Just desertsIt would be right if a woman was named to replace the chauvinist law minister
Recently unseated Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Sher Bahadur Tamang last week made a highly controversial statement about Nepali female medical students studying in Bangladesh. The exact statement is so offensive that it does not bear repeating. Senior leaders of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also deemed the statement highly demeaning to women. As a consequence, Tamang resigned the ministership. However, a statement of a very similar nature was made some time ago by Durga Prasai, the investor in a proposed medical college in Jhapa who is very close to NCP leaders. So far, Prasai has not faced any consequences for his statement, but it has been roundly criticised on social media.
These recent incidents offer the opportunity to reflect upon the manner in which women continue to be treated in Nepal. For although both statements received criticism, the sentiments they expressed belong not just to the two people who stated them, but to a broad section of Nepali society still steeped in patriarchal norms. The fact that a sitting minister expressed such sentiments merely revealed how deeply set they are in society.
The statements make clear that politically and socially influential men continue to view women with deep suspicion. They harbour a deep-seated belief that the place of women is at home. Any woman who travels outside the country for work or education is automatically treated with suspicion that she must have ‘compromised her moral character’. What this reveals is that many men in society continue to think primarily of women as sexual beings, who belong to men and should be protected. In this belief system, the various ambitions and drives of women are denied, and their capability to operate in the wider world ignored.
The recent incidents also point to the necessity of ensuring greater representation in governance. The council of ministers is totally dominated by men, most of them from caste backgrounds. The same is the case with the upper bureaucracy. This means that all people in influential positions encounter only people like themselves on a daily basis and confirm each other in their prejudices. The situation would likely have been quite different had there been a substantial number of women as ministers or senior officials. If people like Sher Bahadur Tamang encountered women in the course of their daily work, many of their prejudices would be eroded. They would then view women as independent people with agency instead of weaklings who need to be protected. The government should take the opportunity to reflect on this and devise policies to ensure greater inclusion for women in the next Cabinet. It would be most fitting if a woman was selected to become Tamang’s replacement at the Law Ministry.