The ‘Nepali women’ you get to know from the development blurb are conveniently homogenous. All are equally poor, illiterate and oppressed.
In the struggle against patriarchy, the idea of ‘sisterhood’ has been the key political force. However, since the 1970s the idea that “all sisters are equal” and that all women suffer the same oppression simply because they all are women, has come under serious criticism. The works of African-American, Latino, Asian and other Third World feminists have shown manifold vectors—class, caste, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation—that structure the way oppression is experienced. Such work has enabled us to not only see the dangers of ignoring differences among women, but also to see how the major systems of oppression are very much interlocked with each other.
In the US, black and other women of colour continue to accuse white ‘sisters’ of being racist and not being able to understand the double oppression they face being non-white and female in American society. The rise of autonomous dalit women organisations in India, asserting their differences with both the brahmanism of the Indian feminist movement and the patriarchal practices of Dalit politics, speaks to similar concerns. The issue is the manner in which a certain template of ‘feminist/women’s concerns’ has been constructed and authorised by certain elite women.
Based on their own very specific historical, social, cultural and material realities, this process of authorisation has had the effect of including and excluding specific knowledge claims and establishing the boundaries of what is to be rendered ‘the truth’ and ‘the reality’ of women’s lives. Thus, pivotal to the issue of a re-conceptualisation of more inclusive feminist theories and practices includes recognising the differences between women. It is these very concerns that feminists in Nepal appear as yet to be blissfully oblivious of.
Since the path-breaking studies in the late 1970s to the 1980s on “The Status of Women in Nepal” undertaken by the Centre for Economic Development and Administration (CEDA) at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, two things have been very clear: women in Nepal and the work that they do have been statistically under-represented and peripheralised in the development process; and women in Nepal are not homogenous.
Of these two findings, however, the fact that women in Nepal are a heterogenous group has, for some reason or other, been largely sidelined. Indeed, it is a mystery of sorts that while practically every report/paper concerning women and development in Nepal begins with remarks about the ethnic heterogeneity of the population, the rest of the piece unproblematically continues with a discussion about ‘Nepali women’. It is as if the obligatory blurb on ethnic and other differences needs to be included but is in the long run irrelevant to the discussion of ‘Nepali women’ and their gendered realities.
With the discourse about women in Nepal remaining at the level of ‘Nepali women’, issues of class, caste, religion, and age, as well as ethnicity, have been rendered irrelevant. Reports, conference presentations and speeches continue to evoke the image of the ‘Nepali woman’ as poor, illiterate, uneducated, choked by patriarchal domination and oppressed by tradition and superstition. For consumption in the international arena and for political sloganeering, such generalisations are useful. The problem is these very reports, articles, etc, are also being produced for research and other uses in Nepal.
Clearly, the utility of such reports in the national arena is questionable. Such facile generalisations are of no practical use in a country, where, to give an example, the lives of an entrepreneurial Sherpa woman living in the mountain region of Solu Khumbu and the middle-class Bahun (hill Brahmin) housewife, contain considerable gender-related differences. The latter tend to be regimented by strict Hindu notions of sexual purity and pollution which restrict her freedom of movement beyond the home, while for the Sherpa woman, her involvement in the market economy is much valued.
Given such contexts and the fact that socially constructed notions of ‘being a woman’ are intertwined with other societal identities as race, ethnicity and religion, the continual use of “Nepali women are…” or “Nepali women need…” speaks of the creation and propagation of a fictive ‘Nepali woman’. Most conducive for international “sisterhood bonding” against the evils of patriarchy, easily targettable for development projects, and meshing quite nicely with official nationalist notions of the ideal (Hindu) ‘Nepali woman’, it is this caricature which reigns supreme.
With ‘Nepali women’ being framed as homogeneously poor, illiterate, in need of ‘empowerment’ and having their ‘consciousness raised’, many claims are made concerning what ‘Nepali women’ require and want in their lives. A lack of reflexive thinking on the matter of ‘who speaks for whom’ is inextricably linked to the nature of the development industry in Nepal. An elite group of native informants has appeared in all sectors to communicate findings about the “poor, uneducated, illiterate and undeveloped natives” to non-Nepali-speaking donor agents. Hitherto unquestioned in their authority—being Nepali and being female—to produce information about ‘Nepali women’, the reports, etc, of these elite women hardly acknowledge the relative positions of power and privilege from which they speak. The problem of speaking for others does not appear to be a problem for them.
Historical circumstances have meant that those who currently have the educational levels necessary to belong to this elite, are most likely to be from the ‘upper-caste’ Bahun and Chettri (Kshatriya) families. This means that their experiences of being a woman in Nepal is circumscribed by a very specific ethnic, caste, class, and religious milieu. By not acknowledging the limitations in their ‘understanding’ of the experiences, wants and needs of other women living in Nepal, and yet propounding certain policies and proposals on behalf of their “uneducated, less-fortunate Nepali sisters”, the assumption is that their ‘womanhood’ and ‘Nepali-ness’ guarantee absolute understanding of the lives of other women of Nepal.
Gatekeepers of hierarchy
That the problem and danger of speaking for others remains to be acknowledged in Nepal at a time when it has become almost mainstreamed into feminist discourses and practices everywhere else, was further illustrated recently in the opposition by some members of this elite circle to the hiring of foreign gender experts. Apart from other reasons, the dissent was based most strongly on the sense of a ‘womanhood’ and ‘Nepali-ness’ which automatically lends itself to more ‘authentic’ accounts and awareness of gender issues in Nepal. Certainly the vantage points these women have vis-a-vis foreigners cannot be discounted but such unreflective arguments serve to authenticate and validate their own unproblematised, packaged versions of the ‘Nepali woman’s’ life and their own role in raising the consciousness of their un-educated, un-emancipated and un- liberated ‘Nepali sisters’.
While questions of representation seem quite theoretical, they have very real implications. For, hidden and unreflected in reports and speeches are the repressive hierarchies which underlie relations between women in Nepal. Far from the realm of “sisterhood is global” slogans of the Kathmandu-based women/gender and development offices, the dynamics in the field have not been the “sisterhood bonding” experiences they may have been.
For instance, a Pun (hill ethnic) friend accompanying a foreign, female researcher to a Gurung (another hill ethnic) community encountered the following situation. After talking with the women of a village for a while, she was beckoned aside by one of the Gurung women. For over half an hour, the Gurung woman then poured out her heart, starting with how glad she was to see another janajati (ethnic) woman instead of those Bahun women who came from Kathmandu and told them what they needed, or what they had to do as decisions had already been made by the “office”, or just because she said so, because they (the Gurung women) were too uneducated, slow and dumb to understand “these things” anyway.
Such stories are numerous. Other janajati women have related how in ‘participatory’ gatherings, the women are all made to sit around in a circle but once they voice anything that is not approved of by the invariably Bahun or Chettri development worker, a stern glance or cutting remark follows. Issues of internalised stereotypes aside, remarks like “we are slow to understand and those Bahun women, who are so quick and clever, boss us around” reveal that these janajati women—purportedly in need of having their consciousness raised—are all too conscious and aware of the power dynamics imbuing relations between women in Nepal—unlike most consumers of Nepali WID/WAD/GAD reports and speeches.
It must further be noted that such forces are not restricted to the ‘field’. As more janajati women enter the development workforce, encounters with Bahun and Chhetri women—invariably in higher positions of power within the offices—reveal the same hierarchical and repressive structures. Janajati women’s perceptions of critical issues to be raised as it pertains to women in Nepal, defined by their own particular historical, social and political experiences, are seen to be irrelevant or “too political” to be presented to the higher echelons of power. This sieving process means that again, donor agencies are deprived of a more heterogenous and indeed, more problematic picture of ‘Nepali women’ by the female gatekeepers of such information.
Perils of erasures
It is thus no wonder that advocacy of certain issues have hitherto had dismal results in Nepal. Be it property rights, domestic violence, etc, the impact and implications of proposed laws and legislations on ethnic and other groups of women have not been fully researched. There has been no acknowledgment of the different contexts in which women are embedded and therefore the differential impacts that the proposed legal and other changes could have on their lives. Nor has the potentially different manner in which women perceive certain issues been considered. For example, some janajati women have stated that as janajati women, they are more vulnerable to rape. For, while men may hesitate in raping ‘high caste’ women, the fact that janajati women are ‘known’ to be more ‘sexually free’ within their societies, make them more ‘touchable’ and ‘available’. (Indeed questions have been raised as to why the focus on differences between janajati groups and others have always been on issues of sexuality, with consequent concerns of the ensuing sexual stereotypes and the dangerous repercussions thereof.)
Furthermore, while as concerned as anyone else about the trafficking of women and girls to brothels in the Nepali towns and to India, voices have also been raised against the manner in which janajatis have increasingly been derisively labeled as “those in whose culture one can sell off their own daughters and sisters”—yet another image added to the list of negative stereotypes of janajatis. As women, the trafficking of girls and women is obviously of concern to janajati women. Yet there is also the sense of a need to stick together with janajati men against the Bahun and Chettri hegemony that has historically oppressed them and seeks to continue to oppress them.
It comes as no surprise, then, to find that there exists among janajati women a suspicion of the motives of the current players in the women and development sphere. Apart from feeling that they are being used in order to shore up funds, these women are additionally wary of those women leaders as being those who would seek to silence them. The fact that two janajati women’s organisations have recently been formed and registered in Nepal can not only be seen as advocating the need to recognise the specificity of their being women and janajati, but an attempt to challenge certain powers of representation. In the particular historical, social, economic and cultural context of structured power relations, the prioritisation of different issues or different aspects of the same issues thus cannot be facilely ascribed to patriarchy or the lack of a certain level of ‘consciousness’.
The failure of advocacy groups to garner support must be situated in issues of rural/urban, class, ethnic, caste, age and religious divides, and the manner in which the creation of certain images smothers the lived realities of others. While it is understandable that women branches of political parties would be hesitant and are indeed vocally against the embracing of ‘difference’, the opinion of so-called women intellectuals that recognising differences is part of an insidious plan to break apart the ‘women’s movement’, reflects an enormous poverty of thought; furthermore, the rebuttals to the need to recognise the problem of speaking for others have mainly consisted of “well they (janajati women) themselves don’t come forward” (an alarming off-the-cuff remark from a very ‘big’ and visible feminist proponent at a recent seminar).
Thus, some 20 years after the publication of the Status of Women volumes, the level of analysis has not reached for more depth. More than ever, there is a need to rethink the manner in which women in Nepal are conceptualised, researched and analysed. At the heart of this re-conceptualisation is a need to recognise that to embrace difference is not to automatically peril the struggle against structured inequalities. Indeed, the minimalisation of other peoples’ experiences, if not the erasure of their lived reality, is a fundamentally self-debilitating foundation from which to attempt any development or build any movement.