Khas-Arya women are ‘de facto’ women leadersWhile Nepal has reserved quota for women, the majority of the positions at administrative, political, and bureaucratic levels are occupied by those from the Khas-Arya group.
Punam Yadav vividly recalls the conversation that night 11 years ago.
It was around midnight on May 28, 2010. Then a PhD student, Yadav was interviewing Constituent Assembly members who were eagerly awaiting a decision on the extension of the assembly’s term.
Standing outside the International Convention Center (ICC), in New Baneshwar, where the Constituent Assembly (CA) was housed, were all women.
Yadav said she made yet another striking observation.
“There were two groups on the premises—women who always had access to politics versus those who didn’t. Women from families with political backgrounds and more experience were at one corner—mostly Khas-Arya women—whereas women who were less experienced, illiterate, belonging to Madhesi and indigenous communities were assembled at a different corner,” Yadav, co-director of the Institute of Disaster and Risk Management at UCL, London, told the Post in a recent interview.
“The attitude was that the women who had come forth through inclusivity agendas were just for the sake of fulfilling the quota system.”
The CA did get another term extension for two years, but failed to deliver a new constitution. Amid political infighting, parties agreed on letting the then sitting chief justice take over as the executive head to conduct an election to elect a new CA in 2013, which finally in 2015 promulgated the constitution.
It has been more than six years since Nepal got its new constitution. In 2017, Nepal held its first election—local, provincial and federal—under the new constitution.
When it comes to women’s representation, the situation, however, has not changed much; nor has the perception.
The agendas of inclusivity of women in leadership positions in Nepal are perfunctory, women rights activists and inclusivity champions say.
The broad lens of ‘Nepali women’ that has been applied to the quota system has failed to understand the diversity—of caste, ethnicity—within the category itself. As a consequence, the positions of leadership that are reserved for ‘women’ are occupied mostly by Khas-Arya women, which goes against the principles of democracy and inclusive representation, according to them.
“Khas-Arya men cannot represent all Nepali men. In the same manner, a Khas-Arya woman cannot represent all Nepali women,” says Pranika Koyu, a poet and rights activist who has worked with various national and international human rights organisations for more than a decade.
“The multiple identities of individuals like their ethnicity, caste and gender have to be considered,” she said.
However, women’s representation in various leadership roles—minister, lawmaker, bureaucrat, and local government representative—across Nepal, is not only minimal but also severely lacking in intersectionality.
A study conducted by the Voices of Women Media highlights that the de facto woman leader in Nepal is a Khas-Arya woman.
Out of 20 women in the National Assembly, there are 17 Khas-Arya women, two Madhesi women, and one indigenous woman.
Out of 91 women in the House of Representatives—constituting 33 percent of the total—approximately 40 percent are Khas-Arya, 29 percent are indigenous, 15 percent are Madhesi, 12 percent are Dalit and four percent are Muslim.
While six ministers out of 24 are women in the Council of Ministers at the federal level, not a single minister is from the Dalit community.
Due to existing social inequalities based on caste and ethnicity, there is inequality and power hierarchy within women, just as among men.
“Within various levels of leadership, one must see how women are categorised because ‘Nepali women’ is not a homogenous category,” says Pallavi Payal, an independent feminist researcher, and artist.
“We want women of marginalised communities to be in politics and in power to change this social hierarchy that is harming marginalised groups. This cycle of marginalisation can be stopped only if we have women from marginalised groups in power,” said Payal.
At the provincial level, there are 15 women occupying ministerial positions out of 65 positions in total. A cursory glance at the intersectionality shows that there are three Khas-Arya, seven indigenous, three Madhesi, and two Dalit women in these positions.
However, a disaggregation of the data highlights that the representation is unevenly distributed.
There are no women in ministerial positions in Province 1, there are two Madhesi women in Province 2, recently christened Madhes.
In Bagmati Province, there are three indigenous women in ministerial positions. Likewise, Gandaki has one indigenous woman minister and Karnali has one Dalit woman minister.
Sudurpaschim Province has two Khas-Arya and three indigenous women ministers. Lumbini Province has one Khas-Arya, two indigenous, one Madhesi, and one Dalit woman in ministerial positions.
Gender and democracy experts argue that Nepali women do not have a singular identity. The way the definition of Nepali needs to change and incorporate the identity of all existing ethnicities in the country, Nepali women also need to be that flexible.
“Our idea of equality and equal space is one dimensional. There are Madhesi women and within Madhesi women, we have Madhesi Dalit women. These identities must come into the definition of Nepali women,” said Payal. “Our identities depend on the context. And in a political context, me being a Madhesi Nepali woman matters because my identity has formed my experiences that are social and political.”
The quota system was introduced in Nepal for a proportional inclusion of women in the government. During the local election of 2017, women were ensured 40.4 percent of nominations.
While Nepal is often lauded for guaranteeing 33 percent of women’s political representation in parliamentary seats and at various levels of government, women are mostly limited to membership positions as opposed to real leadership roles.
Politics also hasn’t been welcoming, safe or encouraging as women constantly struggle with misogyny and harassment.
In addition, women from the upper strata of society than from the marginalised communities seem to reap these benefits.
This lack of inclusivity hinders Nepal’s overall development. Representation is crucial to the functioning of a democratic state.
“For a democracy to function, inclusive representation is key. The more power is dispersed among the people, the more powerful a state becomes. In the absence of representation, the state of democracy of a nation becomes very concerning,” said Sucheta Pyakuryal, director of the Center for Governance at IIDS (Institute for Integrated Development Studies). “In a modern system of governance, the main agenda is to ensure access to resources and voice to the underrepresented or the marginalised.”
For example, according to Pyakuryal, a woman living in the Tibetan borders in Gorkha can only speak for her problems because she is affected by them.
“No man from Gorkha or even a woman who doesn’t live in the region can speak for them,” said Pyakuryal.
Even at the local level, there are just seven women mayors out of 293 mayors across Nepal—constituting 2.3 percent of women representation. Among them, five women are Khas-Arya, one woman is a Madhesi, and one belongs to the indigenous community.
This applies to rural municipalities as well. There are 11 women as chairpersons in 460 rural municipalities across Nepal—constituting the same 2.3 percent women’s representation. Among them, there are six Khas-Arya and five indigenous women chairpersons.
At the bureaucratic level, there is one woman as a ministerial secretary, and one woman as provincial secretary. Both represent the Khas-Arya group. Likewise, there are four women as Chief District Officers (CDOs) out of 77 CDOs in total; three of whom are Khas-Arya.
Across various levels of leadership, it is conspicuous that Madhesi women, indigenous women, Dalit women, Muslim women, and queer women are either unrepresented or severely underrepresented.
Experts say that in the power hierarchy of Nepal, Khas-Arya males are considered the most important. With Khas-Arya women’s closeness to Khas-Arya men and their privileged history, access to knowledge, state, and interlinks with the major players of Nepali socio-politics, they have become the alternative for Khas-Arya men to assume leadership positions, de facto.
“Khas-Arya women are the most conformed to the existent patriarchal and hierarchical structures that make them the best alternative to a Khas-Arya man,” said Pyakuryal.
Their conformity, while on one hand, allows Khas-Arya women to access leadership roles, it also enables them to continue the very existent social structures of exclusivity, experts say.
This exclusivity is also attributed to the dominant belief among Khas-Arya women that they can speak on behalf of underrepresented and marginalised communities.
“Many female politicians or leaders say that they have been raising issues of Dalit women and indigenous women as well. Thereby, concluding that Dalit women or indigenous women don’t necessarily need to be on decision-making tables,” said Koyu. “This is extremely problematic because one can’t speak on behalf of a community that they barely know about. People need to be aware when they should take space and when they shouldn’t.”
For representation to be inclusive, it is essential to dissect the various intersectionalities–such as caste, class, gender, ethnicity, race – that impact one’s identity, experts say.
Gender and caste aren’t two separate entities, but overlap and impact Nepal’s democracy.
“We need to have an understanding of the context where our policies work. Who constitutes the majority and the minority in a certain geographical area – what ethnicity, what caste, race?” said Yadav. “And based on that, the quotas have to be determined. Contextual knowledge of the caste make-up is crucial to designing a quota system that is effective.”
As conversations around the next elections have begun, gender and democracy experts are wary that the identity of Nepali women could again be limited to Khas-Arya women. Above all, experts are worried that the electorate does not see this lack of inclusivity as a problem.
“Until the public is unable to see this exclusivity as a problem, it will be difficult to progress,” says Koyu.
There is a dire need for constructive debate about the need for inclusivity – not just as males and females, but should extend to caste, ethnicity, age, i.e., the wide spectrum of identity and inclusion, according to Yadav.
“When we have a certain quota, say a ‘Dalit woman.’ What kind of a Dalit woman is she, is she merely another politician’s wife or will she truly represent the voices of Dalit women? Who is questioning that?” said Yadav.