The feminist mystique

  • There is little recognition of the great diversity of Nepali women even in this day of identity politics
- Deepak Thapa, Kathmandu

Feb 25, 2016-

The ongoing drama to choose the contenders for the American presidential election to take place 10 months hence continues to enthral, and not only because of the increasing likelihood of Donald Trump being one of them. Admittedly, that is quite a feat for someone whose exertions towards the presidency were till recently covered in the ‘Entertainment Section’ by The Huffington Post, the online news aggregator-cum-blog. But, there continue to be interesting asides as well and a recent one involved Hillary Clinton and two well-respected allies of hers.

Commenting on the divide between older younger female Democrats siding with the socialist Bernie Sanders and the older ones with the more mainstream Clinton, first, feminist activist Gloria Steinem attributed the support of the young women to attraction towards the young studs flocking the Sanders camp. Then, Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State, called upon women to support Clinton thus: ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’

Under intense fire, both Steinem and Albright apologised. The latter regretted the choice of her words in a New York Times op-ed, where, calling herself an ‘aging feminist’, she explained why Clinton’s candidacy should matter to women: ‘The battle for gender equality is still being waged, and it will be easier if we have a woman who prioritizes these issues in the Oval Office...’

Not to let the opportunity pass, another feminist icon, Camille Paglia, weighed into the matter with strong words aimed at her bête noire, Steinem, as well as Albright for indulging in a ‘salvation and damnation game’. She also took a hefty dig at Clinton’s own credentials, which consisted of being ‘handed job after job...primarily due to her very unfeminist association with a man’.

Trying to put things in perspective, journalist Jill Filipovic explains: ‘There are many other reasons women in the 30-and-over cohort may lean toward Mrs. Clinton. They’ve already seen promises of revolutionary change fall short. They may prefer a candidate with a progressive ideology but a more restrained, and potentially more effective, strategy for putting that ideology in place.’

Diversity of perspectives

The young ones appear hungry for more radical change since they believe many of the old feminist battles have been won. The older lot meanwhile knows that is only partly true since the glass ceiling becomes more evident as they move higher into professional lives. As Filipovic notes, ‘Women’s earnings peak between ages 35 and 44 and then plateau, while men’s continue to rise.’

Hence, Clinton’s focus on issues that affect older women, such as the wage difference, paid family leave and universal pre-kindergarten, are unlikely to animate a group for whom these are matters of hardly any relevance—at least not yet. A reader commenting on Albright’s piece wrote: ‘Forgive me young women, but it takes decades of witnessing discrimination against women in the workplace to fully open your eyes.’

This longish introduction was meant to elucidate the fact that even in a country like the USA where the ideological divide between left and right is quite stark, those on the same side of the fence can hold such disparate postures due to their background—in this case, age. Albright’s call for women of America to unite was not wholly rejected but definitely contested.

Now, compare that with our situation where, as political scientist Seira Tamang wrote 15 years ago, women leaders ‘continue to voice the wants and needs of “Nepali women” unproblematically’. The project to ‘develop Nepali women’, as she put it then, continues more or less in the same vein till today just as ‘female gatekeepers [continue to] deprive the donor agencies of a more heterogeneous, and indeed more problematic, picture of “Nepali women”’.

Even in this day of identity politics, the women of Nepal are more often than not categorised as just that—‘Nepali women’, without recognition of the great diversity of experiences arising out of their socio-cultural backgrounds. Using Tamang’s words again to provide an example, ‘the idea that easy divorce for women is not acceptable in “Nepali culture”...can be challenged with references to divorce practices in the Limbu community’.

Continued relevance

Change cannot be effected by any movement, no matter how strong, without support from political actors. This is as true of Nepal’s women’s movement for—apart from the brief period in 2006-07 that saw the enactment of the popularly called ‘Gender Equality Act’, the amendment to the Citizenship Act, and reservations in elections and government service—politics has paid but lip service to the cause. But then, that was the period when we were all striving to create a New Nepal and idealism ruled.

There is little to be expected from our political parties. Although spanning the entire spectrum from extreme right to extreme left, when in power their socio-economic policies make it extremely difficult to distinguish one from the other, and that includes their attitudes towards women. We saw that clearly in the coalescence of views on the citizenship provision in the new constitution. Of course, there was strong opposition from the Madhesi parties but we all know that had nothing to do with women’s rights per se.

Not so long ago though, it seemed the political sphere had offered a choice, as when the parliamentary parties were ranged against the ‘revolutionary’ CPN-Maoist. Although they could muster just one point dealing specifically with women—‘Patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped. Daughters should be allowed access to paternal property’—among the famous 40 that preceded the insurgency, it has to be allowed that they promised to upend society and politics.

An examination of their writings, however, shows that apart from rhetoric, the Maoists had nothing much to offer Nepali women. Hence, Prachanda railed that ‘foreign imperialist capital is being flooded in the name of so-called women’s skill development, literacy campaign, etc., so as to deprive women of the consciousness of historical necessity of the country’, i.e., to take part in the revolution. And, Hisila Yami, the spouse of Prachanda’s erstwhile alter ego, Baburam Bhattarai, wrote about their strategy to ‘protest against beauty contests, pornographic literature, sale of liquor etc...[and] against state repression on women, particularly rape and torture perpetuated on sympathizers of People’s War’.

Of course, being in the middle of Magar heartland for much of the initial years, Maoist leaders had to recognise the differences intrinsic among women from different communities. It was such a simplistic characterisation though. Yami makes the distinction that the ‘People’s War’ has ‘helped Indo-Aryan women to break the feudal restrictive life imposed by the puritan Hindu religion by unleashing their repressed energy. It has given meaningful lives to Tibeto-Burman and other women who are relatively free and have greater decision-making rights’. Since she does not clarify anywhere what ‘meaningful lives’ stands for, it proves to be no more than a vacuous phrase that sounds good but means nothing.

As for Prachanda, I guess the man in him could do no better than marvel at the apparent control Magar women from Rolpa and Rukum enjoyed over their own sexuality and provided his own definition of women’s emancipation: ‘...among the oppressed nationalities, there is not so much male domination... Women can easily divorce, and if a woman remarries the community does not look at her like she is a bad woman’.

For the record, as journalist Rita Manchanda has pointed out, when the Maoists established ‘people’s governments’ in 21 districts in 2001, not a single one was led by a woman. And, in the ‘Magar Autonomous Region’, where, according to Prachanda, women are so liberated, the comrades could not find a single woman worthy of inclusion in the ‘government’ there. Which takes us back to the point Albright made about the need to install Hillary Clinton in the White House.

Published: 25-02-2016 08:47

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