Debunking women’s movement of Nepal – comment

Although skeptical, I entered Nepal’s development-NGO work formally as a worker five years ago. I wanted to basically test the water. I stress on formally because informally, I have been involved in the NGO-led women’s movement for more than a decade. Let’s say it just comes with one´s family!

My experiences and observations after being a part of this world are shared by many, reinforcing my skepticisms. Even as I write this, I know I am not writing anything new. I merely wish to reflect on my own observations and sentiments, which I hope will allow us to be more innovative in shaping our own reality.

What are we as women’s rights activists so satisfied about? Is it our work? Work, if delved a little deeper has only attempted to scratch the surface of the agenda on social justice and women’s emancipation. We become so self-righteous – to the extent that we blind ourselves from seeing the repeated pattern of the same “rural woman” showing up for every capital-centered meeting on women’s empowerment. Selective empowerment has become the norm of development work in Nepal, that is, if we are to even stick with the term empowerment, which has become meaningless due to overuse.

“Modern” development’s race in modernizing women is such an obvious game; however we pretend to remain oblivious. And the cacophonous NGO-led women’s movement in Nepal knowingly bypasses it. Perhaps, we remain oblivious simply because it is a way of expressing our class solidarity. The phenomenon called the “solidarity of classes” spreads and makes itself comfortable in the most impoverished areas. Development work in Nepal provides more for the class that already has more. The area that I have lived in witnessing the phenomenon is the far-west. The baisi rajyas of the far-west in modern times have only transformed and have taken the new form of NGOs. So what that these far-west rulers of old rajyas cannot collect tax in this modern state Nepal; they can still make more profit running the development business quite visible from their lavish lifestyle and the distorted reality they live in. Then, of course, selective empowerment of a few of their family members or relative-women makes perfect sense and is a brilliant practice of brotherhood, familyhood and even sisterhood. The feminist notion of sisterhood, soul-sister bonding then completely shatters and remains just an illusion. Then, one wonders about the slogans, the marches and the rallies in the capital as well as other accessible district headquarters that takes place honoring and celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8.

Why is it so difficult for us to understand the historical context? The notion of development briefly described above came along with the political rearrangement of the world that occurred after the Second World War when old colonial systems were breaking down. This new notion was and still is so focused in managing the social, economic and now increasingly political affairs of countries, conveniently labeled the third world. Tying to localize this notion within Nepal, far-west can be vouched for as a brilliant example. People (people here means only the upper sections of the society in the far-west, who have great exposure to the development discourses) in the far-west eat, sleep, walk and talk development-NGOised language. Every action is weighed in monetary terms. The most capitalist industrialists would be intrigued by the tricks of monetary dealings that happen under the façade of development work in the far-west.

Seminal work by Siera Tamang critiquing the notion of homogenous Hindu Nepali woman so prevalent in the development discourse here has started making a huge difference. But unfortunately, we (women’s rights activists) are still in a crawling phase when it comes to honing ourselves based on constructive criticism and feedback. As a result, we are still talking the talk, pretending to empathize, which, in reality, yields nothing.

However, a word of caution for those activists and scholars adhering to the very prevalent utopian notion that all women should be united for the larger cause of women’s emancipation and strengthen Nepal’s nascent women’s movement. This might be a little tough to achieve. First, for it to happen requires innovation, not regurgitation of the development discourse that has been handed down to us from the Western world, for whom modernizing means taming the rest of the world in order to continue their hegemony. Purported women’s rights activists have become mere facilitators in modernizing and hence pleasing the Western world. And second, given class contradictions and interests, such coalition requires tremendous effort.

These efforts should bear in mind that every movement anywhere in the world has always had two sides to the coin. The two sides will always be equidistant and parallel to each other. For the socialist women’s movement in Russia, the other side of the coin was the liberal feminists at the time who were primarily elite women. Alexandra Kollontai in a lot of her writings talks in details about the boundaries and class-induced differences among women. The limited notion of equality professed by the liberal feminists was what kept the two movements apart. Their fight for rights and privileges at par with men without challenging the-then existing rights and privileges was in complete contrast to socialist women’s movement’s core of social and economic transformation without which women’s liberation was impossible. The elite and the working class hence could never come together as a single movement as the nature of the fight was so different.

And for us, here in Nepal, the other side of the NGO-led women’s movement (which itself is flawed; how can a movement ever be aid-driven?) is the inability for all women to come together in a unified collective manner. The idea of collective action also has a lot to do with our social class position. Unified, collective voice of the elites itself sounds like an oxymoron as the very nature of the upper class is to single handedly rule. It is also essentially a characteristic of the bourgeoisie that limits itself within the confines of charity, “do-good feeling” so ones ego is boosted and nothing else. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the NGO-led women’s movement here is almost of the same nature. Women’s rights activists are at loggerheads with each other revealing the very class nature of such competition, so driven by the liberal, individualist notion promoted by the human rights discourse where one only seeks to attain individual name, fame and power. The women’s movement here is a conundrum of wanting to be different and yet desiring to stay the same. The development phenomena further fuelled this possibility and aided the confused upper middle class women of Nepal.

We have yet to witness and be a part of an unadulterated version of women’s movement that sees no individual benefit but a collective commitment to liberate women, recognizing, embracing and acting upon the differences.

Reinforcing poverty, reinforcing the gap and reinforcing a certain class solidarity (that, of course, looked in a historical context serves its complete purpose of hegemony and control) is the gain that Nepal has seen through various aid-driven development schema, a strand of which is the vibrant (?) NGO-led women’s movement.

Retika Rajbhandari


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