for a more diverse body of actors. This is all the more necessary because, as political scientist Seira Tamang writes, “The main important players, whether it be the women from mainstream political parties, or the women of the NGO world or the Communist Party of Nepal, have all contributed to excluding and silencing radical diversity in the name of expediency and elite power brokering.”
Looking back at history, there have been numerous powerful women who’ve shaped the course of Nepali society and politics. According to DR Regmi in his book Medieval Nepal Volume 2, Gangarani, the Queen of Visvamalla, the fourth king of Bhatgaon who ruled from 1547-1560, was the powerhouse behind the throne for many years during the reign of her sonTrailokya Malla. Queen Rajendra Laxmi, after the death of her husband Pratap Singh Shah, acted as regent and ruled Nepal despite attempts by courtiers to pressure her to commit sati on her husband’s funeral pyre. It was also because of the status of Queen Lalita Tripura Sundari that Bhimsen Thapa was able to sustain his power in the court and start a campaign against the British.
Regardless of how powerful these queens were, their influence did not extend beyond the four walls of their palaces. There is no historical evidence that any of these queens did anything to uplift the status of women in general. Instead, these women, whether knowingly or unknowingly, became key individuals in propagating the patriarchy through the patriarchal institution of the monarchy.
Many scholars trace the beginning of feminism in Nepal to Yogmaya Neupane’s rebellion against the Rana regime in the early 20th century. Yogmaya was a Hindu religious leader and a poet who wrote poems against the patriarchy, the caste system, and the autocratic Rana regime. She demanded a dharma bhikshya from then prime minister Juddha Shumsher which meant that she wanted the government to put an end to corruption, gender, and caste discrimination, and adopt a vow of truth. She is also believed to have founded the first women’s rights organization, the Nari Samiti, in 1918. She attempted self-immolation in protest of inequalities but her attempt was disrupted by the Rana government. But in 1941, she and 67 of her followers committed mass suicide by jumping into the Arun River in protest.
Women have been at the forefront of many of Nepal’s political movements, even though they are often not as recognized as men. Rebanti Kumari Acharya founded the Adarsha Mahila Sangh in the mid-40s as a front to provide communication links between jailed democracy activists and the nascent democratic movement led by the Nepali Congress in India. In the late 40s, Mangala Devi Singh, one of the first women’s rights activists in modern Nepal, founded the Mahila Sangh and demanded the right to vote. Many women marched in support of the democratic movement in 1950 and were subsequently jailed as a result.
After democracy came to Nepal in 1950, women’s groups became much more active, demanding rights to education, property, and equality before the law. Tara Devi Sharma was instrumental in getting polygamy outlawed and ensuring the right to divorce. Mangala Devi, Sahana Pradhan, Sadhana Pradhan Adhikari, Kamaksha Devi Rana, and Hira Devi Tuladhar, among others, were instrumental in organizing women politically while also working in the social sector to uplift women and eliminate societal ills.
During King Mahendra’s autocratic Panchayat rule, women’s organizations became limited, often subsumed under one large organization called the Nepal Mahila Sangh. This organization was not permitted to indulge in political activities and mostly undertook social work aimed at rural women. But as another movement for democracy grew, women were once again at the forefront. Sahana Pradhan was on the democratic negotiating team with king Mahendra as a women’s representative.
Subsequently, after the restoration of democracy in 1990, a number of women went to occupy prominent positions in government, providing some much-needed representation but also acting as role models for young women. Sailaja Acharya became the first deputy prime minister of the country in 1995 while Sahana Pradhan became the first woman Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2007.
While these women may not have identified themselves as feminists, their constant advocacy for women’s rights makes them feminists. Unlike the royal queens of yesteryear, these women actively took part in the upliftment of all women, although that definition too might have been circumscribed by caste and class. There were certainly shortcomings when it came to inclusion but these pioneering women laid the foundation for the feminist movement to come.
The Maoist movement
But before we get to contemporary times, it is necessary to take a detour to the 10-year Maoist insurgency. One of the explicit goals of the Maoist movement was to ensure an end to all kinds of discrimination against women. Point 19 of the Maoist’s 40-point demand, a list of outstanding issues presented to the government before launching the war, explicitly states: “Patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped. Daughters should be allowed access to paternal property.”
During the conflict, the Maoist leadership often championed the sizable presence of women combatants. Besides prominent female leaders like Hisila Yami and Pampha Bhusal, the Maoists claimed that women made up 30 percent of combatants; although, during the verification process conducted by UNMIN in the aftermath of the war, the number was around 19 percent.
Women’s liberation was among the foundational goals of the Maoist movement. “The women have more to gain than the men from the People’s War. That is why the women, especially the Tibeto Burman and non-Aryan women constitute such an important part of the movement,” Yami told the researcher Rita Manchanda in 1998. In her writings, Yami has also acknowledged the intersectionality of the non-Khas-Arya women combatants, who were doubly oppressed because of their gender and their caste.
While there has been much criticism of the Maoists since they joined mainstream politics in 2006, it is evident that the Maoist movement provided a critical jumping-off point for many identity-based movements, including that of women and rural women in particular. The domination of the ‘women agenda’ by urban upper-caste women was upended to some extent by the political participation of rural women in the Maoist movement. It is telling that Nepal’s first female Speaker of the House of Representatives was Onsari Gharti Magar, a former combatant.
In her 2004 article, Rita Manchanda concludes, “For disempowered rural women, despite the contradictions of the competing priorities of the ‘anti-feudal revolution’ and the paradox of the possibility of an emancipatory politics amidst an authoritarian militarized culture, their lives have been changed by the political opportunities offered by the Maoist revolutionary vision.”
The 2015 Constitution of Nepal, an explicit outcome of the Maoist insurgency and its demand for a new Constituent Assembly, asserted the right to equality stating that the state would not just eradicate discrimination, but would also formulate special provisions for the empowerment of women. Article 38 of the Constitution reaffirms the commitment to reduce the gender gap in the nation by stating that women shall have special opportunities in the field of education, health, and employment on the basis of positive discrimination. As such, women are entitled to 33 percent, or one-third, representation in all government bodies and that includes all decision-making bodies of Nepal’s numerous political parties.
And yet, the very same constitution has been heavily criticized for upholding patriarchal notions of identity and citizenship at the expense of women’s rights. Manjushree Thapa, a prominent Nepali writer, burned the constitution in symbolic protest for not providing women the same rights as men when it came to passing citizenship to their children. While men are unconditionally allowed to pass citizenship, women must present evidence of their husbands’ death or absence. Laws drafted or amended in the wake of the new constitution have reaffirmed the privileged position of men at the expense of women, especially Madhesi women.
“Women married from India to Nepal will have to remain stateless for seven years according to the proposed citizenship bill,” said 28-year-old Shailee Agrawal, a queer Madhesi activist. “Life is uncertain, no one can guarantee the safety of their spouse till they get their documentation. The people within mainstream feminism are content that their children can get citizenship and don’t care about women from the Tarai.”
Towards intersectional feminism
In their wide-ranging critique of the citizenship bill, writers Kalpana Jha, Sangita Thebe Limbu, and Abha Lal argue that the concept of citizenship in Nepal remains rooted in a “fundamental pahadi masculine idea”. The writers point out how the citizenship bill is not only regressive when it comes to the rights of women but also transgender individuals. They call for a broadening of the mainstream feminist movement to include not just women but Madhesi women, Janajati women, gender non-conforming women, trans women, and women not interested in marriage.
“For the citizenship bill to enshrine equality — not just for cisgender Pahadi women but Madhesi women, trans-women, and women not interested in marriage — the mainstream feminist goals need to be broadened. It is not enough to demand that citizenship provisions for jwais be equal to citizenship provisions for buharis; rather, the fundamental idea of a masculine Pahadi ethno-state needs to be challenged so that the needs of women and gender non-conforming people at the margins are addressed,” they write.
Agrawal believes that the mainstream feminist movement might not be able to raise its voice on each and every issue but she thinks it is necessary for mainstream feminists to at least facilitate dialogue due to their privileged position in power and politics.
“We have still not been able to come out of the Brahmanical definition of gender and sexuality. Women don’t want to be considered goddesses, we just want our rights,” said Agrawal. “The feminist movement cannot solely be claimed by cisgender heterosexual females.”
For many activists, the Nepali feminist movement has not yet arrived at the third or fourth wave of feminism. With questions of citizenship and equal rights still pertinent today as they were 50 years ago, the movement appears to be stuck in stasis, neither progressing nor regressing.
In the West, the sexual revolution of 60s, sparked by the invention of the ‘pill’, started conversations about sexuality, gender, and the policing of women’s bodies. Sex and sexuality, previously centered around the holy triangle of marriage, reproduction, and heterosexuality, were broken down to address pleasure and sexual freedom. While abortions are no longer a legal question in Nepal, sexuality and gender continue to be taboo topics of free discussion. Nepal’s morality remains guarded by pahadi heterocentric Hindu ideals where women are to be straight, pure, virginal, and protected.
“The Nepali feminist movement has not encompassed the topic of queer rights,” said Rukshana Kapali, a trans rights activist. “People still question the identity of queer people and it is difficult to make people understand that not all women may have vaginas.”
Kapali points to a divide between an older generation of feminists for whom feminism is largely still about cisgender biological women and a new generation, to which Kapali belongs, that sees the feminist movement as limited by questions of gender and sexuality. This discrepancy has been exemplified on the world stage by British author JK Rowling, who has been criticized for her characterization of trans individuals. Rowling claims that the fight for trans rights should not come at the expense of the rights of biological women. But many of her detractors have dubbed her a TERF – trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The acronym itself alludes to the presence of feminists who do not see trans rights as part of the broader feminist movement.
In Nepal too, some older feminists have received criticism on social media for what many see as disingenuous advocacy. One recent instance was the criticism of an article penned by Babita Basnet, an older journalist widely considered a feminist writer. In the article about the ongoing controversy over actor Paul Shah’s sexual relationship with a 15-year-old teenager, Basnet criticized Nepal’s age of consent of 18 years and wrote that it was “wrong for the law to consider consensual sex with a minor as rape”.
Similar criticism too has been directed at Bandana Rana, a member of the UN Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women, for publicly sharing a photo of the underage victim and making statements on social media that were seen to provide implicit support for Paul Shah, an alleged perpetrator.
While the older generations of women’s rights activists fought for political power and representation of women, younger feminists say that the time has come to expand the feminist movement if it is to become truly progressive and inclusive.
“Yes, we have had campaigns, but there have been no movements dedicated solely to the feminist agenda,” said writer and researcher Indu Tharu. “We have not truly embraced intersectionality within women. I commend the public service commission for providing reservations for women but this needs to be further compartmentalized according to class and caste because these affect the opportunity of women.”
Indeed, representation alone does not matter when women’s participation is tokenistic. The 2017 local elections saw women aspiring to leadership roles, bringing 35,041 women into politics. However, very few of them constitute the top leadership, with most confined to municipal assemblies and vice-mayoral positions. Out of 293 mayors in Nepal, only seven of them are women and five of them are Khas Arya. A recent report in The Kathmandu Post too pointed out how women have reservation quotas but those quotas are largely occupied by Khas-Arya women. The diversity within the extremely broad category of “women” has not been acknowledged.
“We are at a crossroads of moving ahead from the issue of representation to questioning whether it has been tokenistic. Having representation is not always going to work. What we need is a guaranteed right to exercise power,” said Manushi Yami Bhattarai, a politician from the Janata Samajbadi Party and daughter of Maoist leader Hisila Yami.
According to Bhattarai, the feminist movement in Nepal has not been cohesive; it has been issue-specific. Gruesome incidents like the rape and murder of Nirmala Pant bring people to the streets to demand justice and rights but they fade away once the issue has been settled or in Pant’s case, largely forgotten.
“Forms of oppression and patriarchy have also changed over time,” said Bhattarai. “We cannot put women into a homogeneous category but rather have to make an attempt to make it more intergenerational and inclusive.”
The feminist movement can no longer be limited just to blanket issues of political representation, however important that may be. Caste, class, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, and gender identity must all come under the rubric of truly progressive feminism.
While the conversation on feminism inside the Kathmandu Valley might be limited to positions of power and breaking the glass ceiling, the same might not be true for women living outside the reaches of Kathmandu’s boarding school-educated, English-speaking feminists.
“In places like Panchkhal, the struggle is still for survival and basic nutrients. Male members of the family get a full glass of milk whereas female members get only what is left. The entire structure of society is built in a way where women are denied their right to live to their full potential,” said Anoushka Pandey, who conducted her undergraduate thesis on women, food, and water.
Access to justice still remains a major problem for women from marginalized communities in rural areas. In October, a group of women walked all the way from Nepalgunj to Kathmandu to demand an investigation into the death and disappearance of two women. While this incident showed how Kathmandu remains the central locus for any kind of movement, it also brought Ruby Khan, a Nepalgunj-based human rights activist, into the mainstream, highlighting that women outside of Kathmandu continue their own fight for rights and recognition, outside of the public eye.
Researcher and writer Kalpana Jha acknowledges that the feminist movement in Nepal has long been elitist. According to her, it is important to start from the grassroots.
“If you look at the [global] feminist movement, there is ‘white feminism' and feminism followed by ‘colored women’, women of diverse ethnicity, nationality, and indigenous backgrounds. If you analyze the issue of citizenship in this country, women married to Nepali men from the Madhes are discriminated against. It is the political trajectory of the country that determines the voices that are recognized. Activism on feminism has to start from the grassroots, ” said Jha.
Feminism itself is an evolving concept and Nepali feminists, both young and old, must acknowledge that, say activists. But it also wouldn’t be right to dismiss all the work that the older generation of activists have done in ensuring that the state acknowledges women’s rights and women’s issues.
According to Renu Rajbhandari, founding chairperson of Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), despite long years of advocacy, the imbalance in power among genders has not reduced. However, this doesn’t mean there has not been any societal progress.
“The state has acknowledged that the personal is political. We have laws that protect women from violence and guarantee their rights to employment and autonomy over their own body,” said Rajbhandari.
But Rajbhandari acknowledges that the feminist movement must be truly inclusive, although it might take more time.
“No matter what class they come from, women holding positions of power need to be able to think about women with diverse identities,” she said.
And this is why it is necessary to include diverse perspectives within the mainstream feminist discourse, whether it be Dalits, the indigenous, or the queer community. Feminism must go beyond caste, class, and gender to advocate for true equality among all women, cis or trans.
“In Nepal, there is a great deal of confusion and misuse of the term intersectionality, which primarily refers to the dynamic overlapping relationships involving race/caste, gender, and class,” said writer and activist Sarita Pariyar. "People are not comfortable asking uncomfortable questions involving caste."
Pariyar too believes that a small group of women, primarily from dominant caste groups, continue to control resources and entrenched socio-cultural and technological assets like religion and media. As an illustrative example, she related a recent incident where a mayor attending a program focused on Dalit women’s participation in politics said, “दलितहरु माया र दयाले आउनुहोस्, अधिकारले होइन” (Dalits come forward with love and kindness, not with rights). This highlights the need for intersectionality in the women's rights movement as caste is often subsumed under the broader category of 'woman' under the assumption that all women share the same experiences.
According to Hima Bista, the solution to bridging the gap lies in intergenerational conversation.
“I joined the movement by looking at my seniors. But feminism is an evolving concept. First, we need to classify what is to be our main agenda and what are the other movements we are supporting,” said Bista. “Second, we need to reduce the intergenerational gap and create space to have dialogue among and within women or those who identify as women.”
Every year, March is celebrated as ‘women’s month’ and March 8 as ‘women’s day’ and it is on this occasion Seira Tamang, seven years ago, exhorted both women and men to listen and learn from each other. She wrote:
“March as Women’s month is based on the feminist principles that women, as well as men, need to learn to listen to each other and learn each other’s ways of seeing and being. Feminism cannot be used to ignore the rights of those that have been and continue to be actively marginalised. A feminist is someone who not only believes in equal rights for women, but insists that eradicating sexism from the social structure also requires struggling against other structured inequalities of caste, class, race, ethnicity, region, sexual orientation, and others.”
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