A woman on Women’s DayNo matter the ethnicity or grouping, Nepali women face strange scenarios of extreme prejudice
On March 8, when urban, educated, social media-savvy Nepal was celebrating International Women’s Day, in a Tharu village in the Kailali district, Radha Chaudhary was being publicly kicked, punched and shoved for hours until she lost consciousness because she was accused of being a witch. In my most recent column, I focused on the contradiction of Madhesi response to two incidents related to Muslims—one inspiring, another despairing. In a fortnight, another contradiction presented itself regarding women in the form of Radha Chaudhary’s public brutalisation in her own village and by her own community.
With menstruation-related chhaupadi in the Western hills, menstruation untouchability all over the caste Hindu hill population, and witch-bashing in the Tarai, Nepal presents a strange scenario of extremes for women. And this is even more astonishing because Radha Chaudhary’s public beating occurred in the indigenous village of the Tharus. If the caste Madhesis kill or get killed in the name of caste and honour, if they fix their arranged marriages on dowry, if they hide their women behind the purdah, you can dismiss them by saying that they are socially backwards anyway, because their social law-givers reside on the Indian side of the India-Nepal border in Bihar and UP in the form of a caste and kinship network. But how can you explain the widely prevalent belief in witchcraft and the violent method of dealing with it among the Tharus, among whom women have much more freedom and equality in their daily life, and even in the choice of spouse, than the rest of the caste Madhesi population?
All in the same boat
No matter the caste or community, there are a number of anomalies related to women in Nepali society. The hill indigenous women who are Rais, Limbus, Magars, Gurungs, etc., enjoy the gender-related freedom that even hill caste women can only dream of. They grow up without a sense of gender restrictions in their daily movements. They work hand-in-hand with their male counterparts at home and in the fields. Amongst the youth, their culture in one form or another, allows opportunities for courtship with males who are of age. And their males have to court them and woo them in a community house or at the village fair before elopement. Such exercise of female agency is rare even in the West. It is women’s liberation at its best. Here, I am talking about traditional village society, not the urban middle class, where there is a relatively homogenous cultural formation with other groups. Because of the lack of caste gender prohibitions and inhibitions, these women in their youth could easily be great sports women like Mira Rai, the great trail runner, if given the opportunity. Yet, it is reported that Indian brothels are overwhelmingly filled by women from Nepal’s hill indigenous and Dalit groups. It seems that this relaxed gender norm, instead of turning to their advantage and becoming a blessing, becomes a trap for these women.
Similarly, even the caste women of the hills, especially among the Chhetris, possess much more courage both to live their life and make their living when circumstances get tough. Yet, very often their sense of clan (khandan) and excessive pride proves to be a hindrance to their personal growth. Hill Bahun women are the most rule-bound traditionally, but even they don’t suffer from the social handicap that oppresses Madhesi caste women, who face purdah, caste restrictions, dowry and less freedom to pursue their personal growth. Yet, even these Madhesi women who suffer from so many handicaps are excessively protected by their family and caste, and their steps are carefully charted and organised by their family.
But Radha Chaudhary’s plight brings another problem into focus because it occurred among the indigenous Tarai Tharus. If there is freedom among the Tharu, Rajbanshi, Dhimal women, then there is overwhelming prevalence of superstitions also. The Ojha, Dhami, Jhakri, groups believe in witchcraft, evil spirits and ghosts as agents of illness. And misfortune pervades these groups’ life-world. I know this because I grew up in one such group.
This is why there is no ethnic group (I’m speaking about Nepal here, but it could apply to any place) that is immune to undesirable practices, even while possessing many desirable traits and practices. But the challenge is how to remove the undesirable practices and retain and promote the desirable ones.
In Radha Chaudhary’s case in Kailali, the fact that the whole village became spectators of her hours-long beating without anyone stepping forward to intervene makes it clear that not everything is good in a village—not even in a Tharu village. Illiteracy, belief in superstition and shoddy, clan- and group-based animosity and rivalry, along with unfounded ideas, traces of old zamindari pride and clan division mar village life. And because these ethnic groups have been excluded by the state from participation, alien state’s laws and hill politicians’ speeches fall on deaf ears. That’s precisely why the western districts of Nepali plains need a separate province of Tharuhat so that its politicians can persuasively preach to them for social reform, for education and progress. Look at what Mohammad Lal Babu Raut has just done for Province 2. He has issued a slogan—Beti Padhau, Ghar badhau (Teach a girl, lift a family). He has hit the nail on the head.
Political empowerment will inevitably bring new consciousness. It will mobilise the elite of the community—WEB Du Bois’s Talented Tenth—to lead the community intellectually out of centuries of morass and powerlessness. With the formation of the new government in the Centre and the provinces, Nepal needs constitutional amendments to empower the Tharus and other indigenous groups so that each will make headway for the community, especially the women.
Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States