Taking It Higher: Women's Liberation in Nepal
Struggle and Transformation in Eight Years of People's
Revolutionary Worker #1231, March 7, 2004
In 1999, as I travelled throughout Nepal
to cover the People's War, led by the Communist Party of Nepal
(Maoist), Rachana was one of my guides. In the dark of night
her outstretched hands had pulled me up the steepest parts
of the mountains and steadied me when I teetered, crossing
dangerous ravines. Like most guerrillas in the People's Army,
Rachana was young and from a peasant background. For long
days and nights she trekked up and down the mountains, as
quick and sure-footed as the men in the squad, carrying heavy
loads, along with her rifle.
One day I asked Rachana if she would tell
me about her life. At first, she hesitated, surprised that
I wanted to interview her. Then she said, `OK, but let's do
it later, after dinner. First, I want to think about what
I want to say.' As it turned out, it was a couple of days
later--when we reached the border where we had to say farewell--that
we found an opportunity to sit down and talk. Rachana had
seen me interview Party leaders and military commanders and
now looked eager and excited to be the one to have her words
written down in my notebook. When I asked her to tell me something
about her family and what it was like to grow up as a woman
in her village, she said:
`There are 11 members in my family--my mother,
father, three brothers, two sisters, my brother's wife and
three of my cousins. I am the oldest daughter, 18 years old,
and I come from a peasant family in Rolpa. My mother and father
allowed my three brothers to go to school but would not let
me. They told me it is worthless for a daughter to study because
she will just get married and move into another household.
At the time, this made me feel very sad. When a six-month
adult education class opened in the village, I went to go
learn to read and write. But when I did this, my father would
always tell me not to go and he would order me to go to the
forest instead, to cut grass and collect firewood.'
Rachana went on to describe how she came
to join the People's Army:
`Before the Initiation of the People's
War I did not know anything about politics or parties. But
after the Initiation one of my relatives suggested that
I take part in the local cultural group and asked me to
go to their rehearsal. I didn't tell my mother or father
about this. I only told my older brother who said, "Go ahead,
if you want to die... Can you carry a gun on your shoulder?"
I replied, "You didn't give me a chance to study and now
I am eager to solve the problems of the people and the nation.
I want to fight for liberation. If you won't allow me to
go I will rebel."
`One of the local Party comrades came to
talk to my family and he came over several times to discuss
revolutionary politics and the People's War. One year ago,
after many discussions, my father and mother happily allowed
me to join the Party. I started working in the women's organization
and was in the women's militia. Then, eight months ago,
I was promoted to be in this squad. I am optimistic about
the People's War.
`Now all the members of my family are clear
on the politics of the People's War. All of them are in
mass organizations, and my younger 15-year-old sister is
going to school. She has passed class six and is teaching
other people to read. When I was taking the adult education
class I never had time to study. But in the People's Army
I have time to study reading and writing, and the other
comrades help me. I can read newspapers and write letters
`I was eager to work in the Party before.
But then after joining the squad I was involved in an encounter
and became even more committed. There were 14 of us going
from one place to another and the police ambushed us. One
of our comrades was killed and now I have a strong commitment
to get revenge. I will fight against the enemy as long as
there is a drop of blood left in my body. I am very happy
now and we will certainly achieve our goal.'
Rachana's description of how she was denied
an education was very typical of the way women are treated
in Nepal. In the countryside in Nepal, there is a saying:
`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.'
Under feudalism a daughter is `useful' and
`valuable' in her childhood years when she can do chores and
serve the household. But according to such feudal thinking,
it is not worth it to `invest' in a girl by giving her an
education because she will just end up marrying and going
off to live in, and serve, another household. I did meet a
number of women who had been allowed to go to school, at least
up until high school. But when I visited colleges in the cities,
almost all of the students were men.
One afternoon, I watched Rachana studying,
practicing her reading and writing, her eyes stuck to a dog-eared
page in deep concentration. I thought about how this scene
is being created in other guerrilla zones in Nepal. Young
peasant women--illiterate, facing nothing but a back-breaking
future--leaving their villages, taking up arms, learning to
read and write and studying politics. I met many other women
like Rachana--women who grew up angry about the way feudal
society oppresses women and jumped at the chance to join the
Everywhere I went, it seemed like the women
had a particularly strong enthusiasm for this revolution.
I saw it in the eyes of the old women who have suffered many
years under the thumb of feudal relations--who now want to
fight for a new kind of society. I heard it in the words of
young women who never went to school--who told how excited
they were the first time they carried out an armed action.
I felt it in the determination and spirit of the women who
have lost husbands, sons and daughters--but continue to shelter
and aid the guerrillas, at the risk of their own lives.
These women really believe that the fight
against women's oppression is woven into the fabric of this
People's War. So when the armed struggle started in 1996,
it was like the opening of a prison gate-- with thousands
of women rushing forward to claim an equal place in the war.
Some had to defy fathers and brothers. Some had to leave backward-thinking
husbands. Others ran away from arranged marriages where parents
had decided their fate. They all had to rebel against feudal
traditions that treat women as inferior, that make women feel
like their ideas don't matter.
Carrying the Story Forward: The Fight for
From talking to many women involved in the
revolution in Nepal, I could see that the revolution was clearly
challenging and changing people's feudal and patriarchal ideas
about women's roles. But these transformations were clearly
only beginning steps in a long battle to liberate women in
When I interviewed Prachanda, leader of the
CPN (Maoist), I asked him to talk about the problem of developing
women leaders in a country where the oppression of women is
so deeply built into the economic and social relations. He
told me, `Before the Initiation, the woman question was not
so seriously debated in our party. That was our weakness.
And in our society, male domination, feudal relations have
prevailed for a long time. In general terms we agreed, yeah,
the woman question is important. As communists we know these
things. But in a concrete sense, in a serious sense, I will
say that before the Initiation we were not so serious on the
woman question. And because we were not serious, therefore,
many woman comrades were not at the forefront of the movement.
There were some women sympathizers and some organizers, but
there was not much effort to develop the women comrades. Then
right after Initiation the question came up--it boldly came
up. And especially in my experience, I was very thrilled when,
during the first year after Initiation, I saw the sacrifice
women were making in the main region, in the struggling zones--their
militancy, their heroism, and their devotion. When I saw women
masses come into the field, then we started to debate seriously
the woman question.'
Prachanda went on to talk about different
problems they confronted in getting women involved and developing
their leadership. They were beginning to discuss organizing
collective childcare. They encouraged young couples involved
in the struggle to put off having children for several years
so the women would not end up tied back to the home. And they
were also trying to deal with illiteracy among women and the
lack of birth control.
I thought back on this conversation when
I came across a January 2003 article titled, `The Question
of Women's Leadership in the People's War in Nepal' by Parvati,
a member of the Central Committee of the CPN (Maoist) and
the Head of their Women's Department. In this article, Parvati
talks about the problems the Party is having in developing
women's leadership. She says women have joined the PLA in
extraordinary numbers and these women have shown much sacrifice
and devotion but only a few women have been able to develop
as leaders in the military struggle and women themselves are
raising questions about the quality of their participation.
I found this discussion fascinating--because
it was not a romanticized and unrealistic view of the role
of women in the People's War and it candidly talked about
persistent problems within the Party itself on this question.
According to Parvarti, when women get married
and have children their participation usually decreases or
stops--and so, she says, the institution of marriage has `robbed
us of promising women leaders.' While men continue to participate
in the PLA there are hardly any women who stay in the guerrilla
ranks after they reach 25 or so.
Parvati says many things work against women
getting involved and staying involved in the revolutionary
struggle, especially in the PLA, which requires tremendous
sacrifice. In the areas controlled by the Maoists there is
struggle against institutions and ideas that prevent women
from equal participation in society. Entrenched feudal tradition
and ideology--like the view that women should not inherit
or own land or that women should be restricted to particular
tasks and not allowed to do other jobs--still exert a very
powerful force, including among the revolutionaries themselves.
Parvati says that there is sometimes covert or even overt
pressure on women cadres to get married --and unmarried women
draw suspicion from men as well as women. As a result, some
women end up getting married against their wishes or before
they are really ready to get married. And there is still a
tendency for people to look down on women who are single,
divorced, or have been married more than once.
In Nepalese society, there is a lot of pressure
on women to bear children, especially sons. Even though this
has been lessened to some extent by the revolution, there
is still pressure on women to have at least one child. And
women are still expected to take most if not full responsibility
for taking care of the children.
Speaking about some women who have joined
the revolution, Parvati writes: `With the birth of every child
she sinks deeper into domestic slavery. In fact many women
who have been active in People's War in Nepal are found to
complain that having babies is like being under disciplinary
action because they are cut off from the Party activities
for a long period. In this way many bright aspiring communist
women are at risk of being lost in oblivion, even after getting
married to the comrades of their choice. This is specially
so in white dominated areas [areas still dominated by the
local traditional elite] where women seldom get support from
the mass as well as from the Party to sustain themselves in
their reproductive years.'
Parvati also raises the problem of `conservatism'
in the Party which leads to `relegating women cadres to only
women related work, thereby robbing them of the chance to
develop in party policy matters and other fields.' And she
points out how, spontaneously, women's issues may get talked
about but not implemented. She says, `Often it is seen that
the party does not actively intervene in the existing traditional
division of labor between men and women whereby men take to
mental work while women are left to do physical labor. This
is also manifested in taking men and women as absolute equals
by not being sensitive to women's special condition and their
special needs. This becomes all the more apparent when women
are menstruating or are in the reproductive period.'
Feudal family relations and obligations also
exert their influence on how women look at themselves and
how men and women relate to each other in the Party and in
the PLA. Some women may view marriage and motherhood as a
break in their political/military career. And Parvati points
out that women cadre sometimes `follow the directives of the
Party blindly without questioning, just as traditional women
have been following their fathers when unmarried, and their
husbands when married, and their sons when widowed.' She says
this sometimes results in things like unplanned pregnancies
and women following their husband's political line blindly.
In terms of men in the revolutionary movement,
Parvati points out that while women have problems asserting
themselves, men have problems with `relinquishing the privileged
position bestowed on them by the patriarchal structure.' For
example, men may formally accept women's leadership--but not
really or fully accept and respect women leaders. She says
men are sometimes `impatient with women's mistakes and general
lack of skill in fields from which women have been excluded'
and in general may not pay much attention to women's issues.
There is also the tendency for men to revert to the traditional
division of labor in which men do the `mental work' while
women are relegated to menial tasks.
These are all real problems that have arisen
in the course of trying to develop women leaders in the People's
War. At the same time, the CPN (Maoist) has made progress
on this front.
At the time of my trip, in 1999, many squads
and platoons had women members. But there were very few women
in leadership positions in the People's Army or the Party.
Now, Parvati notes, there have been real advances in developing
women leaders and recruiting women into the ranks of the revolution:
As of 2003, there are several women in the Central Committee
of the Party, dozens of women at the regional level, hundreds
in the district levels, and several thousands in the area
and cell levels in the Party. In the People's Liberation Army,
there are many women commanders, vice commanders in different
sections within the brigade, platoons, squads and militia.
And in the United Revolutionary People's Council, the embryonic
central government of the areas under Maoist control, there
are four women out of 37 members. Women's participation in
all levels of the People's Councils has also been made mandatory.
In the Western Region of Nepal alone, there are 1,500 women's
units. The total membership in the women's mass organization
is 600,000. In the military field, there are 10 women section
commanders in the main force, two women platoon commanders
in the secondary force and several militia commanders in the
basic force. And the team commander of the health section
of a battalion force is a woman.
When I said goodbye to Rachana five years
ago in the mountains of Rukum, neither of us knew what the
future would bring. This year on International Women's Day,
as the People's War enters its ninth year, I will be thinking
of her and the women of Nepal who are taking us all into the
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
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