Gender, nation, and women’s honourWomen’s bodies have been instrumentalised to legitimise certain groups’ political and business interests under the pretext of nationalism
Kalpana Jha & Sangita Thebe Limbu
In recent weeks, Nepali women have become primary targets in a string of verbal, offensive, and misogynist attacks led by a democratically elected parliamentarian and a medical business tycoon. One of them, Sher Bahadur Tamang, who oversaw the ministry of law, justice and parliamentary affairs, has resigned after a public uproar following his commentary on how “Nepali sisters and daughters” who go to Bangladesh to pursue medicine have to “sell themselves” to earn their graduate certificates. However, Durga Prasai, the executive director of B&C medical college teaching hospital, who further claimed that “our sisters and daughters studying in Bangladesh” complete their medical course late because “professors there hold these women behind for forcible sexual relations” continues to hold onto his position, perhaps courtesy of his marsi rice patronage, caste privilege, and strong socio-economic capital.
Collectively, those remarks have generated a tidal wave of public reactions with the resulting discourse largely centred around how Nepali sisters’ and daughters’ character, honour, and self-respect had been called into question—wrongfully and without any evidence. Meanwhile, the underlying interests behind those statements were less discussed yet implicitly clear, which was about steering the public discourse in favour of opening up of more medical colleges in Nepal with the welfare of shareholders. While it is important to note that prevalence of sexual harassment and violence is historically and culturally rooted in all kinds of human societies across nation states, those remarks made by men in power were not borne out of concern for women’s safety, well-being and human rights. But rather women’s bodies were instrumentalised to legitimise certain groups’ political and business interests under the pretext of nationalism by reinforcing the narratives of “protecting our sisters, daughters and women” from foreign men by retaining them within the Nepali border where they will remain “safe” and “pure”.
Political arguments that use women’s bodies as means to an end are not simply one-off commentaries that emerge in a vacuum. Similar and interlinked discourse around women’s chastity, purity and sexuality, and the need for the patriarchal state to intervene in the name of “protecting” national sovereignty and honour are recurrently invoked in relation to Nepal’s discriminatory citizenship laws as well as women’s foreign labour migration. And those nationalist narratives are increasingly deployed to curtail women from exercising their rights, agency and subjecthood as equal citizens of the state. The broader question then becomes why do women’s bodies and sexuality become the foundational core in the discourse around nation and nationalism? Why do women’s mobility transgressing national borders is perceived as a threat? And what are the pitfalls of commonly used counter-responses, as was also evident in the latest row, that focuses on ‘defending’ women’s character and purity?
Gender and nation
Feminist scholars have contributed a great deal in understanding the gendered process of nation-building and construction of nationalism. They have drawn attention to how nations are fundamentally constructed as feminine, an entity that deservedly requires being saved and protected. Nation-building inherently draws upon the gendered division of labour whereby women as mothers, wives and daughters reproduce the nation by giving birth to members of ethnic/national collectivity and by embodying and transmitting its culture, while men as patriotic fathers, husbands and sons protect the nation. Men have rights, which they exercise on behalf of themselves and the nation, while women are complementary objects who accommodate men and their nationalist pursuits. Therefore, women’s bodies are dehumanised as subjects to the nationalist regime over which men preside.
In the book From Gender to Nation, Ivekovic and Mostov precisely articulate the dualism of women’s bodiesthey serve as both territorial markers and the property of the nation symbolising its purity, but always vulnerable to contamination; they are held responsible for continuation of nation but never considered equal political subjects. Contextualising and historicising these wider feminist discourse in the Nepali context, Seira Tamang’s journal article Legalising State Patriarchy in Nepal meticulously illustrates how the legal amendments made during Panchayat era, as part of the process of constructing homogenised Nepali identity under the masculinised Hindu regime, allowed the state to intervene in diverse family relations to homogenise, naturalise and rigidify women’s roles as mothers and wives, resulting in creation of gendered citizens in Nepal. And to date, we live under a Constitution that renders Nepali women as biological reproducers, perpetual ‘others’ posing threat to national sovereignty, but never as citizens in their own right.
Beyond women’s ‘honour’
Situating the Bangladesh controversy within these wider discourse, it becomes evident that the commonly deployed counter-responses of defending women’s honour and purity can reinforce the very nationalist narratives that render women as simply daughters, sisters who embody their family’s and nation’s honour rather than recognising them as an autonomous subject and equal citizen of the state. The contested location of women’s bodies in the idea of “honour” and its reinforcement can further shut down conversations on sexual harassment and violence as well as sexuality and right to our own body. Hence, framing the counter-response as an attack on citizens and demanding that the state uphold its social contract by protecting its citizens’ fundamental rights could be a preliminary step in countering the nationalist narratives. However, the most important task is to revisit masculine norms and values that construct nationalism, and generate subversive discourses that defy submission to male-centric narratives of nation-building. As Urvashi Butalia aptly summarises, in her book chapter published in From Gender to Nation – in all wars as opposing forces enter villages and towns, the men run away while the women stay, fully aware that “they might be raped and violated – but they stay, trying to protect their children, trying to save the old and inform, trying to keep the home and hearth intact…who are the real nation makers here, the men who run away or the women who stay?”
Limbu and Jha are based at Martin Chautari