On 10 October 2020, the #ajhaikatisahane movement went viral on social media and gained attention like we were hoping it would. In the weeks before it, public outrage had grown in response to the rape cases in Bajhang and Bhaktapur.
It was crucial for such scrutiny of the government, and outrage against its failure in the investigation of the cases. But the movement was overtaken by demands for capital punishment.
The #ajhaikatisahane movement brought to light the social, legal and moral grounds on why the death penalty is not a solution for such heinous crimes, as well as demands including the need for gender-neutral definitions and punishment to mediators in cases of rape.
Forming and being a part of this team required people with aligning views on capital punishment, determination to take the risks, and most importantly, the ability to maintain solidarity for what lay ahead.
For many of us in the team, it was our first experience participating in a street demonstration, and we were surprised by the outcome. After a flash mob at Maitighar, we saw hundreds of instant shares on social media, and we started getting approached by people in positions of power with whom we were able to voice our concerns.
The movement received widespread support and appreciation but also criticism, with some limiting our efforts to just a performance. Comments included labelling us as ‘सडकमा नाच्दैमा बलात्कार रोकिएलार ?’, चटकीहरु चटक देखाउँछन्’, ‘डलरडानस’ (‘Will street dancing stop rape? Magicians’ tricks, Dollar Dance). There seemed to be a general misunderstanding of people towards initiatives led by young women.
Shockingly, such reaction was not restricted to a few individuals on social media sites but even public officials and political leaders who flippantly passed judgement about what we wore and our street performances.
They completely overlooked our efforts in coordinating the movement in creative ways. More so, such insensitive remarks only strengthened our resolve and convinced us that the struggle was not just against the perpetrators but the society at large, which is still guided by patriarchal beliefs and values.
The freedom of women in our societies has been curtailed for centuries, and their leadership questioned. Ironically, it is even more pronounced when women rebel to gain control over rights and decisions.
One need not look too far for examples. The government has time and again turned a blind eye to the status of women in the Badi community. It has also largely ignored women’s fight for equal citizenship rights, justifying the blatant discriminatory provisions with nationalism.
When women activists come out, they need to fight not just for the issue that they have raised, but also be prepared to face a backlash they will most likely receive because they have broken the gender norms and societal expectations.
Taking activism to the streets is already a struggle on its own. And while the street is only one of the platforms for protests, it is a powerful one. From the Green Wave Protest in Argentina to the Aurat March in Pakistan, such street rallies have played a significant role in initiating discourse, and sometimes also bringing about social reform and legal changes.
It takes courage to defend the cause through street protests in a society that expects women to stay put. And at times I myself felt exhausted, the path ahead to achieve social justice seemed full of obstacles because we were discouraged and belittled at every step.
Women are doubly tested and face many more hurdles than their male counterparts. It is visible not just when they take to the streets but also in decision-making, where women politicians are mostly relegated to ceremonial positions despite their potential.
Misogynistic remarks often by sitting ministers and politicians, including those questioning a woman’s morals, are proof that women are still not treated as equal citizens despite the state’s claims of being progressive.
While fighting a bigger fight, women are already exhausted halfway trying to establish their credibility, and this makes the entire process of demanding justice and change much more infuriating.
The struggle for justice in individual cases therefore has to go hand-in-hand with the struggle to change public perception of women in leadership, and the form of protest they chose for their activism.
It is not enough to see young women activists as leaders of tomorrow. Their presence, contribution and significance have to be acknowledged today.