Nepal has experienced a profound and impressive social change in just one generation with improvements in literacy, schooling, health and political participation.
There has been a shift from a deeply hierarchical social order, where gender differences were supported by a combination of ritual, law, political economy and state, to one where the call for women’s rights is widespread.
The tragedy of the young woman who was killed in Achham this week by snakebite during her monthly banishment to a shed during menstruation reminds us again of the problem. Her family tried to keep her death under wraps because of the shame the media coverage would bring.
However, a stereotypical representation of Nepali women persists, one influenced primarily by the colonial discourses of Third World women needing protection, welfare and development which is pervasive in women’s activism, public policy, development programs, and the media.
More worryingly, there is a strong tendency to view Nepali women’s suffering mainly as a result of traditional Hindu religious and ritual practices. Positive developments in the lives of Nepali women remain largely invisible in dominant popular and scholarly representations.
These obscure the diversity of women’s experiences in favour of stereotypes, and paradoxically imply that any demeaning practices which subjugate Nepali women can be done away with by replacing traditional values with modern ones. While social changes are underway in Nepal, it is dangerous to assume that gender equalities will automatically prevail once traditional ritual and religious values are erased and replaced by modern ones.
It is vital that there is an appreciation of Nepali women’s dynamic and diverse experiences, perceptions, aspirations and achievements, and that these can be viewed within the broader political-economic framework.
Gender relations are not just rooted in Hindu cultural and ritual sites as claimed, but equally embedded in political-economic structures and institutions, not only in Nepal but across the world. Discourses on Nepali women are created and sustained by an assemblage of activists, media, development professionals and policy makers, all of whom draw exclusively on a widely critiqued colonial view.
The prevalence of stereotypical representation of Nepali women is reflective of lack of space for their voices. As such, these actors offer very little space for women’s own experiences, perceptions, aspirations and achievements, and Nepali women are automatically considered victims of unchanging patriarchy, in particular due to dominant Hindu religious and ritual order.
This is most evident in the widespread representation of chhaupadi, dowry, gender and sexual violence and preference for male child, amongst others. The creation of a political space that allows women’s voices to be heard is key to understanding the diversity of women’s lives in Nepal.
Likewise, there is an awkward absence of men’s perceptions and experiences in almost all of the discussion on Nepali women. How do Nepali men articulate and appropriate ideas of gender hierarchies, masculinities and women in sub-ordinate positions? Cultural, ethnic and class differences, in addition to changing gender ideologies, make it hard to generalise about Nepali men and how they view and treat women and negotiate their masculinities with them.
Given ample evidence of how caste, class, ethnicity, and religion and political patronage shape power relations in Nepali society, it is critical that we acknowledge the differences and heterogeneity of women’s and men’s social experiences.
Partly due to the overpowering image of Nepali women within the religious and ritual practices that relegates women’s position within the domestic and reproductive sphere, there has been very little acknowledgement of women’s actual contribution in the economy.
There are misguided and patronising initiatives aimed at bringing women into the so-called ‘mainstream economy’. If the overall aim of earning money and becoming wealthy is to improve our living standards, the contributions that women and men make in the domestic sphere has more value than money. The problem does not lie in lack of women’s participation in the formal economy, but more importantly in the failure, by development economists, to value women’s labour in the domestic realm.
Inaccurate, inappropriate and generalised stereotypical representations can make people feel betrayed and excluded. International development actors, social activists and popular media can play critical roles in shaping mindsets.
It is critical to move beyond these traditional notions that women in developing countries lack agency and are controlled within an unchanging patriarchal social order. Perhaps women (and men) in Nepal have some unexplored qualities and attributes, which can be learned and appreciated. Nepali women’s resilience and how women (and men) in Nepal negotiate power-relations within family, community and state could offer positive learning.
Perhaps, those who are in economically and politically privileged positions also should learn more about Nepali women and men, before venturing to rescue them from so called dominant Hindu patriarchal social order.
Including the excluded, Om Astha Rai
Autumn of the patriarchy, Editorial