The Feminist Memory ProjectThe feminist movement of Nepal has a deep history but there has been no sustained effort to document the progresses and the struggles of the movement for in-depth study or public access
What is the Feminist Memory Project?
NayanTara: The feminist movement of Nepal has a deep history but there has been no sustained effort to document the progresses and the struggles of the movement for in-depth study or public access. We initiated The Feminist Memory Project in April 2018 with the intention of creating a visual archive within Nepal Picture Library of women’s and feminist movements in Nepal. Since then our team has been collating and digitising photographs relating to diverse aspects of Nepal’s feminist heritage, as well as other materials such as oral histories, testimonials, correspondences, pamphlets, and documents. Eventually, the goal is to be able to make all this available to scholars, researchers, curators, educators, and public users.
Diwas (left) and NayanTara (right)
Diwas: In some ways, the Feminist Memory Project is a result of two ongoing conversations. The first, in which the Nepal Picture Library has been engaged with since its very foundation, has to do with the question of inclusion. How do we free our histories—the narratives and images of our past—from the grips of economically and culturally dominant groups? How do we bring the diversities, dissensions and differences of our history into view? The Feminist Memory Project is a step towards that. The second agenda our project drew on concerned the dedicated work that feminist movements around the world have been putting in to create a distinct sphere of knowledge we now call women’s history. In Nepal, too, the need for women’s history is intensely felt, and we knew of many sporadic attempts to build chronicles and chronologies of a feminist past. Our hope with the Feminist Memory Project was that it would provide a formal nexus to connect these efforts.
What is the process? How big is the archive today?
NayanTara: We kickstarted the project by setting up a research team. Initially, we invited
several feminist and women’s rights activists for brainstorming, and we also made a public call for contributions. The work for the team has involved a great deal of learning, intense networking, convincing people about the value of their photographs and personal records. Today the Feminist Memory Project has around 8,000 high resolutions images in addition to oral history interviews, testimonials, correspondences, pamphlets, and other documents.
Diwas: In total, our research team met over 200 individuals who have directly given shape to the feminist landscape of Nepal or have been working to preserve the memory of past women. In the beginning, we were ourselves in need of reflecting on what recording and archiving visual materials means. So we even held an open seminar. The process has been about listening patiently to people’s accounts of themselves and others, and thinking about how these accounts can be brought out in the visual form. Sometimes we looked for narratives to be illustrated by photographs and other times we let narratives emerge from the photographs. The hardest part has been unearthing stories about more obscured women, especially as they also happen to belong to poorer and marginal communities. Their accounts don’t automatically come out in people’s ordinary memories as well, so we have had to go about this in a very concerted way. Tracing them in secondary literature whenever we could or finding alternative routes to discover them—by looking at peasant movements or labour movements, for instance.
Had you heard about Karjahi Movement before the project? Tell us something about the movement.
Diwas: During my Master’s work in Women’s History, I had done an oral history on underground communist women during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those women—as cadres of the communist party—had become involved in politicising specific rural communities against the injustices of “samantabad” as it is popularly called. I had learned about the Karjahi case during that research, but I had also noticed that this case did not have the same kind of significance in the communist genealogy as other peasant revolts like in Piskar, Chhintang and Makwanpur did. The occasion of our project gave us a chance to reexamine this bit of history, and one of our researchers—Nisha Rai—did a tremendous work of travelling to Dang, tracking down individual women involved in the revolt and coming back with a preliminary oral history. One of the women who led the Karjahi movement, Patharkali Chaudhary, was called the “Indira Gandhi of Nepal” at the time. This revolt of the Tharu women had emerged forty years ago when the atrocities of local landlords and police against the farmers had peaked. Episodes like this rarely get incorporated into broader trajectories of Nepali history. The Feminist Memory Project hoped that by digging up bits of lost history like this and revitalizing them in public memory we could open up new possibilities of understanding and assessing the past.
How have your interpretations evolved over time?
NayanTara: Taking stock of the material that the Feminist Memory Project has archived so far, I am reminded that the champions of Nepali feminism are not limited to the articulate few whom we get the opportunity to read, or the few faces we see in the newspapers. The project has begun to visibilise hundreds of women across the political, economic and social spectrum, who have broken many boundaries and fought many brave fights—some of which they have won, and others which they continue to fight. The varied lives these women have lived, has made me think about how different women have chosen to engage with feminism in different ways—through words or political mobilization or education or grassroots actions or the arts. The project has collated valuable material thus far, but has also identified an immense list of yet to be burrowed sources in intersections, margins and less accessible pockets of women’s experiences. All this indicates to great research potentials. Archives are after all repositories of knowledge, but also point to everything that surrounds this knowledge that it does not hold. Moving forward, I am keen to further our work by launching new inquiries to archive, take stock of, discuss, debate and learn from all our contributors. Through these processes, the hope is that we create space for intergenerational conversations and learnings as we recollect, share and carry forth lessons that will hopefully shape and strengthen the future of Nepali feminism.
NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati is the co-founder and director of photo.circle, Nepal Picture Library and Photo Kathmandu. She enjoys working across platforms to connect visuals, research, pedagogy, and collective action.
Diwas Raja Kc is an independent researcher, writer, and curator based in Kathmandu. At Nepal Picture Library, he previously led research for the creation of its Dalit archive. He also works as a documentary film editor.