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Hope in the Himalayas
Women Rebels in Nepal

Revolutionary Worker #1142, March 10, 2002

The sun was still a bit off the horizon. But up high in the Himalayan mountains, dusk quickly turns to night. And I was worried it'd soon be too dark to get a good photograph. The four young women had spent at least 10 minutes picking the bandanas to cover their faces. But finally, they lined up, with their rifles slung over their shoulders. They had smiled shyly when I asked if I could take their photo. But now the look in their eyes turned serious.

It has been three years since I went to Nepal and traveled deep into the guerrilla zones of the Maoist People's War. And I often think about the four young militia women who posed in front of my camera. Many people have seen this photograph and been provoked and inspired. People look around the world and see the plight of hundreds of millions of women peasants--living in extreme poverty, facing the cruelty of backward traditions. People see the religious rituals and feudal relations that crush a girl's spirit and dash a young woman's hope--the burkhas, the dowries, arranged marriages, child brides, polygamy. People see how feudal chains in the countryside have been welded to the urban and globalized slavery of sweatshops, brothels, and internet marriage brokers.

The four militia women, and millions of other women in Nepal, face the same kind of oppression that delivers lifelong nightmares to women in many corners of the globe. But the revolutionary women in Nepal have taken the future into their own hands. Alongside the men, they are waging an armed struggle to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive regime. And many of these women are giving their lives to change the world.

*****

"In the rural areas women are oppressed by the family, mother-in-law, husband and some women are killed because of dowries. This problem exists all over the country in the city and countryside. The thinking in society is that women are brought into the home to serve the husband and to have children--that this is what they're good for. To solve these kinds of problems we try to educate women, to show that it's not because of their mother-in-law, husband, etc., but that it is the social structure that is protected by the state and that we need complete change, revolution. We educate women to this fact."

Rekha Sharma, President of the All Nepal Women's Association (Revolutionary);
now a member of the United Revolutionary People's Council--
a body recently formed to undertake administrative,
legislative and wartime functions in the liberated areas.

As I traveled through the countryside, peasant women told me stories of backbreaking labor, inequality and discrimination. Their stories gave me a real sense of how women's oppression in Nepal is tightly woven into the fabric of feudalism and capitalism. And I came to understand, in a deeper way, how even the biggest victories by reformist women's organizations in Nepal--which concentrate on things like passing laws, getting money for health clinics, or providing education for women--can never really solve the problem of women's oppression.

I saw how the goal of women's liberation is a component part of the People's War, being led by Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). I came to see why tens of thousands of young peasant women had joined the people's army, believing that armed struggle to overthrow the government is the only way to achieve liberation. And in the areas where a new people's power is being instituted, I saw how the revolution is actually beginning to break down and do away with the many social, economic and cultural institutions of women's oppression.

Land to the Tiller--Including Women!

Everywhere I went, peasants told me how they couldn't feed their families with the tiny plots of land they farm. In Nepal, over 80% of the people live in the countryside, farming the land. But poor peasants, who make up 65% of the population, own only 10% of the land--while rich peasants and landlords, who are only 10% of the population, own 65% of the land.

The economic oppression of women in Nepal is rooted in this feudal and semi-feudal mode of production--which is very patriarchal. Almost every woman I talked to in Nepal spoke with anger about the fact that women are not allowed to inherit land and do not own land on equal terms with men. In the Terai region along the southern border with India, where there are more big landlords, I heard stories of debt slavery where women were forced into "voluntary" sex and labor services to help their family pay landlord debts.

The level of production in Nepal is very backward--once I got into the remote countryside, I didn't see a single motorized vehicle, let alone a tractor. Farming basically depends on human and animal labor with the use of simple tools, like sickles, hoes and shovels. And the living conditions in general are very primitive--which means women have to spend many hours at tiresome and time-consuming tasks like hauling water, gathering fuel, and grazing animals.

A young 27-year-old peasant woman described her day to me, saying, "I wake up at 5:00 a.m., prepare a simple soup for the family, get grass for the goat (which takes five hours to get) and return about noon. Then I have to clean the pots and dishes. I prepare food and eat and then take the goats and cows to graze them... I take them to the same area far away to graze. I also gather roots in the forest, which are boiled and put in salt and ash to neutralize the bitterness. It's five o'clock by the time I get back from grazing the animals. Then I have to prepare another meal. I also have to gather firewood from the forest. I finally go to sleep at 9:00 p.m."

All this makes the question of land a central part of the revolution in Nepal. And in many villages in the guerrilla zones, the revolutionaries proudly showed me land that had been seized from landlords, money-lenders, corrupt politicians and others who had cheated and ripped off the people. I remember one day, sitting down to eat a usual Nepali meal of dahl baht (lentils and rice) and the guerrillas telling me with big smiles, "The rice you are eating was grown on land seized from an oppressor."

The Maoists have also started to institute beginning forms of collective farming--where peasants share farm implements and animals and help each other work the land. Under such an arrangement, individual farmers who don't have a large family or many work animals and tools, face less of a disadvantage. And collective farming is also helping those women whose husbands and sons have been killed in the war.

The Maoist agrarian revolution in Nepal is being carried out according to the principle of "land to the tiller" and "women's equal right to property." And this has meant that for the first time, women are beginning to get equal ownership of land.

New Roles for Women

Patriarchal traditions and taboos, deeply embedded in the feudal and religious culture in Nepal's countryside, dictate a strict division of labor. While women do much of the manual labor, they have no control in the economic and social life of their family and village. They are virtual servants to their husbands. Their purpose is to produce sons, take care of children, tend to the animals and cook. Taboos against women doing certain tasks promote the idea of women's inferiority. It is acceptable for husbands to beat their wives. And girls as young as nine years old have their fate already sealed by "arranged marriages"--where parents choose their husbands.

Little girls are considered "useful" because they can do chores. But after a young woman gets married, tradition says she must live with--and serve--her husband's household. So many parents believe, "To get a girl is like watering a neighbor's tree. You have the trouble and expense of nurturing the plant but the fruits are taken by somebody else."

When women told me how their fathers wouldn't allow them to go to school... when I heard painful stories of young girls married off to abusive, older men...when I talked to women who had been trapped in loveless marriages: all this reminded me of how hundreds of millions of women on this planet face similar conditions of brutality--and how such a situation cries out for real, fundamental change.

In the guerrilla areas, where the Maoists were carrying out a new people's power, I saw how the revolution is beginning to really dig up the foundation of women's oppression. And I saw how the People's War is giving women equal rights and a whole new role and purpose in society.

There were very few men living in the villages I visited in the guerrilla zones. For many peasants, farming the land only feeds their family for half the year. The rest of the time men are forced to look for work in Nepal's cities or in India. Added to this, in the guerrilla zones, many men have been forced to go underground because the police routinely come into the villages and round up, torture and arrest "suspected Maoist sympathizers."

All this has meant the women are left to farm the land and run the villages. And the revolution encourages them to take up many tasks they never did before, including the political job of organizing support for the People's War. This has given women new skills and new confidence--I remember one woman telling me, "Now we feel we can do anything." And along with all this, the thinking of men and women has been challenged and changed. In a guerrilla zone in Rolpa, where the People's War has been strong, a woman told me:

"There have been many changes in people's thinking since the People's War started. Fathers and brothers are now involved in things like cooking, getting water, washing dishes. There is also a change in the women's thinking. Before, women were not permitted to make the roof of the house or plow the fields. But now where the People's War is going on, it is easy for women to do this. Before women didn't make baskets and mats, according to tradition. And women used to think they weren't good enough to do this work. But when we dared to do this work it was easy. So if we dare we can do anything--there's no distinction between men and women."

This woman also talked about how she had to struggle against her own family to join the revolution:

"At first my father's brother wouldn't give me permission to join the women's organization (he was the head of our household). I rebelled against this and for six months I lived somewhere else. When I went to back to the house the family members would not accept me because of what I was doing."

This woman's story was typical of many other young rebel women I met. She ran away from an arranged marriage, joined the revolution, and in a society that traditionally frowns on a woman remarrying, she married a second time -- to someone she loves, a member of the people's army.

Traveling with the guerrillas, I saw how revolutionary men are doing tasks traditionally done by women, like cooking and washing dishes. In some villages, I noticed that the women in the household still prepared the meal and served the men first, and then only after they finished, ate separately. But in the people's army squads this was never the practice. Many times we would get to a village after a whole day of travel, sometimes late at night, and the men in the squad would gather firewood, prepare and serve the meal. In Nepalese society, this is very radical!

Women in the liberated areas in Nepal are seeing how a new people's power and the people's courts can deliver real justice--something the people can never get under the government's corrupt legal system.

People's courts hear cases of land disputes--in many cases widows whose land was stolen by moneylenders and corrupt politicians have had their land given back to them. Women who in traditional society would not be able to leave an abusive husband have been given the right to divorce in the people's courts. Rapists and those involved in exploiting women in the sex trade have also been brought to justice in these new revolutionary courts.

I also saw how a new revolutionary culture is being created in Nepal--going up against feudal and religious rituals that keep women down. For example on the day of "teej" women are supposed to carry out a ritual of celebrating "motherhood" and "wishing for a good husband." But in the revolutionary movement this day has been replaced by a day to visit the families of "revolutionary martyrs."

I heard stories of brave young women guerrillas risking their lives in battle. And I also saw smaller signs of courageous rebellion. For example, one of the first guerrillas I met in Rolpa was an 18- year-old woman who had cut her hair short like a man's. This was a brave move in a situation where this would immediately identify you as a Maoist rebel--to be shot on the spot by the police. I also remember meeting two young women whose husbands--both members of the people's army--had been killed by the police. They were both wearing bright colors and jewelry--in direct defiance of feudal tradition, which says a widow should mourn and wear dark clothes and no jewelry for the rest of her life. I was also struck by the way many couples introduced themselves to me--proudly telling me that theirs was a "love marriage" based on political unity and dedication to the revolution. People were also proud to tell me they were in an inter-caste, or inter-ethnic marriage. The Hindu caste system frowns upon such marriages-- high Brahmin and Cchetri classes are not supposed to mingle with--let along marry--people from lower castes and ethnic groups.

Sunsara's Story

Most of the women I met in the people's army were young--in their teens or early twenties. And in the villages, the leaders of revolutionary women's organizations were mainly young. But I also met some older women who had left their families, turned their lives upside down, defied tradition and feudal obligations, and joined the revolution.

One woman I will never forget is Sunsara. She was part of a group of women who traveled with us after we crossed the border, from Rolpa to Rukum --another stronghold of the People's War. Sunsara didn't speak any English, but from the moment I met her, I could see that through eye contact and gestures, she wanted to communicate very badly. Through a translator, she told me, "If we could speak the same language we would be talking for a very long time, all night, sharing our experiences."

I learned that Sunsara was only 50 years old, which surprised me because I had guessed her to be much older. But the hardness of life in the countryside shortens the life of the peasants--especially the women. The impoverished conditions of life, backbreaking work, bad nutrition and lack of health care-- take a huge toll on the physical state and appearance of the people. And this is particularly true for women who have borne and raised many children. Men in Nepal have a very low life expectancy of 55 years. Women in Nepal can expect to die even younger--at the age of 52.

Sunsara was active in the local revolutionary women's organization. And in many ways, her story reveals a lot about why so many women in Nepal feel they have "nothing to lose but their chains," and see the hope of real liberation in the Maoist revolution.

Sunsara, like at least 60% of the women in Nepal, never learned to read and write. Her husband died when her two children were very young. The police raided her village looking for "Maoist sympathizers" and arrested over 20 people. The police kept coming back, terrorizing the villagers, and Sunsara and many others were forced to flee. When I met Sunsara, her children were living with relatives and she only saw them every few months.

Sunsara told me she was very happy to be working with the Maoists because although she did not get to go to school, now she was being educated in revolutionary theory and politics. Like many of the young women guerrillas I met, she now had the chance to learn to read and write. She told me:

"I feel collective life is happier than living an individual life. When I lived in my home I met many comrades and talked with them. We shared our happiness and sorrow. Now I am committed to sacrifice in every way to liberate our class. Before the initiation I was very oppressed--on the one hand by the government, and on the other hand by the men in the family. All the housework was done by women. After the initiation of the People's War there have been many changes. All household work is now done by men and women. Beside this, men inspire us to go forward, fight to liberate women and participate in the People's War. When I visit my children I tell them, I want to live with you but that is impossible because if I did the police would come here and arrest me. So it is better to do work in the party than live in this house. It is my duty in this situation because the People's War is growing day after day. We are all involved in the People's War to get victory. And you will also be involved in the war when you grow up."

I met many other women who had left their children with relatives so they could be full-time revolutionaries. Other women organizers traveled with their children. In the areas where the guerrillas have control, they are beginning to try and figure out how to develop more collective forms of childcare. And many young women are deciding not to have children right away so they can be full-time members of the People's Army.

*****

The revolutionary women in Nepal believe that the only way to get rid of the deep oppression of women is to get rid of class society and uproot all the economic, social and cultural relations of feudalism and capitalism. They believe the path of Maoist revolution--overthrowing the present regime and setting up a whole new economic and political system--is the only way they can achieve real liberation. And along with millions of men fighting in the People's War, they are determined to seize power and build a whole new society.

The revolutionary women in Nepal are shining a light that can inspire millions of people around the world, who also dream of a day when stories of the brutality of women's oppression only exist in history books.

 

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution Online
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