Expanding security

  • Rhetoric of making Nepal more ‘secure’ by male elites must be closely critiqued for what it means for Nepali women
- Seira Tamang
Expanding security

Aug 13, 2014-

From the build-up to the actual visit to the aftermath, Narendra Modi in Nepal captured the imagination of many. Touted as a heady new beginning for India-Nepal relations with the potential for real change, male state and male civil society elites victoriously underlined stated changes away from India as a ‘big brother’. The appeal of being equal male siblings in the new neighbourhood policy and world order reveal that gender (contrary to dominant framings) is key to understanding Nepal’s foreign policy—there are notions of manliness that are clearly shaping new foreign policy discussions.  

Secure states, insecure women

Various pundits have now noted the need for Nepal to take the lead in ensuring the ‘best interests of the nation’ and ensuring the security of the Nepali state. But as feminists have long pointed out, you can have secure states but insecure women. The point was made most clear three days after Modi’s visit in the attack against members of the informal feminist network Chaukath while they sat in a public area to chat over tea.   

As The Kathmandu Post reported, Chaukath’s get-together—ironically, to talk about women’s access to public space—was violently disrupted by a group of men. Death threats were issued; their tent dismantled; they were physically intimidated by the numerically larger group of men encircling them; they were threatened with a sharp weapon and ultimately, forced to relocate. While the incident was in itself telling, the unreported interactions with other men prior to the attack by the Hindu fundamentalist fringe group are also important. The female group members faced continuous questions as to what they were doing, why they were sitting in the sun, why they were sitting in the sun in a public place, why they were sitting in the sun in a public place chatting—by men sitting in the sun in a public place, chatting.

States of emergency

The male ownership of public space in Nepal is generally not questioned. It briefly became an issue for men during the conflict, especially during the state of emergency, apparent even in the Capital which had an unofficial curfew.  From 8pm onwards, shops were closed and traffic and people on the street were almost non-existent. At that time, I had asked some men about their experiences of the Emergency. They recounted: being stopped on the street by Army personnel; being asked for identification and being drilled about their profession, departure and destination points. Included in their responses were such comments as: “I can’t walk around freely at night;” “I hate being stopped.” When further asked how they felt about what they had just described, replies mainly took the following forms: “I feel angry—it’s my right to walk at night,” “frustrated,” “helpless,” “useless,” “angry all the time” and “we have a democracy.”

I had noted then that the imposition of the Emergency with its unofficial and official curfews had not really changed the lives of women. Nepali women have never been allowed to walk the streets after 8pm.  Women have also felt angry, frustrated and helpless that as citizens of Nepal, they do not have the authority to walk the streets as they wish. As a female acquaintance remarked at that time, “it is always a State of Emergency for us.”

The well-worn argument is that of course women have, and have always had, the right to walk the streets after 8pm.  However, as I had noted, during the Emergency and the unofficial curfew, men did have the right to walk the streets of Kathmandu at all hours.  There was no official rule that stated that they could not. Indeed, it could have been said that given that the Army was out on patrol for the security of the people, that men should have been feeling the opposite of fear, rage and frustration.  Yet, it is clear that this was not the case. Men were not feeling that which they were supposed to.

The state of emergency has long ended, as has the unofficial curfew for men.  Men have reclaimed their right to public space at all hours.  The rage, resentment and vulnerability they felt when their rights were restricted is now ancient history and the lessons they learnt from that period have been forgotten.   

The curfew continues

For women, the unofficial curfew continues and does not appear to be ending any time soon.  And as the Chaukhat incident reminds us, restrictions of women’s presence in public space is not just dictated by the clock. The anger, frustration and helplessness of knowing one’s rights and yet being afraid to utilise them remains part and parcel of women’s everyday lives and will probably remain with us during our societal existence.  Women know too well the infuriating need to declare the innocence of our activities to those who would question our motives: “why are you here?”; “what are you doing ”; “why are you out so late?”; “who was with you?”; “why are you wearing that?”—the question of ‘izzat’ always hanging over women to suffocate independence and democratic rights.

The timing of the Chaukath incident and the gang rape of a teenager on a bus amidst the euphoria of the Modi visit reminds us that the rhetoric of making ‘Nepal’ more ‘secure’ by male state elites must be closely critiqued for what it actually means for the lived lives of Nepali women.  Gendered spaces, violence against women and the promotion and protection of women’s rights as human rights are all issues of security that need to be taken seriously by those seeking to redefine ‘national security’ in a rapidly changing geo-political world.

Tamang is Research Director, Democracy Unit at Martin Chautari

Published: 14-08-2014 09:48

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