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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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