Saturday Features

Flipping the feminist narrative

  • Yangesh’s Bhuiyan is a collection of stories filled with struggles and hopelessness; it is also a book that is capable of changing our perspective
- Richashree Bhattarai
The nine stories that Yangesh shares with us in this moving collection, paint an unconventional yet honest picture of feminists. The men and women he met in his journey don’t fit into a caricaturish ideal

Jul 28, 2018-In October of 2009, I went on a four-day school field trip to Bhairahawa and Lumbini. It was my first time outside the Valley and as our school bus passed along busy southern towns next to the highway, I noticed women in saris riding bicycles with their heads covered with dupattas. I remember a group of my fifteen-year-old classmates sniggering at the sight, but I was impressed by the women. Having grown up in Kathmandu during the late 90s and early 2000s, I was more accustomed to seeing roads where only men drove cars, a scant few women rode scooters, and almost no women rode bicycles or motorbikes. These Tarai women who rode their bicycles with a straight back and a solemn look moved me inexplicably. Perhaps, that was my first encounter with my feminist self.

Almost nine years after that sight, I was reintroduced to the scene in Yangesh’s Bhuiyan—an engaging and moving piece of literature. This time the lady on the bicycle had a name and a story. The story of Parbati Raji is a story of a lifetime of struggles, bravery, and heroism. Parbati Raji isn’t literate, but she is a feminist who asks bold questions about social justice and lives to fight the good fight.

I am aware of the tendency in our society to consider feminists to be women who are rebellious and disrespectful. As a feminist, I feel misunderstood when my character is interpreted in such a way. Just because I identify as a feminist does not mean I hate all men, disrespect religion, or believe that women are superior to men. Feminism is about equality of rights and resources and is not about hating and dominating men.

Consistent with the current misinterpretations of feminism is the caricaturish idea of what a feminist looks like. Most people imagine a feminist to be a woman who is well-educated, independent, belongs to an upper-middle class family, works for a nonprofit, and wears sunglasses and heels every time she steps out of the house. These women might very well be feminist, but it may also be true that these women who are driven around town in their chauffeur-driven cars go home to a father, a husband, or in-laws who “let her” study and work. Feminism isn’t a privilege of the celebrities and the elites or a superficial fad, at its core maybe it is the demand and an expression of the underlying equality and complementarity between men and women.

The nine stories that Yangesh shares with us in Bhuiyan paint an unconventional yet honest picture of feminists. The men and women he met in his journey don’t fit into a caricaturish ideal. These men and women are the most underprivileged citizens of Nepal. They have barely passed primary level of schooling, have lived in makeshift houses their entire lives, have no land to call their own, have no permanent jobs, and yet it is in these communities that women have become head of households and have advocated and fought for their rights as women and as disenfranchised people.

The third story in the series is the one that I keep going back to. The title introduces it as a love story, but it proves to be more than a simple love story between Parbati Dagaura and Chuke Chaudhari. It is a story about friendship and shared pain between the two. Chuke sees Parbati not only as a woman he loves, but as a woman of potential. When he sees Parbati’s interests, he encourages her to be active in the community.

When she expresses desire to read and write, he chops a piece of wood and makes a smooth black slate for her to write on. Unlike many other men who we see in Bhuiyan, he does not get insecure when Parbati speaks with others in public. Unlike Parbati’s ex-husband, he doesn’t beat her because her little shop turns some profit. Chuke himself isn’t educated, but he is a feminist who recognises a woman’s potential and creates room for her to thrive. He does not feel undermined by the recognition Parbati has in the community, instead he is proud of her. Chuke is content doing carpentry while Parbati grows as an activist. Even as a man, Chuke is a feminist and is humble about his contribution to Parbati’s popularity and growth.

It isn’t just men who are against women’s empowerment. Women themselves haven’t been able to embrace feminism and support each other on this uphill road.

The women who were involved in spreading rumours about Parbati, who went on to shame and undress her in front of a crowd in her village are examples of such women.

These women very well knew that Parbati’s ex-husband was a drunkard and physically abused her. Yet, they are the ones who mistreated her when she tried to escape his punches and earn a living for herself and her sons. They failed to see Parbati’s bruises and to feel her pain. I find it inexplicable why they couldn’t support her decisions. I keep asking myself if it was a lack of empathy, jealousy, or a blind submission to patriarchy that made them act in that way. I ask the same question to the principal of Seto Guras School. Her sense of superiority for being a Brahmin is what created so much trouble for two women who were only asking for their children’s scholarship and lunch money.

Her story would have been glorious if she hadn’t been a Brahmin supremacist and had created space for the women activists to make their demands. Being a woman and one with a Brahmin last name myself, I feel ashamed. It is people like the principal of Seto Guras that have created a greater rift among women through their unacceptable behaviour.

Since that October afternoon in 2009, I have met many feminists such as my friends and professors, but going back to that scene through Yangesh’s words in Bhuiyan, I have come to realise that those women on the bicycles that afternoon were the ones that introduced feminism to me. Bhuiyan is a collection of stories filled with struggles and hopelessness, but it is also a book that is capable of changing our perspective on feminism and feminists. The stories of injustice rile you up, but a few pages later Yangesh grounds you with words of humility and hope. Hardly anybody who has read this work would disagree that the women activists in the stories have done commendable work. After reading their stories, most would agree that they are exemplary women fighting for a worthy cause and yet I wonder why there are so many misconceptions still.

Published: 28-07-2018 08:19

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