Nepali history must acknowledge women’s contributions to the country’s seminal political changes
Two lines are visible on her forehead, a gray shawl with a brown border covers her head as she holds close an SLR assault rifle, as if to keep it warm. Her face displays a slight awareness that she is being photographed while at the same time, it seems as though she’s lost in thought, elsewhere. She looks vulnerable. She looks empowered. Juna Rai, the girl in the picture by Sagar Shrestha, under the nom de guerre Comrade Chunauti during the Maoist insurgency, went on to become the face of the decade-long conflict in Nepal. As an ode to the photo, Uma, a 2013 Nepali movie based on the Maoist war, had Richa Sharma, an actress, on its poster imitating Juna.
The conflict, however, was never a war waged ‘exclusively’ to ensure women’s rights. While it did seek to liberate women from the chains of patriarchy, it was part of the greater emancipation of all oppressed groups. In 1996, when Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai submitted a 40-point list of demands to the government, only point 19 specifically referred to women. It read, “Patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped. Daughters should be allowed access to paternal property”. It was an ambitious goal. And the ‘people’s war’ in itself was touted as an opportunity for women to liberate themselves from the traditional burdens of household work and discrimination. Women, by joining the war, could ‘choose’ to be free.
The war is now long over. Comrade Chunauti is just Juna Rai—one among the 1,352 former Maoist combatants who were inducted into the Nepal Army in August 2013. Gun toting women who captured the imagination of a large section of Nepali society are now a thing of the past. And their narrative is easily overlooked in popular accounts of that era.
A conspiracy of silence
Take Sudheer Sharma’s bestselling book, Prayogshala. The book is described by the writer as “an effort to dissect the Maoists’ tumultuous relationship with the then monarchy and the Indian establishment”, and not a history of the Maoist war. The over-400 pages long book is gripping and reads like a political thriller. One glaring drawback being that it is overwhelmingly about males: journalists (Sharma included), politicians, party workers, spies, soldiers. Women come into the picture only when they are related to males. Sharma mentions that Sita Dahal advised her husband Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Maoist party, on important matters. But readers only get to read of Sita’s advice to Dahal not to attend a meeting in the evening that would later be raided by the Indian police. Her advice on any other political matter does not find space.
When a reader like me looks for a female perspective in a definitive book like Prayogshala, it is because I am curious about the role of women in a key historical event like the Maoist conflict. Would the book have been any different if it were written by a woman? Would the list of interviewees and the writers of materials that have been extensively referenced include more women? Or was no woman ever part of any event that was worthy of mention in the book?
(Sagar Shrestha, “Juna Rai, Bhojpur, 2006,” Himalayan Collections @ Yale, accessed January 1, 2015, http://himalayancollections.commons.yale.edu/items/show/1493)
Writing about another book, Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal (released months after Sharma’s book) by Prashant Jha, in The Kathmandu Post, Surabhi Pudasaini and Astha Sharma Pokhrel had this to say, “Jha finds himself unable to see women’s political practices with the empathy he brings to other struggles.”
Both books were written long after the war was over. Sharma’s book was released in September 2013 and Jha’s in June. By then, there was no dearth of writing by Maoist women, detailing their roles and experiences of the war nor was there a lack of writing by other women on women’s roles, or their absence, during the war, the transition to peace, and other political developments. Pidabhitrako aakrosh (2007) documents the experience of 79 Maoist women who worked in different capacities within the party during war. Kailash Rai, in her research article, ‘Sahasik Jibangatha: Maobadi Mahilaka Yuddha Sansmaran’, lists seven books by women on their war experiences, published between 2005/6 and mid-2012. The Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh (Krantikari) also published a book titled Mahila Sahila Gatha in 2005, which provides a brief introduction of 947 Maoist women killed during the war, of whom 47 were tortured and repeatedly raped after arrest and then killed. Two among them were four and seven months pregnant.
In addition, there is an increasing number of research and news stories on women’s participation in the conflict and other political movements. So, their absence in popular documentation of political movements, in part, can be explained by the fact that history has a tendency to be ‘sexually selective’. As Ginette Castro writes in American Feminism: A Contemporary History, “In history, women have been the victims of a conspiracy of silence.”
History cannot wait
Key historical events have no doubt been overwhelmingly dominated by men, especially at the leadership level. Whether it is the anti-Panchayati movement or the 2006 Janaandolan, men led. But it’s hard to imagine the success of those movements without the direct and indirect support and participation of women. This support, however, has rarely gained visibility or been recognised in the form of leadership during crucial moments. For example, on Thursday, the four major quarrelling political parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, UCPN (Maoist), and the Madhesi Morcha—formed a taskforce to find consensus on disputed constitutional issues; all of its four members are men. This is all too familiar. Even when the Maoists and the state were negotiating peace, both sides were represented by men. These parties have always, at least in rhetoric, stood for the emancipation and empowerment of women.
For the situation to change, the most desirable scenario would be more women in influential positions in politics and the bureaucracy. But as that does not seem to be happening anytime soon—the state does not even recognise a Nepali woman’s right to grant citizenship to her children till date. History, however, cannot wait to be written until women come to power. It must acknowledge their participation and contribution. While things might have worked out well for Comrade Chunauti in her new life as a Nepal Army soldier, other Maoist women are still struggling to find a rightful place in Nepal’s contemporary history.